Doris Lessing and Iain Banks collaborate to rewrite The Dispossessed, and do a better job of it than anyone might reasonably hope!
OK, so it's not exactly a blockbuster by-line but, please, trust me on this one -- Salt is a moving, intelligent and great book.
An Earth colony ship arrives at its destination after 37 years en route carrying 12 separate colonies in their own individually built modules. Named "Salt" because of its somewhat onerous chemical make-up, their destination is initially settled peacefully enough by them all. One group has always been waiting to assume its manifest destiny though, and soon after landing war "breaks out" as they attempt to subsume or destroy (their Leader gives them the choice) a neighbouring colony under various flimsy pretexts as an example of its power to all the other colonies.
That's the plot; the story is something else altogether.
There are two narrators: one, Petja, a member of the anarchist Als collective, the other, Barlei, Leader of Senaar, a capitalist dictatorship. The two recount both sides of their arrival and descent into war in alternating passages.
It's a classic device and Salt shows why it's still a popular one. There's a beautiful and simultaneously frustrating dichotomy between the two of them. Both narrators are consumed with themselves: one because he sees all people as individuals and therefore inherently important, the other because he is Leader of his people and therefore inherently important. Barlei's sections are the more interesting to read because of the quite breathtaking doublespeak he employs -- George Orwell would have been proud. On the flipside, Petja's sections are interesting in their own right but lack the outrageous black humour of Barlei's.
Senaar bears more than a passing resemblance to certain global superpowers and their allies, not simply in the lip-service paid to their beloved democratic system (which is based upon the individual citizens' monetary worth since they must buy votes); nor just the relentless conviction of the divine support of their entirely unjustified war against the Als or patronising attitude to their relatively poor neighbours (one throwaway sentence on page 52 has it becoming "fashionable" for the rich children of Senaar to visit these -- far be it for me to suggest that they may travel with backpacks...), nor only their damning of any conceivable defensive measures by the Als as "despicable terrorism" (if Adam Roberts hasn't read any of Noam Chomsky's seminal works then I'll eat my beret!).
Senaar's Leader, in a singularly revealing statement notes that, "This war has been the savour in our meat. Without it, life would have been the dull round of planting and reaping, of giving in marriage and giving birth, of growing and dying. But the war has given us interest, excitement; it has rendered the meat more palatable" (p220). This seems to me a superlative statement of just how worthless some would seem to find the basic miracle of human life.
Senaar is unable to tolerate the existence of Als, a working anarchist society giving the lie to the Senaarian belief that people "must" work and "must" have leaders who "must" tell them what to do; hence the "justice" of the war against them.
To bring a little "balance" into this review it should be noted that the anarchist Als are not pathetic victims driven helplessly towards extinction, they fight back vigorously and effectively -- but not on Senaar's "legal" terms (a euphemistic term since Senaar decides what is and is not "legal")
Als is very very different from Senaar and not dissimilar to Le Guin's Anarres in The Dispossessed (although more recent advances in sf technology have led to anarchist societies becoming a lot less austere).
Als is not an idyllic anarchist utopia; I found their society rude and even inhuman (obviously from my blinkered, hierarchical viewpoint). The apparent naiveté in dealing with the other, more rigid societies around them seems unrealistic at the best of times -- can they really have become so dissociated from the rest of human civilisation despite having developed on a crowded Earth?
But it's because of this ideological blind spot that Salt actually works better than The Dispossessed; because of the juxtaposition between the different cultures and because the set-up in Salt is a microcosm of our world today. This is a very British - or perhaps European - book, it's not one I can imagine coming from an American writer because it's too downbeat and pervaded with tragic inevitability, and because of its very political satire at the same time. If proof were further needed that the real focus of sf is not tomorrow but today then Salt is it.
If you enjoy the political edge of Banks' books and the demands of Doris Lessing's then you'll love Salt.
If you enjoy intelligent sf that'll make you laugh and sigh then you'll love Salt.
Whatever, you'll love Salt.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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© Stuart Carter 19 August 2000