The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) is Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, his first since 1997's Antarctica. The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history, one with a simple premise: what if the black death had killed off 99% of Europe's population instead of a third? As one would expect from Robinson, the book is packed, almost overflowing, with ideas. It explores historiography, the way cultures interact, and the question of the prominent role oppression has played in human history, all in the context of Robinson's slightly quirky humanist leftism and communitarianism that readers of his previous books should be fairly familiar with by now.

The way he frames the narrative is a bit unusual and interesting. He tells the story in a series of linked vignettes, episodes ranging in time from when a soldier in Tamerlane's golden horde comes across the utterly depopulated cities of the Balkans to sometime in the mid-21st century when a Chinese revolutionary and academic settles down at an agricultural school in California (that we get strong hints is located in the same place that UC Davis, where Robinson lives and teaches, is in our history) to reflect on his life and find a kind of peace. An interesting touch is that the main characters recur from episode to episode, through a framing story based on Buddhist cosmology where their karmas have become linked, and they find themselves meeting over and over in different relationships, both in the world and in the bardo between lives.

Robinson's PhD is in history, and alternate history has been something of an obsession of Robinson's throughout his entire literary career, one that he explored in depth before in his Three Californias trilogy, and in several short stories and novellas ("Remaking History", "The Lucky Strike", "The Lunatics"; all available in the anthology Remaking History and Other Stories). Comparing The Years of Rice and Salt to these earlier alternate history works shows that Robinson has matured as a writer. While all of these earlier works were successful, I think, Rice and Salt is a much more ambitious look at a broader canvas, as wide in scope as his Mars trilogy, if not in sheer length, and it fulfills its ambitions.

The Years of Rice and Salt's greatest strength, as is Robinson's as a writer, is in simultaneously portraying both the sweep of history and the way it affects individuals caught up in it. It would be easy for as broad a subject as a history of the world for more than six hundred years, told in episodes, to feel diffuse and disorganized. The framing device Robinson chooses here works well for giving the book focus, though it also hovers dangerously close to preciousness at times. It would be very, very easy for a book about a group dealing about the reincarnation of a group of people as they seek spiritual advancement to cross the line into a particularly treacly kind of New Age preachiness, and the biggest fault I can find in The Years of Rice and Salt is that it comes too damn close several times.

Still, this is an excellent book, and one that I can recommend happily to anybody interested in history and historiography, and particularly to anybody that's enjoyed Robinson's earlier works.

Poetic and all encompassing alternative history of mankind with a central component missing

I have a soft spot for Kim Stanley Robinson: his prose is always intermingled with beautiful poetry or elaborate fairy tales, his research into his works impossibly thorough and his alternate realities plausible. He has explored the narrative possibilities that alternative realities give the author before: two of his short stories handle the tricky issue what would have happened if that first atomic bomb would have missed its target, there is a little novella on the discovery that the Viking settlements on the American mainland are nothing but an elaborate hoax by a Victorian joker with an archaeological mastermind and of course his most remarkable work, the Mars Trilogy. More alternative reality than Sci-Fi, more scientific text than Star Wars, Robinson always blurs the boundaries between prose and non-fiction.

Being such a fan, I was delighted to pick up the paperback of The Years of Rice and Salt before boarding a plane from Christchurch to Frankfurt via Singapore, as the alternative would have meant that I had to continue Robert Fisk’s The great war for civilisation, and although it’s a gripping read, it’s at more than 2 kg’s just (literally) too bloody heavy for 24 hours.

Robinson describes the last 1400 years on this earth with one little twist: Europe was literally wiped out during the great plague, all lives eradicated due to a cruel mutation in the bacterium’s genome. First discovered by a unlucky scout from the riding hordes of the east, (who ends up as a slave in a Chinese restaurant in Nanking), history unfolds without any European influence. The main civilisations battling for supremacy are Islam (quickly establishing caliphates all over Europe), the Chinese, and a little later, an enlightened Indian subcontinent and the native nations of the American mainland (now called Yanghzou). Throughout the 1400 years of history we meet the same group of characters who keep meeting on the bardo, the legendary Buddhist spiritual plane where souls are being judged before reincarnation. Initially a idea that one has to get used to, it does make sense, as history is often shaped by similar characters: the angry, probing, brillant firebrand, again and again clashing with the more plodding, thorough, caring and introverted intellectual: Ying and Yang displayed in two personalities. Both souls lives regularly violently interrupted and destroyed by violent and impulsive characters, be it a ignorant tyrant or a mad general. Again and again reincarnated, these souls shape a history that shows similarities to our own, but due to the dominance of Islam and Confucianism, sound different and have more religious incantations.

The cast of characters that accompany us through the centuries is dazzling: farmers, religious leaders, scientists and even a tiger, interspersed with soldiers, eunuchs and historians of all ages and religions. Only white people and Christians are absent.

Not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt HarperCollins 2002

This is the second Robinson book I have read. What struck me is the view that societies where women play a larger role will be healthier or more advanced or less belligerent. I wonder where the author gets that conviction. I thought the bardo detracted from the story. So also the tiger. What is the purpose of providing continuity for the characters? The long war between Islam and China made me wonder if the west really thinks political Islam is that fanatical. I know Robinson doesn’t speak for the entire west but he is a type of intellectual that is unique to the west – intelligent, compassionate, receptive to & admiring of other cultures but convinced of the superiority of the west. Thus his views matter.

The book ignored Sub Saharan Africa completely and I resent that because it continues the practice of dismissing the history of black people and the roles we play in the world. I mean, other than the slave castrated and taken to China, there isn’t even a token black. It would have been interesting to have a civil rights movement against the Arabs in Africa.

All in all, I liked the book. The Mars trilogy is the only other work of his that I read. That was superb and can’t be compared to this. But this was good too, had a fresh air to it.

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