[Synopsis to Follow]
My first novel, Salt, is a story of the colonisation of a new planet, told through the perspective of two individuals. One, Petja, is part of an anarchist community who do not believe in rules, laws or social hierarchy of any kind. The other, Barlei, is the military leader, and dictator in all but name, of the ordered and religious society of Senaar. These two narrators, telling their own stories from their own partial points-of-view, come into conflict in the harsh landscapes of the new world, Salt; friction leads to conflict, and the two ideologies clash in differing strategies of war. The book was nominated for, but did not win, The Arthur C Clarke award of 2001.
It seems to me that part of the point of running your own website is to record your own thoughts and opinions on your writings; but the 'university' half of my makeup doesn't believe that my opinions on Salt are any more valuable or worthwhile than an ordinary readers. The author, as I teach my students, is dead; Barthes's famous proposition being made more interesting when the author is me ("you're dead, mate" as one of my colleagues told me in the pub a while ago). Having said that, my perspective on the novel is necessarily going to differ from most people's. I know the circumstances in which I wrote it; sitting at a desk in a small room in a rented flat in Windsor, Berkshire; a window looking out over a single tree, a small lawn and the backs of houses. I know the emotional particulars of that time, which focussed on the book's dedicatee. This colours, and perhaps distorts, my own sense of what I have written. It seems to me, then, that Salt is a novel about depression, about a psychological state that finds its correlative in the bleak landscape of the world, about a killing division of affective commitment. But I could be wrong about that.
I think I'm on safer ground when I mention the political and ideological issues that the book rehearses; questions of political affiliation, of the negotiations between cultural and personal difference, of the relationship to (patriarchal) authority and of the limits of control. That the book is also a self-conscious exercise in intertextuality is, I hope, equally clear: it draws on Herbert's Dune and on Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed as well as Vladimir Nabokov's Bend Sinister and the poetry of Robert Browning. I hope, in saying this, that I am only saying what is obvious from the novel itself. It remains the bleakest of my books, but I continue to find an austere and strangely uplifting beauty in certain aspects of bleakness, so I say this with no suggestion of apology. As Spinal Tap might have put it: None More Bleak
Salt is crystal compounded of Sodium and Chlorine; faceted and transparent. Simple and pure. What life could there be without salt? It is known as God's diamond, by which we should be aware of the infinite variability of scale for the divine perspective. This tiny fragment of halite, it is a dot, an atom; but to God it can never be lost, it can never been overlooked or unnumbered. Every grain is a landscape, a world. It is a great cliff, a diamond as big as a mountain, a massive cube of ice. In it are embedded woolly mammoths, grimacing men in hides and skins. Buildings, cars, trees, all at angles to one another. The surface of the world is sheet, smooth as polished plastic, plain as glass.
And salt combines the good and the evil, yin and yang; God and the Devil. Take sodium, which is the savour of life. Without corporeal sodium the body could not hold water in its tissues. Lack of sodium will lead to death. Our blood is a soup of sodium. And here is the metal, so soft you can deform it between your fingers like wax; it is white and pearl, like the moon on a pure night. Throw it in water, and it feeds greedily upon the waves; it gobbles the oxygen, and liberates the hydrogen with such force that the hydrogen will flame up and burn. Sodium is what stars are made of. Sodium is the metal, curved into rococo forms, that caps the headpiece and arms of God's own throne. But here is Chlorine, green and gaseous and noxious as Hell's own fumes. It bleaches, burns, chokes, kills. It is heavier than air and sinks, bulging downwards towards the Hell it came from. And here are we, you and me, poised between heaven and hell. We are salty.
We had been traveling for thirty-seven years. Not counting the eighteen months it took us to assemble in Earth orbit, and accelerate slowly with displacement rockets on a capture orbit to grab our comet. Nor the two weeks we spent grappling with that steaming ice-world; to fix our tether (my primary area of expertise); to set up burners in a zodiacal circuit around the central cable, and then to settle our final orientation with thrust-explosives. Then, pointed in the right direction, we began to speed up. Our comet, fuel and buffer, building speed slowly. Us, strung out along the cable behind, eleven little homes like sea-shells on a child's necklace-string. Do you know how long it took us to reach traveling speed? At accelerations of over 1.1g, we accelerated for over a year. A year of gravity, when there could be no hibernation; a year awake, crammed in with our sisters and brothers, our children, our friends and enemies, our lovers and ex-lovers. A year of feeling trapped and heavy, of smelling sweat and shit; of eating recycled food. A year of games, and talk, and meditation, and nothing to do and nothing to be done but hope our comet would lead us on to the brave new world.
And worry, of course, because there are many things that can go wrong. The comet can fracture, break apart like a gemstone under a hammer. No matter how expertly the tether is fixed, there can be flaws that it irritates, and that eventually shake loose under the pressure of acceleration. And if that happens (I have seen visuals) then the whole giant ice-worldling simply bursts, breaks up like a blizzard of paper, like a storm of -- well, salt. Then, if the acceleration has not built up too great a speed, you must use your precious fuel to slow down, to turn about, and return home at the slow, slow pace of displacement rockets; which can take years. Twelve years, one recorded case. And if the acceleration has gone too far, if you are traveling at too great a fraction of c, then there is nothing to be done. You would burn all your fuel trying to slow; you are in the blackness, in the nothingness. No comets to grab, to fuel a homeward trip. The best thing is to settle down, go to sleep, let the ships trundle onwards, hope that you will last the fifty years, or the hundred years, or the thousand years it will take to reach your destination without full speed. You won't, of course. You will go mad. Or, without a comet buffer, you will be battered to shreds yourself by the detritus of deep space. The mites, the specks. Even a speck can kill at fractions of c. This is another reason why we hide behind big lumps of ice-rock on our journey; to clear a pathway.
Sometimes a comet meets too large an obstacle. That happens, we suppose; but if it does who will survive to tell the history? Ships get lost. Some ships may be lost that we, knowing no better, assume are well. We think they have arrived at their destination, and have beamed a message the twenty light-years backwards to say so. And for those twenty years we think hopefully, we assume the best. But when no message comes, and no message comes after twenty-five years, or thirty-years, we begin to doubt. Are they still traveling, slowed by some calamity? Or did their passage bump, at .7 c, into a medium sized lump? Some effective barrier that happened to be in the way? Cosmic mine, laid by God. Think of the impact, the hugeness of the force. Even strung out the best part of a kilometre behind the buffer, the results would be catastrophic.
We are so fragile. We dissolve in immensity like salt in water. Ah, but I mustn't strain the analogy.
Shall I tell you the intimacy of living during the year of acceleration? The constant presence of other people, the lack of privacy such that privacy became a distantly remembered concept. People shat whilst nearby other people chewed their mid-morning meal, too bored even to glance. Lovers would copulate and within spitting distance an old man and an old woman would be bitterly arguing, oblivious. The sickly artificial lighting clicked on at dawn with a brutal suddenness; clicked off at dusk like hope being snuffed out. The dark would be filled with grunts, farts, sniffles, coughs. The murmuring of people still talking, but without the energy of a normal nightlife, because we were in the darkest of nights, the night-time of the interstellar hollow. To speak loudly, to sing or dance, seemed somehow impertinent in that dark; and all that could be heard was the muttering of people talking to themselves in madness or despair. Curious, how the murmuring of someone in conversation, even if the interlocutor is only silently listening, is so distinct from the mutter of the solitary person. Shall I tell you what struck me the most during the first months? How bad people's skin became. We took supplements, vitamin, mineral, but nonetheless people's complexions faded and pustularized. Blotches and spots, all manner of carbuncles and rashes. A beautiful woman, my lover before embarkation, developed great coldsores all about her lips, the same lips I had used to kiss with such passionate pleasure. Like decaying constellations in the sky, a ring of red, angry looking sores, all about her lips. Like a mockery of her beautiful, kissing mouth; like a satire on the human desire to kiss with the mouth. But she was not alone. We all got spotty, we all felt our skin grow dry, and sore, and we all broke out. I did not dare go near a mirror; I did not dare. I was too scared to see how my own elegant features had been disfigured. People have always said I am a fastidious man; a few have been bold enough to call me vain. Perhaps I am vain, and maybe that year was a mortification for my vanity. God's movement is mysterious, like the motion of a dance we do not understand.
We sweated, and our clothes stank. Nobody could be bothered with washing their clothes, for all that we spent all our time in bored yearning for something to do. We all shat in the communal vat, where the machines would process our waste and give us blocks for re-eating. Am I revolting you? Perhaps I am revolting you. But you must understand how life lost its savour. The vending restaurants added salt to everything, but the salt did not add savour to our living. The light hurt our eyes, and eventually our sight dulled under the fluorescence. Everything became faded. Friendships faded, love faded, memory faded. We woke with the clicking-on of the great lights, and went about our business yawning and scratching; working from habit and not from conviction. We could barely stay awake during the day, so wearisome the routine seemed. And then at night, the lights would blink out, leaving only a dying afterglow in the panels; and then it would be black, the blackness of the spaces between the stars. Human beings need some comfort inhering in the darkness, some sense of faint luminescence, a skinny moon behind dark clouds; but in the total dark we find it too hard to settle. We could not sleep, we would lie awake and mutter to one another. The floor was strewn with rubbish. No matter how many cleaning details I was assigned, there always seemed to be more rubbish.
We were infested with lice. Nobody knew where they came from. All passengers, objects and effects had supposedly been sterilised; all cargoes had been stored in the out-bins, and had therefore been awash with space's radiation -- which, surely, should have sterilised the contents anew. But the lice eggs came from somewhere, and then we were all infested. Other ships avoided the plague, but that only made us bitterer, made us feel unfairly singled-out for suffering. But where had they come from? Some people said they had been left by the workmen who constructed the ship in orbit. Some said (this was more fanciful) that the lice-eggs were frozen in the comet itself; because we ran a line from the comet to our ship for water. A stupid story, this, since the sludge coming down from the comet was decontaminated thoroughly before being released into the general ship reservoir. But for some reason the story stuck; rumour is more tenacious than common-sense. I suppose people liked the idea that they had been infested with space-lice, some prehistoric alien species caught in the ice-tomb of the comet, to be thawed out to feed on our blood. We shaved our heads, and applied a hastily improvised antiseptic washing-soda to our scalps: it was a white, flaky solid, that we had to rub over our bald skulls with the palms of our hands. I remember on one cleaning rota gathering up so much discarded human hair that the machine clogged.
Shall I tell you what the rate of suicide was during the year of acceleration? Three people killed themselves within a month, but that had probably more to do with anxiety and distress at the departure than cabin-craziness. By the six month mark there had been seven suicides, and another twelve attempts. Most took poisonous amounts of standard ship's chemicals. In the seventh month somebody stole a shuttle. We only had twelve shuttles, and they were precious to us, for without them we could not service our ship. Have you ever watched birds? We had birds, of course, as part of our ark; but they were desperate creatures, hurling at the walls and shearing away with a blurring of wings, trapped in the cage that was our ship. They were not the angels we had hoped, they were machines for producing slimy shit and messing our home. But when you watched them, you saw how fastidious they were, how they carefully and carefully preened themselves. How they would caress each feature in turn with their beak, paying the closest attention to their plumage, because unless it stays in best condition they cannot fly. And so it was with us, for we too were flying creatures, flying onwards without air. And so the most popular work detail was the shuttle detail, because it gave the illusion of escape. To leave the ship, even if only to travel a few metres. And then to preen, to check the surface of the ship, to test the cable, to travel with news and trading-supplies up the cable or down the cable to the neighbouring ships. How we prized the shuttle detail! I do believe there was corrupt practice to obtain the postings; that there was bribery and illicit sexual compacts. The detail became like a currency with us, like a money. And why? I had travelled through each of the eleven ships, travelled extensively through them as they were constructed and augmented in orbit. We all had. The ship above us, the Senaar was in most respects exactly the same as ours; the ship down the cable, the Babulonos was the same again. The people were the same people, the people we had sought to avoid before the journey. But how small shrinks down the human mind; we reached that stage where a trip up the cable to drink tepid vodjaa with some Senaarians seemed to be almost a journey up Mount Zion to glimpse the promised land.
But this one woman, and I remember her name was Katarinya, she obtained the shuttle detail. And at the lock she disabled her partner for the detail with a knife (it was quite a deep cut, I remember, and of course it did not heal for many many months; in that air, cuts refused to heal). So she took out the shuttle, and burnt out the engines flying downcable. Watch the visual of the escapade, and you'll see the engines flare, and flare too brightly; and then suddenly burst with light and die. Overplayed the engines, but she did it deliberately. She swept down the cable, and overshot the two ships dangling there, and then she clipped the ore-anchor at the cable's-end. A silent collision, a crumpling of the craft, and a glitter as the innards spilt. Now, some said she had not intended to crash into the ore-anchor and die so spectacularly; they said she had gone crazy for a child left behind, that she had been making a nuisance of herself with calls to the captains of the other ships in an attempt to have the mission reversed. But there was no reverse, and (they say) she went cabin-crazy and stole the shuttle to fly back home, but she overworked the engines and they blew and so she crashed. She would have needed craziness, because the trip would have been death, even without the ore-anchor getting in the way. We were seven months away, at an average of .36 c. You work out the distance. And how much air and water is there in a shuttle?
But she was merely the most spectacular of the suicides. How hungry we were for news! And yet how quickly we tired of this, the most markworthy thing to happen all voyage. How tired we were of the news, and yet how we carried on talking it through. Going through the woman's history, her family, her motives. And me? Shall I tell you (but you must not think me cold-hearted) that my worst fears were for the ore-anchor? But I had tethered that ore, I had worked it for weeks to balance out the separate compacts of ore so that no part of it was more massy than another; the melding of minerals rare in the destination system; plus a mass of prefab bucky. And then, behind it, we hung the oxygen: 750,000 tonnes of frozen oxygen, mined from Jovian system, and held in place with its network of architectonic cables. She could have broken everything clean away. But what an inconvenience that would have been! But the ore-anchor held firm.
Whatever others say, I know Katarinya intended to collide with the ore anchor. That was her way; she could not abide the slowness and the waiting; she had to have fireworks. We should be grateful, and I am, that she decided not to fly upcable, and to bash into the much more friable comet. That way, we could all have joined her in death.
After that there was a craze for suicides; the topic was hot, and with everybody talking about it and there being nothing else to talk about, it rose to the status of obsession with some. And if you think of nothing but one thing for days and for nights, there will come the time when you must try that thing. People stabbed, and swallowed, and tried to climb to use the 1.1.g to pull them from tower-tops to their death. A dozen died, and many more were wounded. And in that air, in that foetid closeness, cuts and wounds healed poorly if at all. We held a extraordinary small meeting (as if we were hierarchs), and the particular technicians (myself, and the thruster-woman who was called Tatja, and the three geophysicists and land-maintenance people) convened a commune panel to weather the storm of so much self-harm. Some tried to encourage group panels, assemblies of people to talk and play; some tried setting up football matches. And, to be safe, we denied shuttle duty to all but ourselves, which was not popular. There was talk. They said that I did so because my name had not come up on the rota before -- as it had not. But I had no respect for the rota, on account of the way it had been abused, with favours and promises traded to those notified of duty to pass it over silently to others.
It was this way that I took my first shuttle duty, and flew upcable to dock with the Senaar with messages and what they call 'tradeables'; mostly it was cages of birds and bird-meat, because the Senaar had not brought birds. And it was on this occasion that I first met the Captain Barlei. I think, indeed, that he and I had spoken once or twice, whilst the ships were assembled; but when I had liased with the Senaar's tether-person at the beginning of the voyage, there had been a different captain then. Understand the Senaar, where they live by the hierarchy; and they passed their acceleration-time with politics and intrigues. The captain that had been before was called, I think, Tyrian, or Turian; but he was dead when I flew upcable that time.
They washed me in their airlock soda-shower, and then gave me paper clothes and invited me through to talk. And they gave me a glass of luke-warm vodjaa; except that it was barely a glass, hardly a thimble. And they sat and crowded about me, with all their uniforms and rank-insignia, that mean little to me, except that it makes it difficult for me to know to whom to talk. And Barlei was there, and introduced himself. Oh yes, I met him. He was a flabby man, but his clothes refused to recognise the fact and pinched at his flappy throat, and squeezed his fluid belly. Accordingly, his face was grape-coloured, and his eyes bulged forward out of his face. But he had played their game, whatever their game was, and risen to the top of the hierarchy, and Tyrian, Turian, was no more.
Of course, all they wanted to know about was the death of Katarinya. Every ship had cast eyes upon it, naturally. It was the event of the voyage. But where another ship might have poured us cold vodjaa, or whatever their drink, with the liberality of the wake, and wept with us, and laughed with us, and swapped stories of the dangers of cabin-craziness -- where another ship would have done this, the Senaar did not. The staff officers all sipped their drinks, and scowled and put the thimbles down on the table as if they were unpleasant things, and then Barlei began talking with a rasping voice about the dangers to the voyage that our ship had brought with it.
'Cabin craziness is indeed a dangerous thing, Captain,' I agreed.
But he replied, and did not, as I had done, address me by any title or name. This according to his own schema was a bad error; although it could hardly bother me. He said: 'but we must take precautions to safeguard the voyage as a whole. What if this person had flown upcable? What terrible damage could have been done then?'
I had thought this myself, of course. But I said (because this is how the game must be played in Senaar), 'you misunderstand the case. This Katarinya was sick, homesick. She had left a baby girl with a partner who refused to join the voyage. She lost her mind over this baby, and thought to rejoin it. But she was a poor pilot, and burnt out the engines, and so she crashed.' There was an awkward silence, and the staff officers looked at me. So I said: 'you may replay the visuals to see for yourself.'
'Our problem, Technician Petja, is ...' began one of the officers. But he was clearly a junior one, because another broke in upon him.
'It is clearly a matter of discipline, is it not? It is inconceivable that one of ours would do such damage with a shuttle.'
'Is there no cabin-craziness with you?' I asked, in mockery. But they have no such irony in Senaar, and shook their heads with serious expressions. 'I am indeed impressed.'
'You can follow our way,' said the officer. 'You can begin to train your people as we are trained.'
This was an insult, and nothing less. So I drained my vodjaa in one gulp and stood to leave. But the Captain, Barlei, held up his hands to usher me down again. 'Must we quarrel, Technician?' he growled. 'Can we not remain allies and friends? You understand our concern. It is not for ourselves, but for the voyage as a whole.'
'We have convened commune meetings, and ... adjusted the shuttle rota,' I said. 'There will be no further jeopardy to the voyage from us.'
'Sit down, please, Technician,' he said. I sat then, but it was not the right thing to do. He nodded, and said: 'we think it would help the voyage if your commune of command were made permanent.'
'A full-time body, charged with the duties of governance.' He began, at this, to lecture me on the Senaarian way, of politics and hierarchies, and I grew offended and stood and spat in the floor.
He pretended hurt at this, and said: 'can we not even offer you advice?'
'To recast us in your image? I think not.'
'Surely we are already part of the same federation? Surely we will all be living on the same world? Surely,' (he said this last with a wheedling voice), 'surely we all serve the same God?'
I stood up again, and left. As I made my way back to the airlock, in my ridiculous paper clothes, Barlei came after me, with all his junior officers scurrying after. He said 'before the voyage began, we saw a free and fair interchange between our ships. Many of your people came and visited Senaar, and many of ours spent time upon the Als.'
I stopped here, because I was uncertain what he meant.
But then he said: 'I believe several of my men' (note possessive!) 'fathered children aboard the Als.' His voice was sterner now.
'That,' I said, 'is a matter for the mothers. The child begins life with the mother, of course.'
'The child belongs,' he said, stressing the possessive word, 'to the family of the child. And the father is a part of the family.' It was in this way that the whole question of the children of Senaarians was inaugurated between us.
As I piloted the shuttle downcable with the parcel of software and some other 'traded' foodstuffs, I thought little of this. I decided that we faced only five months of acceleration and then we would be cruising, and then these worries would fade away we entered our trances. But this thing about the children, this was a seed planted.
The craze for suicides burnt itself out, of course. As we neared the end of acceleration people became distracted on the possibilities of trance. We disbanded the commune, and society returned to normal. And finally we were traveling at the cruising speed. Our gravity dribbled away as the accelerators petered out; we walked with larger and larger strides. We jumped higher and higher. And now spirits were high, because we felt as if the back of the journey had been broken.