Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Adam Roberts

Victor Gollancz / Orion Books

UK Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-57506-896-5

Publication Date: 06-2000

248 Pages; £16.99

Date Reviewed: 07-16-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Science Fiction, General Fiction

02-14-02, 03-14-02, 04-15-02,Interview (08-19-02), 08-20-02, 12-13-02, 02-25-03, 05-23-03

Some writers take science fiction entirely seriously. That is, they take the current consensus reality and try to extrapolate current scientific and social trends into a realistic world of the future. This results in a lot of fiction that's very popular and has pretty much come to be taken as all that science fiction is. But that's not at all the case. Science fiction can be broken down into tools and tropes, just like any other genre. Some writers do not try to predict the future, but instead to reflect the present. They wield the tools of science fiction like a schoolboy's Erector set, using tropes and tools to construct a world that enables them to engage in dialectic. Stanislaw Lem is certainly one of the major authors to do this, and as he points out, Philip K. Dick is prone to this technique as well. British author Adam Roberts is a definite toolkit fan, and he shows this coming right out of the box in his first novel, 'Salt'. Yes, 'Salt' has spaceships and alien planets. But it is certainly not about space exploration, or the conditions we might meet on another world. 'Salt' is about the conditions we meet in the human heart, every single damn day.

As 'Salt' begins, the human race has the means to colonize the stars, but not the best equipment to determine which stars should be colonized. Thus it is that humans end up on Nebel 2, which becomes known as Salt, a less than auspicious desert planet with barely enough resources to support human life. 'Salt' is told for the most part from the point of view of two of the men who lead the two factions that arrive. Alas, one of the factions consists largely of devout religious conservatives, while the other faction (from the trailing ship, a cause of grief in it's own right) consists largely anarchists, who reject the idea of government. Barlei becomes the designated leader of conservative Senaar, while Petja becomes the default go-to man for the Alsists. But these two very human cultures cannot co-exist, not on Earth, or on any planet. The human heart is too hard. The bad decisions it can make are too easy.

Roberts tells the story in these dueling first-person voices, both hypnotic and convincing. As the colonists disperse across the surface of this bitter, barren planet, the factions separate and the battles begin, each culture using the tools it knows best to adapt and survive. Barlei is full of himself and the superior ways of his people. Petja is as well, though he seems initially more sympathetic. Both are the products the of the far sides of the human world, however, and there is no way for them to change the feelings and emotions within, even though these same have driven them to the stars. Conflict arises, bloody, gritty, fought with the conviction that each side carries that it alone is acting in some fashion that is "right" or "best". Suffering be damned. The human race is damned, and not from without, not by the limitations of this world -- or any other. We are damned from within. Let Adam Roberts show you the prettiest ugly picture you might ever see.

The two characters here will for some readers be all too real. This world, Salt, is filled with unpleasant people and they precipitate unfortunate events. Roberts' sterile thought-lab is as striking as the latest battle-weary headline. It will take some perseverance to run the gamut, to finish Roberts' brutal experiment, but it's worth the effort. You'll find some the finest unpleasant writing since Flannery O'Connor showed us a man who would steal a girl's wooden leg, described the event and made us enjoy the reading experience. 'Salt' is extremely well written, and the prose glides by, even as Roberts delivers one poison arrow after another. It doesn't matter how big the universe it. It cannot hide from the human heart.