Salt, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2000, 248 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-575-06896-5

Having been favourably impressed by Stone, my quest in reading the whole Adam Roberts back-catalogue properly begins with his first novel Salt. Even without the benefit of more than two data points, I can see a few trends in the entire Roberts oeuvre.

The first is, obviously, Roberts’ fondness for weird planetary environment. Salt‘s main claim to distinction isn’t the story (an early-colonization tale of war between cities of different cultures) but the environment in which it takes place. As the title suggests, the human colonists of Salt end up on a planet covered in deserts of fine salt. There are only two main water bodies to provide essential fertile ground and we’re constantly reminded of the difficulties in colonizing what remains a hostile planet. Life on Salt is dominated, well, by salt. Howling winds that can sand-blast everything through fine grains of NaCl. An atmosphere containing mostly chlorine. Vegetation that isn’t much more than an organic salt arrangement. Undrinkable water. High levels of solar radiation. It’s not particularly convincing (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief for a while as the colonists manage to raise the oxygen content of the atmosphere from zero to fifteen percent in a few years, and believe a world map with only a few distinguishing features) but it’s a fine and original playground for a short novel.

The second of Roberts’ distinctive traits would be a tendency toward gentle stylistic experimentation. Salt‘s tale of strife is told, alternately, by Petja and Barlei, two representatives from opposing sides. The Alists are anarchists without a central government, organized only through strong motherhood rights and computer-selected work rotas. The Senaarans, on the other hand, are ultra-capitalist fundamentalists with an absolute belief in hierarchy and military power. You can see the basic problem between those two factions, and it doesn’t take a long time (say, half the book) before shots are exchanged. Roberts chooses to tell the tale through self-serving alternating viewpoints, with both sides colouring events and perceptions to suit their own beliefs. (With sometimes curious ironies: Petja, we quickly learn, is an anarchist who takes up leadership quite naturally) As with Stone‘s “translation footnotes”, Barlei’s manuscript is occasionally interrupted by vocabulary notes from a transcription machine, raising the possibility of built-in censorship in between the teller and the receiver. It’s easy to be fascinated by the alternating viewpoints, which makes the structure of the book more than an empty trick.

Unusual world-building and gentle structural/stylistic experimentation are both admirable in a Science Fiction book, and they do much to gain goodwill amongst hard-core fans of the genre. Fortunately, Salt benefits from a certain innate interest beyond those two characteristics: I’m a sucker for colonization stories and so the nuts-and-bolts details of how Salt is tamed into (slight) submission were almost endlessly fascinating. Later, the details of the military engagements between Als and Senaar are similarly interesting, without falling in the usual military SF tediousness. Some may have problems with the pacing (and I do have issues with the last tenth of the book) but hard-SF fans should breeze through Salt.

But easy reading and a bunch of good ideas aren’t all it takes to deliver an above-average reading experience. In fact, they may make obvious fundamental problems that wouldn’t be so glaring in a badly-written novel. In Salt‘s case, what quickly becomes obvious is that the opposing factions are so unspeakably dumb that all pretences of a realistic conflict are erased. The “negotiations” between the two groups have no basis in reality as we know it; even the most elementary political rudiments are ignored. Heck, all of Salt‘s decks are stacked: think “ADD-addled Hippies” versus “Fundie Patriarchs” and reflect on how such political structures could exist. They can’t (and neither could such monolithic ideologies stay pure in a population numbering at least hundreds) and so Salt feels a lot like a contrived moral lesson.

And what’s the lesson? Wars are pointless. Many die. Wow. Good thing that the book is only 250 pages long, because as it peters out to its weak ending (including a last twenty pages that tells nothing new), I may have been frustrated by the novel’s lack of a stronger point. Oh, wait, I am.

No surprise, then, if Roberts’s debut is such a mixed bags of impressions. It fulfils a basic level of expectations, but at the same time contains such fundamental flaws that it’s hard to take seriously as a contemporary piece of SF. As a fable, it may have worked back in the sixties. But with the amount of serious details and sophistication, it simply invites a degree of real-world scrutiny that it can’t withstand. Oh well; on to Roberts’ next novel then.

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