Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a landmark novel in science fiction. Not only for being one of, if not the best description of a functioning anarchy, the message it delivers—emphasized by the transcendent conclusion—remains relevant to this day due to the political circumstances which have perpetuated. Grabbing the anarchist-authoritarian dichotomy in Le Guin’s tale and running with it, Adam Robert’s Salt (2000) is likewise an engaging thought experiment on how an anarchist society might exist and the reaction it could draw from the political ideologies opposed to it. Containing its share of action as well, the novel is well-balanced across nearly all aspects of science fiction, making it a debut novel which gives hope for more quality material to come.
Salt opens on a generation starship—if a necklace of modules towed by a comet through space can be called as such. Like the Mayflower, the inhabitants of each node are escaping religious persecution on Earth, that is, except one. Having no other options, the anarchists of the Als module claimed religious affiliation to catch a ride, but in fact seek a new home where they can practice their political ideal in peace. Coming to the planet Nebel 2, thereafter dubbed Salt due to the high concentration of the sodium crystal on the surface, the people of Als, nominally led by Petja Szerelem, find that the enmity they encountered on Earth translates to other planets, as well.
Each of the thirteen modules which made the trip settling at various points around the planet, one society, the Senaarians, have particular issues dealing with the Alsist lifestyle. Led by Barlei, a man who loves order and routine, they look to reclaim the children they believe were stolen by the Alsists during the interstellar voyage. In fact a thinly veiled disguise to justify military aggression, the conflict which ensues becomes like an expanding prism, the facets bending reality into an ever-uglier image of humanity from which none knows who will survive.
Salt is told in alternating narrative form. The first perspective is that of Petja. Opening with the filth and squalor of traveling in space aboard the Als module, though his eyes the reader learns of the mechanisms organizing a society which takes personal autonomy not only as its highest ideal, but for granted in every facet of life. Different yet similar to Le Guin’s conception, Roberts presents more of the dirty little details of quotidian anarchist existence, including a gruff attitude toward any concept involving one person having authority over another, and the indifference toward those who don’t comprehend. Not a hero by any means, Petja can be respected for many of the concepts he holds dear, but often the action it incites in him is entirely unpleasant, and at times violates the very autonomy he believes in. The other perspective is Barlei, the honey-tongued leader of the Senaarians. At first coming across as an altruistic progenitor of quality society, the tapestry his words weave slowly becomes threadbare. Doubletalk escalating to heights of absurdity, the reader eventually realizes the true intentions behind the man’s butterfly wing veneer. Petja speaking from a wholly personal perspective and Barlei speaking from an ideological one, the contrast of character is the impetus of the novel. How the two evolve as events escalate on Salt, however, is its message.
One becoming more authoritarian and the other leaning further toward personal rather than social interests, Salt does a good job of outlaying human response in the face of increasing socio-political drama; Petja moves toward Barlei’s outlook, and Barlei toward Petja’s as war settles in. Eerily prescient, post 9-11 events would take on a very similar look: Bush White House podium politics versus a ‘terrorist regime’ using hit and run tactics. (At one point the novel in fact becomes a powerful allegory for American involvement in the Middle East.) The manner in which Roberts utilizes religion, particularly as justification for certain characters’ actions, is also all too realistic.
While Urran interests in The Dispossessed were tied up with local conflict, i.e. capitalist vs. communist concerns, Salt cuts directly to the contrast of anarchy vs. a hierarchical power structure, and in the process asks intriguing questions regarding the meaning of individual and social autonomy, and then proceeds to test them in scenarios that push at the sensitive areas of each. Every human yearns for freedom, yet we seem innately a social, hierarchal species. Thus the background ideology of why Petja cannot be angry at every person in Senaaria is just as interesting as the Senaarian’s ability to organize themselves toward efficient goals.
Not all politics and human nature, Salt also features effective worldbuilding and excitement. Only 250 pages, Roberts delivers the vital details toward shaping the planet and the societies which come to inhabit it. Radiation bombarding the surface and chlorine beyond trace amounts in the atmosphere, technology is set up for the communities to combat the effects. Likewise, the buildings and vehicles are set up to adapt. Taking Gene Wolfe’s needle guns from Book of the Long Sun and manifesting them in more concrete terms, the war which breaks out receives as much attention as the conflicting ideologies from a detail point of view. The guerrilla methods the Alsists adopt are the stuff of retro sci-fi and provide the action an edge (and for some readers, the action The Dispossessed may have lacked).
In the end, Salt is a quality debut, well-founded ideologically. Roberts is obviously versed in the field, and presents its more engaging elements in the novel. Equal parts action and concept, the contradiction of ideology, as exhibited by Petja and Barlei, forms the philosophical underpinning, while the conflict which breaks out as a result, at least in the latter half of the novel, provides the line-by-line appeal and excitement. By no means an attempt to imitate Le Guin’s novel, Roberts tills the same soil for his own purposes, producing a novel to make readers realize that entertainment and integrity are not mutually exclusive. A firm peer in the field is Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which puts Salt amongst quality company.