THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the past, Kim Stanley Robinson has on occasion turned his attention to alternate history, from "The Lucky Strike" (1984) to "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" (1991), however The Years of Rice and Salt is the first time Robinson has created a novel length examination of alternate history. As with so many of Robinson's works, The Years of Rice and Salt is anything but typical of the genre.
Many, probably most, alternate histories focus on the Great Man theory of history, in which the loss of an individual changes the course of events. Robinson focuses his attention more on the big picture. His point of divergence is a wildly more deadly Bubonic Plague sweeping through Europe and practically depopulating the continent. Into this bleak wilderness comes Bold, a mongol warrior who has displeased Temur the Lame. Bold flight through Europe, however, is mostly to present the setting for the rest of the book. Although Robinson follows Bold's travels through Europe and North Africa, where he acquires a companion, Kyu, and on to China as slaves, their story, as such, only takes up a small portion of the book.
The Years of Rice and Salt is divided into ten books, each separated by varying periods of time and running from the death of Temur in AH (After Hegira) 783 through 640 years of history to the present day. In each of these stories, Bold or Kyu, or sometimes both of them, make an appearance as reincarnated souls, frequently with a similar agenda and the same initials. They provide a glimpse of the manner in which Robinson's world is the same, and different, from our own.
Because Europe is missing, the history of The Years of Rice and Salt is a struggle between the forces of Islam and China, with India caught in the middle. His history is a complex mixture of our own with numerous deviations on both micro and macro levels. The Chinese discovery of North America in AH 1030 leads to an Eastward colonization while Islam without Christianity to hold it in check takes very different turns both culturally, scientifically and religiously. How likely Robinson's various scenarios are is, as always, debatable, however the mostly work within the confines of the novel.
One of the strengths of The Years of Rice and Salt is the fact that Robinson doesn't constrain himself to a single time, place or even characters (although his characters are linked). Instead, he presents the gradual changes throughout history and the world to finally create his version of the modern day which is both familiar and eerily exotic.
At times Robinson allows his prose and philosophy to get in the way, and, while these are important to what he is trying to say, they also have a tendency to create a book with pacing problems. Sometimes these only slow the book down for a few pages, other times they effect entire sections of the book. On the other hand, there are also sections which seem to fly by regardless of their actual length. Robinson also plays with narrative styles throughout, providing each of the ten books with their own feel. His coy "you must read the next chapter" at the end of each chapter in the first book, fortunately, is not carried throughout.
The Years of Rice and Salt is filled with ideas about human civilization and vitality which will cause the reader to take time to think about what Robinson has written and evaluate, perhaps re-evaluate, their own thoughts on a variety of subjects. It is neither an easy book, nor a fast book to read, and humor, while occasionally appearing, is mostly absent save for the irony of parallels between Robinson's world and our own.
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