Science fiction and fantasy


by Adam Roberts


Few of us give much thought to salt, although we could not survive without it. Adam Roberts takes his characters to a planet that's brimming with the substance, great white deserts of dry salt surrounding the human settlements.

The author begins with a description of salt's dual nature, likening the beauty of sodium and the noxious fumes of chlorine to heaven and hell. This short descriptive passage is pure poetry. The theme of heaven and hell is also a metaphor that stands in some way for the people who are travelling to Salt, as they name the new world. They are religious people who have left Earth for the precarious 37-year journey to make a fresh start on an uninhabited planet.

The description of their travels is reminiscent of the Pilgrim Fathers' journey, with its difficulties and the exodus of religious groups. People endure crowded and unhealthy conditions, suffering boredom and depression as well as outbreaks of lice. This is in spite of the high technology they employ, and their ability to go into suspended animation trances for 12 years at a stretch.

The trip is undertaken by 11 ships, each with its own style of leadership and governance. But the story focuses on just two, the Als and the Senaar.

Much of the story is told by Petja, a technician on the Als. Since he is assigned a diplomatic post by the work rota the leaders of the other vessels come to think of him as the Alsist ruler, although there is no such thing. The Alsists are borderline anarchists, despising the rigidity and hierarchy of other societies and refusing to place one person above another. They own no property, do not marry, and do not work at the same job for more than a few months. It's the kind of utopian society that might only exist in fiction, a loose and free set-up based on sharing labour, goods and even relationships as equally as possible.

Senaar could be the polar opposite of Als. It's a strictly hierarchical society led by the self-deluding elitist, Barlei. On Senaar everything must be bought, including votes, and everyone knows their place. Rhoda Titus is the diplomat assigned to meet with Petja, but because of the vast cultural difference between their groups they understand nothing of each other. Petja has no idea when he is being rude and insensitive, whereas Rhoda seems to read everything gesture the wrong way. It's as though the characters in this novel are not all that bright, so great are the misunderstandings between them.

Between two violently opposed cultures war becomes unavoidable. But Salt isn't an easy place to live in at the best of times with its atmosphere full of poisonous gas, high levels of radiation, very little water, and food shortages. When the struggle to survive is so desperate, why would anyone want to make it harder by fighting?

Salt is a novel about the tragedy of human nature, and the way we doom ourselves over trifles. Neither Senaar nor Als represent anything as clear-cut as good or evil, but it's easy to see how they mirror aspects of our own lives. In Senaar the repression and injustice of class is brought into focus, whereas in Als it seems a wonder that anything gets done at all and that their society isn't paralysed by the threat of personal violence.

This book is quite extreme in its representations of two very different creeds, and the ending is somewhat inconclusive and strange. Yet this is an enigmatic novel that certainly provokes thought and keeps you turning the pages, a literary work that will please fans of highbrow science fiction.

Book Details

Year of release: 2000

Categories: Books
Science fiction

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Adam Roberts