No One Thinks of Salt

No one thinks of salt.

Of course, people who live in cities close enough to either pole of the Earth do—they see it on sidewalks and roads and doormats for some period of time every year. They couldn’t not think of it, like they couldn’t not think of shoes. But they don’t really think of it in the way I mean. By “think of,” I mean “think up.” And while this could be applied more broadly, I’m mostly focusing on writers when I say “no one.”

More accurately I should say “no one would think of salt,” but that’s not as snappy. Besides, the idea came to me as “no one thinks of salt!” with an implied “if they have no exposure to it.”

So now that everyone’s confused, I’ll try to start making sense. I’ve lived in Tallahassee, Florida almost my whole life. The city, and the entire county it’s in, has just one snow truck, which practically never gets used. In my whole life living there, it only snowed once—and then it was more sleet than snow. So I definitely didn’t think of salt.

I knew that people salted roads in cities where it snowed, but what I didn’t consider is that sidewalks would be salted too. Now that I live in Iowa City, and I’m experiencing my first northern winter, I’ve realized that this is the case. I’ve also realized that salt gets stuck in the treads of your boots, and ends up all over the floor if you don’t kick them off thoroughly. Had I written a story before I lived here, about a city experiencing a typical, snowy winter, I never would have thought to add the detail of a character having salt caked around their boots. But that kind of inventive, extrapolated detail is what makes good writing, especially in science-fiction and fantasy.

Granted, world-building isn’t everything, and a well-told story with the typical fantasy props (castles, dragons, swords, etc.) can still be fun. But there’s no reason a writer can’t tell a good story and develop a well-realized world. Reading science fiction from the fifties, it always nags at me when nuclear power shows up. Many sci-fi writers used it as some catch-all that could power everything from household appliances to helicopters, rather than fully considering other potential energy sources. As a result, the worlds feel simplistic and flat.

Kim Stanley Robinson on the other hand is an excellent world-builder (though not from the fifties.) In his Mars trilogy, he has the typical tented colonies you might find in any martian story, but he also considers the possibility of cities built into mesas, or under the ice caps, or within lava tubes. His rendition of a colonized Mars feels explorable and deep.

Now back to the salt that no one thinks of. Let’s suppose an Earth that is covered by an enormous ocean, with every human being confined to an equatorial island where it never snows. On this tropical island, fantasy writers might spin tales of an incredible world where ice falls in little droplets from the sky. Science fiction writers might speculate about colonizing the polar ice caps. Would these writers consider the problem of snow obstructing paths, and the need to remove it? Probably. But what would their solutions for this problem be? They’d probably be pretty straightforward, and be more impractical than they’d appear on paper. These writers might imagine snow plows, or heated roads, or awnings that could extend to cover pathways when the snow fell. Maybe these writers would lazily speculate that snow could be channeled through gutters just like rain. Salt, although highly practical, would not be the common representation of a solution in these snow stories. But if some writer were inventive and thoughtful enough to envision salt as a solution, their story would be so much richer than the same-old same-old plows and heated roads.

This is what makes some speculative fiction feel not so speculative. What’s fantastic about another retread of Tolkien’s orcs elves and dwarves? What’s innovative about a domed colony on Mars?

It’s the writers that take the time and consideration to extrapolate, and solve problems from the viewpoint of a character in that world rather than an outsider, that create three-dimensional setting. Beyond speculative fiction, it’s the writers that research, or actually visit the setting of their story and fully observe its complexities, that portray a landscape which feels genuine.

It’s the writers who think of salt that craft worlds a reader can live in even after they’ve stopped reading.

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