July 1st, 2002

A despatch from Barcelona.

So here I am, sat in the front row of the main hall at TechEd, waiting for the keynote to start. There's plenty of wireless bandwidth here, and I'm running EtherPEG in the background just to see what people are looking at - though all in all it's rather boring. At the moment someone is surfing a Rolex site, while some else appears to be buying insurance.

Barcelona hasn't changed much in the last year. The streets still have that air of gently decaying grandeur, while the green trees of the avenues hide the strange shapes of Gaudi's houses. The hotel is just down the road from one of the more famous buildings, so I'm hoping to at least take a picture of it, if I can find a little gap in the very full schedule...

The plane flew into a grey and humid airport, a 767 full of conference attendees missing the climax of the World Cup. It took a while to get out of the airport, but we were soon at our city centre hotel. There was just time for a brief rest before we went off to dinner at a beachside restaurant, and a very refreshing rose rioja wine. In the restaurant next door someone was setting up a film set, and bright young things were soon extolling the virtues of some new drink...
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The Waiting For The Second Keynote Review: Salt

It's a lot easier to write about a book you've liked than one you've disliked intensely. And unfortunately, Adam Robert's Clarke Award nominated novel Salt is one of those books. A tale of interstellar colonisation, and the evils brought from Earth to a pristine new world, it promises to give us a morality tale that we can map to the many conflicts that scar the world today. Instead, you are left with an unpleasant taste in your mouth and a sense of deep dissatisfaction...

Sure, one could simply criticise the science, from the improbable interstellar voyage to the planetology of the titular world, but those aren't the book's main flaw. Instead, it's the fact that it's impossible to engage in any manner at all with the two main narrative characters. Sure, they are a pair of the most obnoxious and unlikable individuals possible - but this isn't normally a problem for a book, as there's often a strange fascination as an author drags you into the heart of evil. Instead, here the characters are immersed in the banality of their misogyny and failure to communicate. With little in the way of characterisation, beyond a basic scene setting, we are left with two men who consistently fail to engage with each other, and the world around them - and yet end up shaping the war that will shake their new home to its very foundations.

There's a sense that Roberts is attempting to write a feminist novel, especially as he tries very hard to use Salt to rewrite Ursula Le Guin's wonderful The Dispossessed. But as he fails to grasp the tao of the journey and the return, and the sufism implicit in the relationships between the statist and the anarchist, Salt leaves you high and dry waiting for a sense of meaning that isn't there. The use of the only major female character in an attempt to provide closure only goes to show how poorly Roberts writes women - as well as leaving the reader wondering if this is a stylistic technique being used to end a story that appears to be going nowhere slowly.

Still, there is something lurking in Roberts writing that bodes well for the future. His descriptions of the arid and desolate landscapes of Salt are powerful, and will remain with the reader for some time. But this is no redemption, and the many flaws in the story still leave you wondering why you even picked up Salt in the first place.
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