on 7 December 2006
Adam Roerts' _Salt_ is a sparse and harsh book just like the planet on which it is set. It doesn't allow much sympathy with the main characters - both are basically war criminals who end up being responsible for the deaths of thousands. It also paints scarcely any picture of the world in general outside of the particular situations faced by the colonists, and gives almost no background for its characters. Basically, it doesn't give us any soil with which to foster a more comfortable experience with the narrative. Its aridity is the factor that shrinks it down to 250 pages.
This doesn't mean that as several previous posters said, the characters are undeveloped. On the contrary, the characters are very completely developed. It's just that the complexity of the characters isn't spelled out for us. To get a complete understanding of the characters you have to read deeply into the limited material available. Take Barlei's weird obsession with his lieutenant jean-Pierre, which reminds one of Achilles' affection for Patroclus and along with remarks made in the final chapter suggests a radical interpretation of his behavior. Or the references in both narrators' accounts to combat and war being analagous to musical compositions, which seem to suggest that our two protagonists are similar in some deep way.
It's possible as well to use the few references to Earth to figure out that the world left behind isn't exactly the kind of world we live in now. References to the New Vatican States and the World Ecclesiastical Union (or somesuch) paint a picture of a world divided again on religious lines, where the main impetus for space travel is escaping persecution and colonist fleets are privately funded. The group of colonists on Salt seem to be not a wide sample of the human race, but an assemblage of a few Eastern European religious sects that presumably felt that the political consolidation of religion left them little freedom to practice on Earth. (It is never stated precisely which church the colonists belong to but mandatory male and female contraception points to it being radically different from any on Earth today.)
Because Salt has been pared down to its essentials, it reads as carefully structured and highly concentrated prose. You have to work a bit to get what you want out of it, but once you do the book os pretty rewarding.
on 22 June 2005
It's obvious that some people hate Salt and some love it. This is an effect of the way the book tells the story. The whole point is that you see the flaws of both sides and don't get a one-sided view of the events. This isn't a goodies-and-baddies book, and that seems to have been the objective. Since this is fairly new, it makes the book a fresh read, and I'm very glad that I read it.
Having said that, I found it difficult to get into at first. The reason for this is that I found myself hating both characters for their hypocrisies and dodgy reasoning that I'd just get annoyed with them and have to put the book down before it went flying out the window.
On the comparisons with Dune...? I don't get it. Well, yeah it has a heavy political component but its implementation is much simpler. Dune was a baroque galaxy-spanning feudal empire, and Salt is not. If you want another Dune, go and read Iain M Banks' The Algebraist.
I don't think this was trying to be like Dune, and the comparisons would have both Herbert and Roberts scratching their heads and frowning.
So, then, a decent book? Yep. For everyone? No.
on 18 April 2005
As a younger man I loved SF, but after years of throwing Bova, Brin and whoever else across the room in disgust after 50 pages, I finally found Adam Roberts. Salt was the best SF book I have read in 10 years (OK, except for 'A Voyage to Arcturus'). I do not believe the characters are unbelievable in their extremism (no less unbelievable than the North American junta on Earth at the start of the 21st century). And for me, the ending satisfies perfectly: one is released from the diabolical tension of the opposing philosophies of Barlei and Petja, into that of a woman wearing the deeper human heart-pain of life in a world torn apart by 'leaders' who project their internal wreckage on all around them.
A beautiful book. But not for those who want sugar-coated fiction with canonical plot and the kind of 'resolution' that leaves you exactly where you were.
I suppose if I was forced to choose between the grubby and graceless anarchists of Als and the fundamentalist and slightly fascistic free marketers of Senaar I'd have to go with the former. (But I really hated the Alsists' disdain for small talk and social niceties - and their refusal to allow any rights to fathers. ) This is a similar sort of dilemma to that which faces readers of `The Dispossessed' of course, and there are many parallels between Le Guin's portrait of two very different societies and Adam Roberts' first novel about the tribal conflicts between colonists on Salt. But whereas Shevek, Le Guin's hero, is an engaging and humane maverick, both of Roberts' main narrators, Petja and Barlei, are decidedly unappealing. Petja's trek across the wastes with Senaarian Rhoda reminded me of an incident in another Le Guin novel - the hazardous journey made by Estraven and Genly in `The Left Hand of Darkness'. But whereas the relationship between Le Guin's characters is moving, the events during the parallel journey in `Salt' are simply sordid. I think the fact that there really isn't a single likeable character in this novel is one of the reasons why, although I admired Salt, I never fully engaged with it, and found myself reading it in smallish doses rather than getting swept along by the story. But I thought the writing very impressive indeed - as others have noted it's as cool and spare as the planet itself. Although I cannot recommend this novel completely wholeheartedly I certainly plan to read more by Adam Roberts.
Several colony ships head to a new world full of promise. However, upon arrival they discover their surveys were wrong and the world gains the nickname 'Salt'. Two groups of colonists rise to prominence, but their strongly opposed philosophies inevitably lead to a terrible war.
If you approach this book as a real 'what if...' SF story, you'll be disappointed. It's more a story about human nature with Als, Senaar and Salt itself being largely metaphoric (sorry if that sounds really pretentious, but that's what I got from reading the book). The world of Salt is beautifully described and yet Roberts never leaves you in any doubt about just how dangerous a planet it is, making it a powerful crucible for the people who find themselves stuck there. The really clever thing about the book is that it leaves open the decision of which philosophy (Senaar's militaristic dictatorship or Als' free-living anarchy) is the better one. Petja, at first, seems to be the better man, but when his free and unrestrained emotions lead him to violence and rape, we have to question whether an oppressive yet ordered society is not the better option. But by the same token, the parts of the book dealing with Barlei leave you chafing at his all-too-familiar megalomaniacal mind set.
This book isn't a comfortable read, nor a cheerful one with a clever moral, so people looking for a good STORY should look elsewhere. Looking for a good BOOK, however, and here one is.
on 27 January 2013
I struggled to become involved with this book until I recognised that this was neither 'Dune' nor 'Red Mars'. There is little if any Science Fiction, beyond descriptions of the planet 'Salt', in this short book. One should say then that this is not 'hard' science fiction. It compares more directly with say, 'The Handmaid's Tale' in its exploration of control politics, but I wouldn't push the analogy too far.
Two competing philosophies fight it out against a bare unforgiving background. Both main protagonists are deeply unpleasant. One is a military man with homo-erotic fantasies about one of his subordinates and the other is an equally sociopathic individual displaying all the most negative traits of Asperger's syndrome and none of the good. Both are vainglorious and totalling indifferent to the feelings of others, though for different reasons.
My main difficulty was that I was halfway through the book before I began to appreciate that there were two different individuals relating their versions of events. I didn't `hear' separate voices. This may have been intentional by the author and it certainly reinforces the similarities in their behaviours, if not their motives, but I found it confusing. I really couldn't understand what they were trying to say. I am quite prepared to admit the fault is mine but for me the result was an almost total lack of creative tension. There was no plot. There was an awful lot of self-justification and some descriptions of amateur war making but I found that I just didn't care. For me the ideal conclusion would have been pistols at dawn and both killing each other.
Having said, other reviewers have commented on the density of the writing and complexity of the ideas. I do not entirely buy into that view but I do think there is enough merit in the book to read it again, this time knowing what to expect. Thinking back on it there is an exploration of the functional urban life compared to the wild beauty of the unspoiled natural landscape which is quite compelling even if it does read at times like a hippy tract by Charles Manson.
However, perhaps the most disturbing thing about the book is the complete lack of desire by either party to understand the other. One can think of all sorts of unfortunate parallels, from the insignificant (Republicans v. Democrats, Tories v. Labour) to the totally scary, (Islamists v. Non-believers). The point being, I suppose, that we carry our prejudices with us, even to other Worlds. When both sides revel in war you begin to suspect that there is something wrong with the human condition which allows such people to control the lives and destinies of their fellow man.
This was only ever going to be a 1 star or 5 star review. After much reflection............................
on 6 December 2012
This is the first book that Adam Roberts wrote, the first of his I read, and for me, the best one he's done.
The writing is spare, but that doesn't mean the story or characterisation is. It narrates the colonisation of the planet Salt by a fleet of religious settlers from Earth. Among them is a group of anarchists, who after a declaration of faith, take advantage of the opportunity to escape Earth.
Tensions during the journey to Salt affect the new nations that develop on Salt, which eventually leads to war between the major hierarchial powr of Sensaar,and the Alsist anarchists.
Salt is told from the point of view of Petja, one of the Alsists who has undertaken 'diplomatic' duties in the Fleet and on Salt, and Barlei, a leader among the Senaarians who slowly seizes power for himself, all the while justifying himself as he goes.
This is one of the best proposed anarchist systems I've read. Maybe not as detailed as the one in Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, but Adam Roberts really does get into the mindset of a possible anarchist society. I particuarly liked how they acted for and were responsible for themselves personally, but were still able to band together for the greater good.
Salt also describes how bands of anarchists could make war on a conventional, hierarchial army - far more believably in fact then his attempt to do the same in his more recent novel, New Model Army.
It's a bittersweet story. Petja, who I thought was a sympathetic character to begin with, increasingly becomes more authoritarian and 'rigidist' as he adapts to the war. And Barlei, who projects a patriarchal, stern persona, yet cannot help himself becoming teary at the sight of men in uniform.
The last word is given to another character, Rhoda, who knew both protagonists and who suffered at the hands of both societies. Her point of view really does make you reassess the story and the Alsists and Senaarians.
All in all and excellent book, though not a comfortable one in places.
on 23 October 2010
Adam Roberts' first book is remarkable. After thirty-seven years of travelling through space, the colonists arrive on a less than friendly planet. But really, that's pretty much by-the-by. What is important in this book are the ideas and the way the ideas form and affect the relationships between the people, the developments in their societies and the way the societies' interact. As such, it is deeply political and clearly prefigures themes that Roberts returns to, in a slightly different form, in his excellent 'New Model Army'.
We have two distinct social forms, along with a few less clearly delineated types that fit within a spectrum between the two extremes. One is essentially anarchist, socially libertarian, the other severely hierarchical with a 'laissez-faire' economic model. As such, the book inevitably brings to mind Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed'. The two societies set off in separate space ships within a convoy and have little direct contact with each other during the journey to the planet 'Salt'. Once there, they set up geographically separate colonies but their different philosophies - one content to live within, adapt, and adapt to, the environment as necessary, the other aggressively expansionist - bring them into inevitable conflict. And there's the tragedy of the story. Not just a tragedy of lives lost through unnecessary conflict but a tragedy of ideas corrupted and lost as well.
It is a very powerful and very sad book. Not only are the ideas relevant and apposite, but I found myself getting really involved with the characters, hoping for a little respite from the bleak themes of corrupted ideals, ideology over empathy. At the same time, it is a fascinating read - especially in the light of Roberts' later work, in particular, as already stated, his 'New Model Army'.
on 1 May 2001
I was hooked until the end, which is a testament to the skill of the author since I found this to be in many ways a rather annoying book. We are told the story from two opposite (anarchist and totalitarian) and concurrent viewpoints, and the author takes no 'editorial' or even moral stance, leaving the reader to make up her or his own mind about the truth and moral rectitude of the disparate accounts. This seems to be the essence of the book and I suppose its quite clever, although I think it is a weakness that neither of the two principal voices is that of a sympathetic character; both are leaders but neither are conventionally heroic. Again, maybe that too is clever since most of our own 'heroes' are in truth normal, flawed individuals, and in many cases are monsters enobled by popular mythology, but perhaps the book's third voice, that of a 'victim' of the others, was made necessary by their grimness. Also, the events portrayed amount to a rather squalid conflict - oh wait a minute, I get it, thats realistic too. To summarise, this is a oddly poetically written account of a nasty little war, knowing and po-faced and not really yielding more understanding of human nature than a study of, say, Korea. What hooked me? Well I wanted to know who won the war - I won't say how the author subverts that superficial need.
on 1 March 2011
This is an enjoyable, engrossing book, featuring the colonisation of a new planet - one rather more arid and unforgiving than had been expected. We switch between two different viewpoints, in two different colonies; the Alsists are fairly anarchical, with rotas rather than leaders and fist-fights rather than council meetings, while the Senaar are well-ordered, well-financed, god-fearing military types.
Unfortunately, before the trip, some Senaar men took advantage of some Alsist women's easy-going attitude to casual sex, and babies resulted. To the Alsists, children are a woman's business, but the Senaar feel that the fathers have rights too - and, due to a failure to communicate between two very different mind-sets, a raid to "free" the children leads to all-out conflict.
There is no happy ending, but this is a book that keeps one turning the pages; Adam Roberts got his writing career off to a pretty good start.