Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Salt
Adam Roberts
Victor Gollancz, 248 pages


Chris Moore
Salt
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is in the English Department of Royal Holloway, one of the 8 larger colleges of the University of London. He received his MA from Aberdeen University and his PhD from Cambridge University. Salt is his first science fiction novel.

Adam Roberts Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Advertisement
Why do we create alien worlds for our characters to live in? For some, it is simply the fun and challenge of working out the details. This is the classic art of world-building. Others use an alien setting in order to ask what would people who lived in this strange place be like? Still others use an alien world in order to gain a fresh perspective on behaviour that is all too ingrained in us. The last approach is the one taken in Salt, the impressive and rewarding debut novel from Adam Roberts.

Salt is the story of a colonization fleet which discovers, upon reaching its destination, that either data from exploratory probes was wrong, or conditions have changed in the many years of voyage. The planet Salt is mostly just that, a great salt desert with one usable body of water. The fleet is made up of various religious sects, each with its own ship and supplies. But there is a wild card: one of the ships carries a community of anarchists, unwanted on Earth, who may have mis-represented themselves in order to become part of the colonization effort.

The anarchists, known as alsists, are very reminiscent of the anarchists in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Individual decision-making is paramount, and all group work is distributed on a lottery basis. The alsists abhor group decision making, and look with scorn on hierarchical-based social structures, such as the religious societies that have accompanied them to Salt. With limited resources and such widely varying approaches to decision making, conflict is seemingly inevitable.

The story of these peoples and their inability to understand each other is told through the voices of two men. Petja is an alsist who, because of his technical skills, has been the person who communicated with other ships during the voyage. The others thus insist on seeing him as a leader and ambassador, while his own people do not. Barlei is the Leader of the Senaarians, the most fundamentalist and aggressive of the religious communities, a man who is incapable of imagining that anyone else could live with different values than his own, and who has an amazing ability to blind himself to any evidence to the contrary.

The two men could hardly be more different, and the misunderstandings and errors mount as each tells his story in alternating chapters. Barlei is completely sure of his own decisions, and rejects even the thought that he may have made a mistake. Petja, in contrast, is ever aware that, in organizing and leading others to fight back, he is violating the basic principles of his society, becoming what his fellow alsists refer to as a "ridgidist."  Yet he believes that he is doing what must be done. Regardless of which character we might perceive as the most sympathetic, Roberts takes us far enough inside each for us to understand why they act as they do.

And by taking us inside Petja and Barlei, the author takes us right into the story of Salt and its colonists. It's an age-old story of fear, arrogance and misunderstanding leading to a war that is all too human and personal in its causes and consequences. By focusing on two individuals instead of their larger societies, Roberts keeps the story focused on the realization that it is individual choices that lie at the root of great events, a point that can get lost when the story is allowed to take on a more epic sweep. Roberts presents each character's views and decisions so even-handedly, that in the end it seems fitting that neither Petja nor Barlei get the final word; that honour goes to the only character in the book who has met them both.

Salt, both in its ambition and execution, invites comparison to other SF novels of high stature. The Dispossessed has already been mentioned as a philosophical precedent. In addition, the almost lifeless salt desert recalls that other desert planet, Arrakis. And in its theme of humans carrying their sins with them wherever they go, Salt brings to mind Frederik Pohl's masterpiece of pessimism, Jem.

Let there be no doubt, however, that Salt is a novel that succeeds on its own terms. Roberts' prose carries the weight of a serious theme, but never becomes bombastic or portentous itself. This is the work of a writer who has already found his voice, and has something meaningful to say. With Salt, Adam Roberts has produced the finest first novel to grace the field of science fiction in many years.

Copyright © 2000 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson has recently been fighting off a desire to add more and more salt to his diet. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide