Thursday, January 21, 2016

Adam Roberts' "Salt": Book Review


I wanted a smart parable about anarchism and I have already read Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed." Adam Robert's debut novel from 2000 came up in my search and it sounded intriguing. Obvious predecessors are Le Guin, and as he acknowledges, Nabokov's wonderful "Bend Sinister" (which personally I enjoyed more than this novel or Le Guin's work, as an aside).

But Roberts opens with a powerful evocation, with religious as well as chemical references, about the powers of salt, and how sodium brings humans closer to heaven in its ubiquity, and towards hell through chlorine. This recalls many SF descriptions of hostile battle and unforgiving terrain, as well as the gloom accompanying conflicts.

Analogies flourish in this narrative, and Roberts alternates the hierarchies of the Senaan society, one of those who have colonized the planet Salt, with another tribe, as it were, a nation of Alsists who have Magyar names and an anarchic way of life, where "to have love" in its brief manifestation sexually is about the only thing that can be possessed, according to their rigid refusal of any claim to ownership of anything. Roberts introduces Barlei and Petja as spokesmen for the two clashing nations. Zealotry fuels the Bible-based civilization of Senaan, sort of a combination of Zionist remaking of a desert into a garden, and a Spartan regime bent on military triumph and fierce patriotism and class divisions.

Neither the Alsists nor the Senaans come off as very appealing. I liked Petja proclaiming how his rivals have internalized the law, so they cannot function outside of their own mental construction and practical prison. One's sympathies may be with Alsists in the beginning, but that protagonist on behalf of his side shows his folly, understandably if predictably, when escorting in rather ambiguous fashion the stranded representative, Rhoda Titus, from the Senaan's hostile camp. War ensues and violence consumes both nations. The course of the novel plays out depressingly.

The decision of Roberts to shift to a third narrator to close this stern debate shifts the balance, and while this appears to open up another sequel, it leaves the reader a bit let down. The absence of humor, unless unintentional, in the Alsists' stolid refusal to compromise, played off the Senaan elevation of duty and order and conformity, drags down both cultures to similarly grim levels. While this is Roberts' intent, it makes "Salt" bitter. (Amazon US 1-12-16)

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