Monday, October 5, 2015

[Book Review] Salt

Salt / Adam Roberts

I added this as a book club pick based on the strength of its reviews, described as a 'landmark' novel and compared against works of Heinlein and Le Guin.  As it turns out, Salt is out of print and not anywhere in my state's library system.  As it also turns out, I feel horribly betrayed by the reviews that led to this selection.
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.  - Speculiction: Review of Salt by Adam Roberts
I mean, to me, that sounds pretty damn amazing.

Instead I slogged to the finish ultimately out of a sense of duty rather than interest, and left wondering what the hell did I just read.  Salt tells the story of pilgrim societies colonizing a far-flung planet, and of clashing religious and political ideals.  Salt switches between narration by Barlei and Petja, members of different factions that come into increasing conflict over ideological differences.  Barlei becomes the people's leader on the long journey through the stars, after the citizens revolt against their increasingly disconnected leadership.  The Senaarians respect order, contribution to society, sharing of resources, and God.  Petja is by no means a leader of the Als, an anarchist community that claimed religious affiliation to escape from Earth, but due to his technical expertise was viewed as a spokesperson by the other communities.

We're going to get a bit more here than I usually put out, since these are generally discussion guides.  But usually the book club selections are not ones that I feel I owe an apology for choosing.

I found both Barlei and Petja to be unbearable, their prose leaning towards bombastic and self-indulgent.  I also found that their narrative voices were not distinct enough to have them stand out as two individuals.  Both are blinded to the potentiality of other cultures and ways of life, and to the idea of respecting any sort of lifestyle choice alien to their own.  To the Als, a child belongs to the woman who bears it, the father is no more than a genetic donor who has no say in the child's upbringing or the woman's decision to seek pregnancy.  To the Senaarians who indulged in flings in the early stages of their journey with Als women, this is tantamount to kidnapping of their children.  When it comes down to it, this conflict over rights of parents to their offspring is the key source of conflict in this book.  Their whole war is the result of one group objecting violently to the lack of access to children that they had no intention of fathering, nor whom they had any original knowledge of.

To the Als, the Senaarians are rigid thinking and self-limiting.  To the Senaarians, the Als are little more than savages.  In both cases there's honestly a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.  The Als have a rather structured society, yet should someone start thinking of something as inherently 'theirs' they are derided as a rigidist.  The Als also view autonomy as the most basic of all human rights, with no inherent responsibility or consideration to the well-being for those around them.

Most of this book was just kind of plodding, without really giving me a reason to care about either society.  Perhaps Roberts intended to give us no clear protagonist/antagonist, but to leave it unclear and muddy.  There was quite a bit of political and religious theory in here, but the rhetoric of either culture singularly failed to impress.

What probably switched me from 'This really isn't my bag, even if I ignore all of the God's mandate parts,' to 'What the fuck?' was the rape scene.  In this scene we learn that Petja has his head so far up his ass that he legitimately thinks nothing of the woman fighting off his advances.  She struggles so much he chokes her into submission and reflects that her face turning red is nothing out of the ordinary because she blushes so often.  I have no clue what the purpose was of this scene.  The Senaarians were outraged at the 'interfering' with one of their women, but the war was already in full swing.  All we got out of it was a reason to loath Petja and a victim to give us an epilogue, but maybe that was considered reason enough.

TL;DR - I did not enjoy this book.

However, it was a book club pick, and others may like it more than I did, and there are certainly many themes to discuss.

Discussion Fodder:

  • "What life could there be without salt?"  "Salt combines the good and the evil, yin and yang, God and the Devil."  How does salt shape the lives in the story?  How does salt shape the world we live in?
  • There are multiple forms of government in Salt, but we mostly see that of two groups, the Al and the Senaarians.  What do you think of the styles?  How would you classify them?  Is the author promoting one over the other?  Do you think we are given accurate representations and classifications, or are they skewed by bias?
  • The Al believe that parenthood is completely the domain of the mother, in the choice to conceive, to bear, and to raise, with no place for the father.  STDs aside (since they seem to be discussing non-barrier method contraception), what do you think about their views on procreation?  What about the Senaarian's opinion on "divinely sanctioned forms of birth control"?
  • The Senaarian's feel wronged that some of the Al women they trysted with conceived and bore children.  Do they have any right to the children as genetic parents?  Does the fact that the children were born and initially raised without any knowledge of their existence?  What weight do existing cultural conventions bear on custody in a case like this?  What do you feel about the Al response to the demand that the fathers have access to the children?
  • On the Senaarian ship there is a revolution, with the Captain increasingly alienated from his people.  Was the revolution justified, or do you think we are hearing a story colored by the narrators bias?  Barlei comes out a hero of the Senaar, but does he stay one?  Or does he follow in Captain Tyrian's footsteps?
  • What do you think of the different solutions to the environment of Salt?  Modification of self versus necessary equipment?
  • Barlei says that "the Alsists mocked our new technology.  It is in the nature of anarchy to fear new technology."  Do you think that is necessarily true?  What do you think about the nature of technology and fear in relation to other types of government?
  • Are the Al actually an anarchy?

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