In the good old days, it used to be novels such as 'A Clockwork Orange' that would spawn a whole host of pop group names, such as 'The Teardrop Explodes'. Now, it would appear that Adam Roberts has done the reverse...
The novel starts off with the voyage to 'Salt'. The planet is so-named because the main element on the planet is a preponderance of sodium chloride. Not the most hospitable environment for a human; but, as someone points out to Petja, if there was no supply of salt, then all the colonists would die (although the colonists' recycling process seems to cover all their needs). Petja is the opening narrator of the novel. He belongs to a community of anarchists called the 'Alsists'. Adam Roberts openly acknowledges that there is an element of intertextuality involved in the novel, referring to Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed', Nabokov's 'Bend Sinister', and the poems of Robert Browning. I'm no expert on Robert Browning, so I can't exactly see his influence, but the themes suggested by Le Guin and Nabokov seem clear. There are various other religious groups making the same journey, all strung out like pearls attached to a comet (an inevitably risky form of transport, especially considering the cabin fever inside the various ships, but a speedy one at that).
One of the Alsists commits suicide and threatens the whole mission. This causes concern in the Senaar ship, who bid to avoid a repeat performance. They ask the Alsists to send a delegate to discuss the issue, and Petja is sent. Not that Petja is any kind of leader: like all the Alsists, he's against any form of hierarchy. Thus begins the troubled relationship between Senaar and the Alsists, which is exacerbated by the fact that Senaar men have fathered children on the Alsist ship. The undisciplined Alsists then break ranks by deciding to land on Salt first, angering the Senaarians further without even realising it. Not that the Senaarians want to grab the best land for themselves, or anything. The Senaarians have a patriarchal, hierarchical culture. They're named after the place in Genesis where the Tower of Babel was built. Babel later became Babylon, and there is a settlement named 'Babulonis' in the novel, complete with water flowing uphill, just like the famous Hanging Gardens. Barlei, the Senaar leader, would have preferred the planet Salt to be called 'Kepesh', after the Hebrew word for 'silver', which most often seems discussed within the Book of Exodus. Indeed, Barlei later builds a 'Great Dyke', which he describes as a 'Pharaonic feat', without any hint of hypocrisy. It's debatable as to whether the Alsists or the Senaar are representative of 'The Chosen People', and it's Petja who seems most like Moses, despite Barlei's use of language from the Book of Exodus. When the debate is held on how the future Senaar should be built, there is the suggestion that it should be constructed in the shape of 'The Eagle of St. John', which may be a sign of freemasonry in Senaarian society. The leader Barlei deposes is called Tyrian, which suggests the biblical city of Tyre, which was in the Babylonian region. One of the Senaarians who has fathered Alsist children is called Beltane: perhaps by referring to the Pagan May Day, Adam Roberts intends to remind us of modern anarchists who now wander forth and protest on May 1?
The anarchists are well drawn by Roberts, and he is quite topical in including them. Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed', critical of the anarchist utopia, was published just as the last bout of popular anarchism ended. Roberts' dystopia is just as biting. All those scenes where Alsists threatens to punch one another's lights out does reflect how an anarchist society would settle disputes (or so I've read). This contrasts with Petja's use of force, which is violently opposed by some members of the Alsists later on (although Alsist society has been more or less smashed by then). Although they have talked their way onto a religious exodus, only a minority of Alsists have faith in a divine being. Most of them reject religion as just another hierarchical structure. This probably explains why some of them are so found of the atheist Roman philosopher Lucretius, together with his ideas on the 'free movement' of atoms. Thus it's quite a spiritual novel, in tune with recent fictions like John Meaney's 'Paradox' or Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow'.
Adam Roberts also claims that 'Salt' is intertextually related to Frank Herbert's 'Dune', but I couldn't really see much of a similarity, except that both worlds obviously have dunes. There are rather more factions involved in Frank Herbert's epic. There is no feudal empire or choam company (no minerals worthwhile exploiting), no fabulous sandworms, no mentats, and no Bene Gesserit here. One of the disappointments of 'Salt' is that it doesn't really throw up any of the gender issues embodied in anarchism. Okay, so Senaarian women are obliged to do their duty by staying at home, and Rhoda Titus has the most irritatingly girly middle name ('Blossom'), and Barlei misogynistically calls Alsist women 'Maenads' whilst viewing Alsist society as matriarchal. Maybe it's a fault of characterisation, but all the narrators seem a little bland and lifeless. None of them seem to have worthwhile aspirations, but then I suppose they are living in a dystopia. At times, it does seem at times as though 'Salt' has far more in common with 'The English Patient' than 'Dune'...
For instance, there are dunes in 'The English Patient' also. A bit of a tenuous link, I'll admit. But what about this? If you look at the movie soundtrack listing to 'The English Patient' by Gabriel Yared, you might be able to guess what music Adam Roberts was listening to when he first started writing 'Salt', and why the Alsists all seem to have Hungarian names. First off, there's a settlement called Yared, Pteja seems to have got his surname from the Song "Szerelem" (meaning "Love" in Hungarian), Marta Cserepes is possibly related to Marta 'Sebestyen' (name of the mountains in 'Salt'), or maybe Karoly Cserepes, who arranged the song 'Szerelem'. Is it "As Far as Florence" or 'New Florence', 'Convento' or "Convento di Sant' Anna"? Hamar, Sipos, and Csooris also seem to belong to the Hungarian band 'Musikas', featured in 'The English Patient'. Swapsies Herodotus for Lucretius? Compare with pages 18 and 63 of 'Salt' and weep. I reckon that Adam Roberts should utlise Gabriel Yared's soundtrack for 'Betty Blue' next time - I've always thought that 'Zorg' would be a great name for an alien!
authortrek rating: 8/10.
Kevin Patrick Mahoney
Please visit our Adam Roberts page.
Here are some links which provide cultural context for the novel:
Halite (Sodium Chloride) - goes into more depth concerning the mineral
The Gathering Place: An Illustrated History of Salt Lake City - a possible inspiration for the struggle of the Alsists. Whilst not anarchists, the Mormons wanted independence from the United States and were compelled to give up this struggle
Genesis XI - this excerpt mentions Senaar, the place where the Tower of Babel was build, a hierarchical rigidist project if ever there was one, which is probably why Roberts used the name
The Land of Shinar - explains that Senaar and the Tower of Babel eventually became Babylon. Salt has a "Babulonis" settlement
The Jovian System - in more depth
Study Guide for Ursula Le Guin: The Dispossessed - goes into great depth about the anarchism and feminism in the novel
Robert Browning - a bio
Kepesh - Barlei wanted to use this word to describe the planet eventually known as 'Salt'. Kepesh seems to be usually referred to in the context of the Book of Exodus
The English Patient by Gabriel Yared - this review of the movie's soundtrack possibly reveals what music Adam Roberts was listening to when he first started off writing 'Salt'. First off, there's a settlement called Yared, Pteja seems to have got his surname from the Song "Szerelem" (meaning "Love" in Hungarian), Marta Cserepes is possibly related to Marta 'Sebestyen' (name of the mountains in 'Salt'), or maybe Karoly Cserepes, who arranged the song Szerelem. Is it "As Far as Florence" or 'New Florence', 'Convento' or "Convento di Sant' Anna"? Hamar, Sipos, and Csooris also seem to belong to the Hungarian band 'Musikas', featured in The English Patient. Swapsies Herodotus for Lucretius? Compare with pages 18 and 63 of 'Salt' and weep.
St. John the Evangelist - apparently he's a patron saint of Freemasonry. Perhaps this is why a citizen suggests that Senaar should be built like the Eagle of St. John
Positive Atheism's Big List of Quotations - Lucretius wanted to free people from the tyranny of religious superstitions. However, there are some in the Alsists who do have a religious faith
What is the Magnetosphere? - an explanation
What is Anarchism? - an explanation
What does Anarchism stand for? - discusses the role of terrorism, and gives some explanation why the method employed by Petja is not approved of by all the Alsists. Anarchism does allow for some strident debate within the Commune, which explains all those scenes where fellow Alsists threaten to punch Petja's lights out
What types of Anarchism are There? - discusses feminism and atheism. Some of the Alsists are religious, as indeed are a minority of anarchists