Novella Review: The Salt and Iron Dialogues

At this past World Fantasy Con I had a chat with Matthew Johnson about his novel Fall From Earth. Though it had been a year since I read his book, I commented on the lasting impression he had made with his unique talent for blending a powerful narrative voice with grand world building. Then, like most readers enraptured with a compelling concept, I asked the dreaded question: did he have any plans for a sequel? At the time, the answer was no. Needless to say I was thrilled when The Salt and Iron Dialogues proved to be the second sortie into his Borderless Empire that I had been waiting for.

I hesitate to call the novella a prequel, however. Prequels are usually burdened by a motivation, or perhaps even an unfair expectation, to establish causality between distinct elements of an individual mythos. All too often the goal of explicating something subtle or somehow deemed “missing” in the original story results in an author “telling” rather than “showing” in a retroactive follow-up. Such is not the case here. Even though Salt and Iron keeps a focus on Shi-Jin, the once and future defeated revolutionary of Fall From Earth, this younger iteration doesn’t merely exist to inform her future self. We can see shades of the Shi-Jin that is to come, but the transformation from apt student to dangerous convict is still rooted firmly in the subtext and imagination of the author.

One of the most compelling aspects of this story, also witnessed in Fall From Earth, is Mr. Johnson’s ability to demonstrate the cultural and sociopolitical otherness that science fiction is capable of generating when trusted to the hands of a skilled writer. The Salt and Iron Dialogues is a story couched in history, both internal and appropriated, philosophy, and language. Indeed, the importance of language is reflected in the fact that within the Borderless Empire the Earth has been renamed “Hanzi” – which I believe, and anybody can feel free to correct me on this point, is the name for written Chinese script.

Moreover, where other stories are concerned with creating a space where the reader can insert some version of themselves, Salt and Iron does the opposite to fantastic effect. The influences of Imperial Chinese bureaucracy within the Borderless Empire and the differentiation between Shi-Jin’s native colonial language and the “Earthlang” of Hanzi tell me quite clearly that I could not easily project myself into this narrative space. I dare say that is one reason why I find this world so compelling. Equal parts genuine curiosity and a subtle desire to fit in helped to propel me through the text. Conceptually, everything within the Borderless Empire is familiar: a hegemonic government, colony planets, and space ships. Yet they are all wrapped within a hierarchical culture which is as fascinating as it is intimidating.

It’s hard not to recognize the risk in such a stylistic approach. It certainly would have been easier to craft a space British Empire in the fashion of Honor Harrington whereby readers with even a passing amount of familiarity with Horatio Hornblower, or England as a place on the map, can find a natural point of entry. Instead Salt and Iron uses internal parables, Confucian philosophy, and the allegory of a chess game to take the “barbarian” reader and colonize them into the Borderless Empire. It is science fiction for a student of the humanities.

While The Salt and Iron Dialogues stands perfectly well on its own, I can’t imagine a reader enjoying it and not wanting to engage with the larger related work. The novella can be seen as a litmus test for a reader’s willingness to engage with a polity of ideas, metaphors, and future history. Individuals coming to this story having read the aforementioned novel will no doubt revel in a chance to revisit Shi-Jin and her world.

The Salt and Iron Dialogues is written by Matthew Johnson and published by Bundoran Press


About Adam Shaftoe

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