Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
There is something to be said for aspirational science fiction. I singled out The Martian as such. And despite its beginnings, there is definitely much that is inspirational about Salvage. It took a while for that to come into focus. At the start of the book, I was intrigued but not impressed. Alexandra Duncan manages to portray a believable world aboard a spaceship where the patriarchy has gone into overdrive. It could happen, and there are interesting cultural flourishes I’ll touch on in a moment. Still, like I said: not impressed. Why read another book about how the Earth has gone to shit and men are treating women even more poorly than they do now? Why not read a book where women are even more kickass than they already are and are sorting things out like they can totally do? Science fiction can give that to us.
Nevertheless, I’m not going to criticize Salvage for not being what I imagined it should be. When I look at what this novel actually is, and the story Duncan actually tells, there is a lot to like about it. Ava is a complex protagonist, likeable and unlikeable in turns as she grows and comes out of the shell erected around her by the cult of her upbringing. The characters who surround her are not always as complicated, nor is the worldbuilding much to remark upon; however, Duncan makes up for this in a richness of language, description, and emotional beats.
Once I realized the Parastrata is a cult, rather than an example of the wider society, Salvage got much, much better. It’s an awesome twist telegraphed very nicely throughout the first few chapters. Essentially it means we need to look at Ava like someone who needs deprogramming from intensive brainwashing—all the more so because she grew up in this atmosphere. Her flaws suddenly have this additional layer to them: she is hesitant not just because she is unsure of herself but because she has been raised that women should act a certain way. While indubitably social commentary on our own socialization of women, it’s also a fascinating depiction of the way insular societies like cults can dramatically skew the perspective someone has on the world.
Ava goes on to meet people from various classes of society on Earth, from the entrepreneurial merchant trader Perpetué and her daughter, Miyole, to Rushil, to Soraya. In each of these cases, Ava apprehends a new way of looking at the world. She also learns more about herself, for as each character challenges her ingrained worldview, she must decide which aspects of their philosophy to make her own, and which ones to reject. We all do this every day of our lives, of course, but in Ava the process is much more obvious, for she is in constant flux and crisis as a result of her flight from the Parastrata.
I wish the characters had felt like more than mentors and examples, though. (Miyole is an exception, and with good reason.) Rushil probably annoys me the most. He seems shoehorned in as a love interest and alternative to Luck. I get that it’s important for Ava to face a choice and to choose the vast, unknown newness of life on Earth (and potentially Rushil) over the certainty but circumscribed life on AEther with Luck. That climactic moment when Ava must choose, after spending much of the book pining after, then searching for, her once-beloved, is very powerful. Nevertheless, Rushil’s attraction to Ava and their burgeoning romance feels a little too contrived for me. Similarly, Soraya basically functions as another mother figure for Ava, or maybe a kind of older sister: a responsible guardian, wise enough to give Ava some space and some leeway but also to impose a few rules. We don’t see much in the way of her flaws or cracks.
The wider world of Salvage, too, suffers from this kind of glistening indistinctness. Earth is apparently in a bad way, probably from global warming and other environmental mismanagement (stupid humans), but it’s still livable. Parastrata has exaggerated the toxic nature of the planet, especially for women, and Mumbai seems like a thriving urban centre. But that’s about all. In particular, Duncan does little to outline the state of technology. There are apparently colonies elsewhere … in the solar system? Other systems? It’s vague. Similarly, there are spaceships capable of traversing such distances, as well as smaller ships capable of suborbital flight. But we get little sense of technological progress beyond that. Sometimes vagueness is good; there’s nothing wrong with letting the reader imagine or work it out for themselves, and an overwhelming amount of extraneous detail just becomes pointless infodumping. Nevertheless, Duncan errs too much in favour of such reserve.
There are some moments in this I just love. Ava rising to the occasion to take care of Miyole. The way that Duncan depicts how traditional schooling doesn’t always recognize or value hands-on skills like Ava’s, preferring instead to emphasize the academic and the intellectual—and Ava’s understandable frustration at this attitude. The feeling of betrayal when Ava discovers that her grandfather joined the Parastrata crew as an anthropologist and fathered her mother essentially as a way to stick around rather than through any attachment. The corresponding feeling of relief when she discovers Soraya nevertheless feels responsible and even warm to Ava.
So there are many feelings simmering beneath the surface of Salvage, and I have many feelings as a result. It’s a compelling, straightforward narrative with a lot to recommend for the journey its main character undergoes. As I mentioned, Duncan’s treatment of language is interesting and evocative: she sprinkles in enough neologisms to give you a taste of a closed-off society’s cultural drift without so much that you feel overwhelmed. For all these great aspects, Salvage strikes me as quite rough. I borrowed Sound from the library as well, and I’m intrigued to see how Duncan’s writing has evolved with her second novel.