Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Salt by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts, in addition to being a sharp new voice in British science fiction, is also a professor of literature, an SF critic, and a satirist. His The VaDinci Cod is an excellent lampoon of the stupefyingly popular and criminally stupid The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. Salt, published in 2000, is his first science fiction novel.

Humanity is just beginning to reach for the stars. A veritable wagon train of ships bearing different peoples with contradictory cultures heads out to colonize Nebel 2, a planet that appears to have everything needed to support human life.

The story is told from the viewpoints of the 'leaders' of the two most divergent cultures. On the one hand we have the devout religious conservatives named the Senaar, led by the criminally manipulative Barlei, and on the other an anarchist society called the Alsists that rejects any and all forms of government and hierarchy. By random chance during space travel, Petja seems to be accorded a leadership role in the Alsists, a position he does not want, and one his fellow anarchists do not recognize.

But hierarchy is all that Barlei can understand, and the Alsists repeated ambivalence to his authority sparks a disjunction between ships before they even reach their destination. Barlei uses his wits to arrive at Nebel 2 first, and so the Senaar get first choice of settlement locations.

Only, Nebel 2 is not all that was promised. The planet is a desert of salt, it's bodies of water negligible, the air poisonous without filters, and the surface unlivable without massive permutation. A situation that calls for all of the colonists to work together towards a common end -- which is why they do no such thing.

Roberts is very heavy handed with his disdain for political conservatism. It's quite funny at times, and you can tell that he tries to see the situation from both points of view, but can't help skewing the vision and tossing in barbs at poor Barlei.

Salt has everything that makes science fiction grand. The ideas are plentiful and well-considered, the interstellar travel was accomplished well, and human beings take priority over both; their fears and hatreds, passions and weaknesses, all woven into an all-too-trite tapestry. It's a crying shame, because instead of a very good first novel, Salt could have been the next Dune.


Collector's Notes:

Unreleased as yet in the American market, now is a good time to discover Adam Roberts. Unfortunately, the UK hardcover from Gollancz is glued, not sewn, and the book appears to be poorly crafted. All the same, check it out.

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