Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review of Salt by Adam Roberts

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.


  1. I'm sort of surprised that Adam Roberts isn't better known. His books were picked up by the big presses, his premises seem very standard but worthwhile, his prose is solid --- > hmm.

    Thoughts on why this might be the case?

    1. I am surprised, and I'm not. Let me step back for a moment.

      I'm collecting thoughts to write an article on a divide I perceive in science fiction - a divide that goes all the way back to Jules Verne (entertaining adventures rooted in scientific extrapolation) and H.G. Wells (socio-political commentary rooted in science fictional thought experiments). In the years that have passed, American interest has tended toward the former, while British interests have been generally in line with the latter. New Wave science fiction, for example, started in Britain, and is in adventure mode only with ulterior purpose. On the other hand space opera, which is entertaining adventure based on said extrapolation, is something imbued with Americana: good vs. evil, the hero who rights the universe's wrongs, vast galactic battles, etc. Certainly some Brits like Charles Stross, Peter Hamilton, and Alastair Reynolds have embraced this Verne/American style of science fiction, and for that have been able to garner quite a following across the ocean. While Roberts, a writer firmly in the tradition of Wells, has not. Americans less keen on socio-political commentary, he has been unable to be as big a success in the US. His stories are accessible, but they have aims beyond lasers and classic villains - mainstays of the American sci-fi market, and therefore fall further down on the popularity list.

      I've started pulling together lists of authors and which side of the Verne/Wells divide their body of work falls upon. (Brunner gives me some trouble. :) Eventually I'll pull it into an essay...

    2. Hmm, I thought the British were instrumental in the resurgence of space opera in the 80s....

      Roberts seems rather miffed that he's never even been nominated for a Hugo -- I follow him on twitter and his frustration comes through. He's also written a very good introduction to the history of SF. Recommended for a broad intro (I read it years ago).

    3. Also, I will be the first to argue that Verne is not all adventure. He has some pretty damning social commentary in quite a few of his novels (Mysterious Island critiqued post Civil War race politics in America) and work like Paris in the 21st century, although not published in his day, was a wonderful dystopic vision of a future Paris filled with social commentary. It creeps into most of his work -- substantially more than the pulp that appeared in magazines in the 20s/30s.

    4. Perhaps you missed my point... It's not that Verne didn't include relevant themes, rather they generally came second to plotting, i.e. entertaining adventure. (His oeuvre is generally considered voyages extraordinaires.) Granted, I base this on having read only three of Verne's most popular novels - truly voyages extraordinaire, but the fact the majority of his backlog is no longer being re-printed in favor of those three novels indicates to me what is most popular, and by reference, influential. Wells, on the other hand, also wrote adventures (The Time Machine is absolutely an adventure), but this aspect shares the page or takes a backseat to socio-political commentary. The five (?) Wells' novels that are still re-printed all have this in common. Certainly there was a resurgence of space opera in the 80s and 90s in Britain, but when you look at these works, many of them seek to do the same as Wells: have relevant issues share the page with storytelling.

      Looking at a short list of popular/major American sci-fi writers, you see they hold more in common with the 'big three' Verne novels than Wells': Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Connie Willis, John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neal Stephenson, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein. Certainly there are large exceptions (Silverberg, as you note, is one, of course), but by in large I have the feeling the majority of American sci-fi places entertainment and science first, and thematic development second. Whereas, I see the majority of British sci-fi writers either balancing theme with storytelling, or placing theme at the forefront. Again, there are exceptions, but major British writers like Adam Roberts, Ken Macleod, Ian McDonald, M. John Harrison, Ian Macleod, Christopher Priest, J.G. Ballard, Olaf Stapledon, Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, have/had an agenda that complemented, or dominated, their plotting.

      Another way to look at this is, compare the Hugo and Locus award winners and nominees with the Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA award award winners and nominees and you will find a different viewpoint. The Hugo and Locus are a mix of politicized novels versus good stories (particularly tending toward the latter over the past decade), where as the AC Clarke and BSFA tend towards books more 'literary' (i.e. theme-minded) in approach.

      Again, I'm not trying to throw Verne on the bus, or state that entertaining genre sucks, only that there is an observable difference between sci fi that is appreciated in America and Britain, and that the roots of this go back to Verne and Wells, and because Roberts comes from the Wells' tradition, it's more difficult for him to become popular in the US. You point out a weakness, however, that my Verne reading is not as significant compared to Wells. Certainly part of my 'research' will be to read more Verne. It may be that I have to transfer my "roots of entertaining genre" idea from Verne to Gernsback... Just an idea for the moment...

      Regarding Roberts' thoughts on the Hugo, there may have been a time he wanted to be nominated/win, but I think he's come to have a more realistic view. It's a popularity contest which in no way represents the best of the genre, and therefore has given up on it. If you haven't already, see his post about 2014's Hugo here:

    5. I didn't miss you point -- I only wanted to point out that the divide in styles/content is perhaps not as radical as some make it out. I've read quite a few Verne novels (The Mysterious Island had large portions of the social content removed from the American publication, Journey to the Center of the Earth, etc), and a hand full in the original French as well, and even his lesser known works such as Robur the Conqueror and Face the Flag contain descriptions of the American political system (elections based on the principle of people randomly making a pencil prick in the "exact" middle of a circle) that are obviously witty satire... And despite the most popular being read today almost all his novels hit print in the US.

      But yes, I understand the argument of the divide I just don't buy it's that simple or neat or that who certain authors in certain regions are influenced by is that easy to parse.

      I should go back and snag a copy of Robert's non-fiction take on SF and see what he says about the growth of space opera in the US and Britain. Hmm.

      Food for thought.

    6. Before I give you the most interesting news I discovered today, I will just summarize my point by saying I think the majority of American sci-fi readers are not interested in politicized novels, and do not place importance on quality prose, which is the reason Roberts has been generally ignored in the country. When looking to bring Ken Macelod's Fall Revolution tetralogy to the US, publishers started with book 3 The Cassini Division citing that books 1 and 2 were to heavy politically, and that book 3 was the most accessible. Ian McDonald has suffered a similar fate, but in his case because of prose. After he started writing in 'normal' prose did his work get recognized in the US. But I digress, on to the interesting news!

      This year Roberts will publish a book, at least according to ISFDB, called Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea. If there is not something related to Verne in the novel I will be shocked. His previous novel, Jack Glass, achieving success in the US like none other of his other novels, it will be very interesting to see in what areas he focuses this story...

      Regarding Roberts' history of sci-fi, I am damn interested in reading it, along with Aldiss'...