Just Finished: Salt

While in Canada, I picked up a number of SF books by writers I’d never read before or, in some cases, even heard of. One of them was the novel Salt by Adam Roberts (who, it seems, has a web page here). I picked up this book used, and I did so mainly because it was published by Gollancz, which, if I recall correctly, put out work by Greg Egan.

Salt, as Roberts himself describes on his page, is

a novel about depression, about a psychological state that finds its correlative in the bleak landscape of the world, about a killing division of affective commitment.

Roberts astutely notes that there are idelogical-political themes run through, and that they’re not truly the central stuff of the novel, though they’re important. Really, the politics and the two competing monologues of history are kind of an essay in the distortions inherent not only in perception, but in thinking for people who have any degree of belief in an ideology of some kind.

Of course, the ideologies are exaggerated… sort of. While we’ve had societies on Earth like the Senaarian, it might be harder to find something like that of the Alsists, at least in recorded history. Sometimes I thought that the narrative was really a conflict between neo-tribal people and “civilization” but of course the Senaarians represent civilization at its worst. Still, reading Petja the Alsist’s commentary on the repression of anger and the circumscription of action in Senaarian society is really quite amusing.

Less amusing is the breakdown of civility on Salt. Senaarians, it seems, are ready for conflict, eager for it in fact; why else would they have carried not just weapons but a number of soldiers with them to the colony world? The Alsists, post-2003, read as a kind of idealized group of victims suffering from the pernicious war-for-the-sake-of-nothing worthwhile. Meanwhile, some of their suffering is their own fault, it seems: the Senaarian shuttle is nothing as horrific or disgusting as the Alsist one, for example. Yet the Alsists seem more and more human, more and more alive, as the Senaarians seem increasingly like victims.

It’s difficult to know whether Barlei actually believes any of the idealizing that he does in his narrative, of course; are his tears for his young “warrior-son” jean-Pierre honest, or just a stage effect for the history books? Does he really believe that his “enemies” and detractors are liars or historical distortionists? “I know. I was there,” he states simply, and one has to wonder if such a shrewd coup-mounter and dictator could actually think this is such a straightforward bit of evidence.

What saves the decpition of the Senaarians for me is the final apearance of Rhoda Titus. I’m not going to go farther than to state that she makes life among the Senaarians look much clearer, as she did with the Alsists during her time among them; she is the antidote to both Petja’s and Barlei’s stories, but especially Barlei’s.

The science is not really a centerpiece in the book. How comets come to zip about at 70% of lightspeed is beyond me, as is how the ships tethered together work. I find the Earth that the characters left behind, as glimpsed in passing comments and as finally shown, in some very small part, in Rhoda Titus’ narrative, to be potentially fascinating. The fact that almost all of the major characters are religious intrigues me, for they are all so absolutely different; and I must say that Roberts seems to damn organized religion more than disorganized. Petja seems far more sympathetic a character, but then some Republicans might think otherwise, I suppose.

Anyway, Salt is a wonderfully written, dark, lucious book about two worlds of ideas, two cultures, and their bloody, violent, painful, confusing, and jagged intersection. It may be about irresolvable difference, or about the nature of evil, but I think more than anything it’s about a state of feeling, as way of relating with others, and about the pain and difficulty of being human inside one or another civilization, especially when those civilizations collide. If you can get your hands on it, read it. And while you’re at it, read this interview with the author.

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