My life in outer space

Salt – Adam Roberts (2000)


‘We are fragile. We dissolve in immensity like salt in water.

And after thirty-seven years of travel through the vastness of space we arrived on the planet Salt. And we took Heaven and Hell with us.

SALT is the story of a planetary colonisation that slips into a tragedy of biblical proportions. United by the dream of a new beginning, isolated in a landscape of cruel majesty, the two communities who went to Salt were torn apart by ancient enmities.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition.

An exceptional debut novel from Roberts which in some aspects is reminiscent of LeGuin’s ‘The Dispossessed’.
We learn that a mission to colonise new planets has been funded by a Christian Church on Earth (although the particular denomination is not known, they are of a fundamentalist persuasion). The bold and imaginative concept is to hitch individual ‘ships’ together like beads on a wire, which in turn were attached to a net which has lassooed a comet. The ‘tail’ of ships is balanced at the far end by a vast iron-ore counterweight, and the comet is steered toward an already detected Earth type world.
The colonists are put into hypersleep for most of the thirty-seven year journey, but even in the eighteen months prior to hypersleep commencing, serious rifts are developing between at least two of the encapsulated communities.
The leader of the Senaar ship invites a representative of the Als ship to discuss their differences and how to proceed after a suicidal Als woman steals a shuttle and crashes into the iron counterweight, endangering the entire mission.
The beauty of the narrative in this novel is that it is alternately voiced by Barlei, the nominal head of the Senaar community, and by Petja, a member of the Als community, who is the one chosen to visit Senaar for the fateful meeting.
That there is a problem in communication between the two communities becomes immediately obvious.
What we discover later is the Als community is composed entirely of anarchists who have lied about their religious commitment in order to found a community on a new planet.
Senaar, conversely, is composed of what we would today call ‘The Christian Right’.
And so, through the medium of this dual narrative we get two different viewpoints of events, a catalogue of cultural intolerance and a lack of even the will to try and understand the other’s point of view that eventually spirals out of control into war and madness.
When the comet reaches its destination, they discover their new world to be covered with salt, a substance whose symbolism is echoed on various levels within the text.
Nevertheless, the communities land, set up individual cities around a salt-saturated sea and despite the environmental obstacles, begin the process of transforming their world.
It would seem though, that during inter-ship fraternisation in the initial eighteen months of the journey, men from the Senaar visited Als and (Als having a very liberated sexual culture) fathered several children.
This becomes a major political hot potato since the Senaarian fathers want – at least initially – contact and access to their children while the Alsists have a policy of the mother having complete responsibility for the child, to the extent of the child not knowing – or caring – who the father might be.
So, with each change of narrative voice one has to read between the lines in order to see the true situation.
Certainly, Petja’s narrative seems to be the most honest, but as he is as committed to his beliefs as Barlei, it is difficult for him to find any failings in his own society.
Barlei’s narrative is more obviously falsified, since he is a politician and his words are tailored to show him and his people in a favourable light, although sometimes there are chilling moments when, despite Barlei’s talk of glory and God’s Will, we realise that atrocities have been committed.
Petja, by his own admission finds it hard to empathise people which, – it seems – might be a consequence of living in an anarchist state with no hierarchical structure where people only take responsibility for their own actions and have an obligation to no one else. It is to Roberts’ credit that he is able to explain lucidly how a society like this would function.
In a shocking episode, Petja, returning the Senaaran ‘ambassador’ Rhoda Titus following the Senaaran attack, rapes her, assuming that she will be complicit with this act, and never realising or suspecting that he has done anything wrong.
The act is doubly tragic since it appears that Rhoda was at least attempting to understand the Als mindset and might well have become a bridge between the communities.
The war becomes all-important for Barlei and Petja, which costs them both dearly. Petja, realising that in a war situation, hierarchical command structures are necessary. loses the respect of his people (the phrase ‘my people’ is itself an obscenity to the Alsists since it denotes possession, but yet Petja find himself using it) and ultimately his life to the effects of prolonged exposure to solar radiation.
Barlei, if we read between the lines of his propaganda, loses not only someone he loved as a son to the needlegun of a sniper, but the respect of many of his people and neighbouring nations.
The final chapter is a testimony by Rhoda Titus which gives another viewpoint. Although announcements are made in Senaar that the war is over, she evinces a cynicism and a distrust of her Leader’s announcements and speeches.
‘Salt’ is a powerful allegory of the wars of ideology which have raged through history and continue to rage between communities and nations of diametrically opposed views today.


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