Book Review: Salvage, by Alexandra Duncan

In the world of the future, long distance crewes travel deep into the Void on trading missions, carrying goods and supplies as they slowly loop their way through the vastness of the stars. Ava lives on one such crewe ship, steeped in their cultural traditions, until she’s exposed to the wider world and makes the dangerous and terrifying decision to go groundside, setting foot on Earth for the first time in her life. Along the way, she will need to find herself, and make important choices about who she wants to be and where she wants to go with herself.

Salvage is, in many senses, a retelling of the Garden of Eden (her fruit of knowledge is a lemon), but it’s a story that takes Eve in an entirely different direction, turning her into a woman with agency who makes her own choices about her life instead of someone at the whims of a malicious god. Eva’s ship holds extremely conservative values (women aren’t even offered the physical training they’d need to survive at Earth gravity, and thus are effectively bred and raised for life in space with no possible way out). Women aboard her ship aren’t taught to read or write, and are tasked with domestic projects like handling livestock and cooking, while the men take care of the fixes (mechanical work), piloting, and similar activities.

When she’s informed that she will be given to another ship as a bride, she’s nervous, but excited; a boy she met and liked lives on board, and she thinks she’s probably destined to be his. Socialised on a ship where the idea of being given away is natural, appropriate, and even desirable, Ava goes to her wedding with eagerness, but she makes a fatal mistake when she steals away with her purported husband to be one night and they’re discovered. Her act was a profound violation of the values of her ship and the terms of her ship’s bridal contract, and she’s threatened with death, narrowly escaping groundside to find herself in a different kind of danger, floating in the Gyre, a city built on top of the sea of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. As she makes her way to a modern Mumbai in search of her only living relative, she’s forced to be resourceful and assertive, coming into herself as a woman — and at the end of the book, she will be confronted with a choice between taking up her old life and living out her new one.

The narrative in Salvage is fascinating, exploring the fall of Eve from a new perspective, one where instead of being cast as the source of the downfall of humanity, Eve is instead waking up and seeing that her narrow, conservative world is one that oppresses women and unjustly cages them. Ava is smart and lively, fascinated by fixes and good at mechanical things — yet, she’s raised in a hidebound world that would deprive her of the opportunities she needs and deserves. Even the world aboard more liberal crewe ships, though, isn’t as free as life on Earth, even as Earth brings its own costs for Ava (including painful months spent building up her muscles, learning to walk, and taking constant calcium shots to prevent painful muscle cramps).

Culturally, I’ve long been fascinated by science fiction that explores what life might be like on board long-term space vessels that would spend months or years traveling. Clearly, ships would build up their own traditions, culture, and environment, based in part on necessity, organisational precedent, and, of course, reasons for setting out in the first place. In Starglassfor example, we saw a Jewish generation ship with very rigid social and political values for its residents, all based upon the desire to continue Jewish tradition — but we also saw how warped those traditions had become over the course of hundreds of years in a closed society.

In the era we live in now, it makes sense to me that conservative generation ships would become a part of our future, as would conservative crewe ships, where people adopting evangelical Christian and other conservative Christian ideals would be heading up, designing, and overseeing their long-term crewes and flights. While in some cases such ships might bar women altogether, others might recognise the desire to build a society on board — and to make that society ‘pure’ in the way that Ava’s culture is. Thus, such ships strike a strong chord with me as another iteration of very real issues we face on Earth now.

There’s another dimension to Salvage that’s important to explore, as Ava is a woman of colour, thanks to the fact that her grandfather was from India. She’s darker than her fellow crewemembers, and her black hair stands out on a ship full of pale people with red hair. The crewes respect the need for genetic diversity and understand the imperative to bring in fresh blood, but people with obvious markers of groundsider descent like her are feared and hated. In her case, she’s forced to endure repeated sessions of hair dying to make her blend in with the crewe, and even when her skin is pale after an entire life in space, it’s still too dark for the tastes of many of the people she interacts with (even as in India her skin is puzzlingly light for the people around her).

Salvage explores racial and cultural identity, challenging characters and readers alike with complicated questions about where we come from and how racial diversity will be viewed in the future. This is a world where race still matters, and where it is still a subject of discussion and discrimination — and Duncan explores the issue thoughtfully and well. I love speculative fiction that includes people of colour, and doesn’t operate in blissful ignorance of race, instead asking us what the racial landscape might look like in our collective future.