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The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Books, 658 pages

The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and in Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has garnered many awards including the Nebula Award ("The Blind Geometer" and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W.Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards ("Black Air") and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Antarctica
SF Site: Kim Stanley Robinson Reading List

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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The Years of Rice and Salt is a long, ambitious, alternate history novel. The point of divergence is the Black Death in 14th Century Europe: in Kim Stanley Robinson's imagined timeline nearly everyone in Europe died of the plague. This leaves the world stage free for a centuries long struggle between a mostly Buddhist or Confucian China, and an Islamic Middle East and Africa, with Europe and Christianity no factor at all. Robinson's interest is in the nature of history, and in the possible evolution of these religions, and their associated social and political structures, without the pressure of Christianity and European Colonialism. Fortunately he avoids the sillier games of alternate history: here we see no cameos by famous men of our timeline in altered circumstances, nor do we see the "find the point of divergence" game played. (It's made clear at the open what has happened, and it's also clear that the author knows how implausible his variant Black Death is: we needn't care or quibble about that, it's simply the starting point for the book's intellectual exercise.)

The novel is structured as a series of ten long novellas. The novellas each follow the significant events in the lives of a few characters. Each section is set further in the future: we begin with the death of Temur the Lame (Tamerlaine), and continue forward until the closing section, set a few decades into the 21st Century C.E., though of course that calendar is not used in the book. The main characters in each section are treated as reincarnations of characters in the previous sections, and they are assigned names with the same initial letter. The three main characters are a forceful and impatient "K", a more gentle and nurturing "B", and a scholarly "I". The reincarnations occur in different combinations of sexes, and the characters live in different parts of the world in each section. Thus Robinson over time can explore much of his altered globe: sections are set in Persia, in India, in China, in North America, in a repopulated France, etc. There are also a few sections in the "bardo", a place where souls are sent after death, and where the recurring characters are shown discussing their failures in past lives. I will confess that I found this last device irritating and pointless: I was happy enough with the notion of recurring characters, but the idea of making their reincarnation "real" annoyed me, and the sections in the bardo were boring.

Robinson's interest, here as indeed in others of his books such as his Mars Trilogy, is in the sweep of history. As such, the novel does not have a conventional plot, neither event-driven nor character-driven. Even the individual sections tend to be "life stories" and not "book stories". In the nature of things, some of these sections I found fascinating, and some I found boring. In the same way, I found some of Robinson's historical arguments intriguing, and some unconvincing. He arranges for his alternate world to develop technologically at much the same pace, and with much the same result, as our own world. This is perhaps reasonable, but I was often unconvinced, as with the section set in Samarqand, in which a mostly isolated genius, working against every dictate of his culture, invents much of modern science. Indeed, though some of the discussions in the book weigh in against "Great Man" theories of history, much of the actual historical change shown is clearly the result of "Great Men" (and "Great Women").

I have mostly avoided describing the details of Robinson's alternate history: best to discover these yourself. He is very interesting on the notions of Chinese Colonialism, of the rigidity of Islam and possibilities for change in that religion, of the possible contributions of the natives of North America to modern society if their cultures had been able to survive the diseases and other depredations of the Old World invaders, of the role and place of women in altering history. He is less interested in rigorous economics -- I'm not sure I believe in the economic underpinnings of his altered history. And as I have suggested the technological advances have a sense of resulting at times from authorial fiat. At a more trivial level, the specific chronology of the events in the book seems inconsistent at times, though such errors as I found were only irritating, not fatal.

Much of the foregoing is quibbling. Should you read this book? I think so. Will everyone like it? No. It is a long book, and hard going at times: not due to any difficulty, simply because it is dry in spots, and there is a fair amount of telling not showing. At times we are lectured. But nonetheless it is also often intriguing, at times quite moving and beautiful. Some of the characters are tiresome, but some are nice to know. And the alternate history we are shown, if not always fully convincing, is an impressive imaginative construct. It is not often that SF is as ambitious as this book: perhaps it is inevitable that such ambition is not fully successful. It's still good to see such ambition.

Copyright © 2002 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area. He writes a monthly short fiction review column for Locus. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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