Reading zuzu's complaint about the attention a rape inevitably focuses on everyone but the perpetrator reminded me of something I'd drafted a few months back but didn't post. At the time, I'd just written about rape in
comic books literature and didn't want to seem fixated on the subject. I also didn't want to put Adam Roberts—author of the novel I'll be discussing—on the spot. But with Adam vacationing in the southern France and the other post nestled in the archives, I feel more comfortable starting this discussion.
Adam's novel Salt describes the colonization of a distant planet by religious fundamentalists. Getting to that planet takes 37 years, during which time tensions between the different religious factions build. After landing, the factions settle on opposite ends of the Great Desert. Despite this distance, the Senaarians—a hierarchical, imperialistic culture—and the Alsists—a radically libertarian culture which, oddly, embraces a recognizably New Left strain of communistic thought—eventually come into conflict.
For the first 226 pages, the novel switches from the self-hagiography of the Senaarian dictator, Barlei, and the man who would become a leader in the Alsist resistance, Petja.1 Initially, Barlei's voice dominates, and so the reader's sympathies fall largely with the Senaarians, who seem to lodge just complaints against the free-loading Alsists. Barlei will wax poetic for pages about how the Senaarians labored to find a way to move in open air despite the chlorine gas which hugs the planet's surface; whereas Petja will say "Our solution to the chlorine problem was a mini-mask. It was a clever thing" (43).
Knowing Adam's love of Robert Browning, I can't help but consider these dualing dialogues—presumably drawn from the memoirs of both men—as self-serving in the extreme. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I doubt it. Barlei seems more trustworthy at first, but as his manipulations of even inconsequential truths begin to pile up, his revisionist ethos becomes increasingly troubling. Chapter-by-chapter, the reader's sympathies drift to Petja and his open, non-hierarchical, sexually-liberated society.
And when I say "sexually-liberated," I mean it. Alsists frequently walk up to each other, ask if they desire sexual pleasure, and give and/or receive it. As one might guess, this utopian version of the free-love movement is reviled and condemned by the strict law-and-orderists of Senaar. But it works in Als. Everyone seems happy with the hedonistic gender equity they've created. As the details of Alsist life are revealed, Barlei's voice and the strictures it demands become increasingly strident. Here, then, is where the reader's sympathies turn to the Alsist position. (They're the Palestinians in this allegory.)
But there's a catch. A Senaarian ambassador is stranded in Als when the war begins. Petja, about to leave Als to wander the Great Desert, agrees to ferry her into Senaarian territory. At this point in the novel, all reader sympathy is with Petja and the Alsists. The Senaarians inch closer to employing a flimsy pretext to invade and slaughter the Alsists, so as Petja leaves, reader sympathy lies almost exclusively with the Alsists about to be sucker-punched. As Petja and the ambassador, a woman named Rhoda Titus, move through the desert, their apprehensions about each other slowly disappear. They become more friendly, more collegial as the trip continues ... until, that is, Petja rapes her.
I say "rape," but in Petja's mind, it's a culture clash. He's recognized their mutual attraction and acted upon it in a typically Alsist manner. He construes her struggles as typical Senaarian repression, an inability to reliquinsh duty to pleasure. The reader, however, is fully conscious of the fact that Rhoda Titus is being raped. All of the sudden, all sympathetic identification collapses. Petja mistakes her struggles for signs of cultural difference, while the reader, fully cognizant of what is happening, cannot fathom an appropriate response. (I should note that such moments are characteristic of Adam's novels. Their selling point, even.) Why?
Because there is none. The dictatorial Senaarians don't deserve sympathy just because one of them has been raped. In fact, their genocidal streak becomes more apparent after Titus returns to Senaar. But we can no longer sympathize with the Alsists, as their ideology allows the rape to occur. Had Titus been an Alsist, she would have simply, directly declined Petja's advances. But as a Senaarian, she kept her mouth shut, struggled in vain, and had her struggling mistaken for something else. Compounding the discomfort is the reader's knowledge that if Petja had been able to understand the reason for her struggle, he would immediately desist.
However, the most striking aspect of the novel is that, in its final pages, the dialogue of Barlei and Petja vanishes and is replaced by that of Rhoda Titus. She gets the last word in a novel otherwise devoted to the movements who conflict her rape was involved in. I think this a brave, bold move by Adam, especially considering the prejudices of many a science-fiction fan. But I wonder what those of you who've read the book—as well as those of you who haven't—make of this Ulysses-esque granting of the final word to the wronged woman.
Because Adam has created a situation of such moral complexity that it haunts—there's no other word for it—it haunts readers for months. It does so largely because Titus gets the final word. That gesture instantly reorients the entire novel around that singularly disturbing moment. There are a number of questions I could ask, but before I do, I should say that if I've failed to communicate the emotional complexity of this moment, please say as much and I'll elaborate. Describing a scene in detail without ruining an entire novel is difficult business, and I'm not sure I trust my ability to practice it.
1 Calling him a "leader" masks the moral dilemma Petja struggles with almost every page of the novel. The idea that he "possesses" the forces he leads, that they are "his" men, is anathema to Alsist ideology. But, for the moment, it's convenient enough shorthand for what he becomes.