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The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel Mass Market Paperback – June 3, 2003
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“Exceptional and engrossing.”—New York Post
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PRAISE FOR KIM STANLEY ROBINSON’S Red Mars WINNER OF THE NEBULA AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL
“A tremendous achievement.”—The Washington Post Book World
“An absorbing novel . . . a scientifically informed imagination of rare ambition at work.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Promises to become a classic . . .This is epic science fiction in the best sense of the term–thoughtful, provoking, and haunting.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
From the Inside Flap
The Years of Rice and Salt
It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur-the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe's population was destroyed. But what if? What if the plague killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been-a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.
This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world's greatest scientific minds-in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions and Christianity is merely a historical footnote.
Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shoresof the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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This review is of a re-read. I am certain fans of KSR's Mars Trilogy ran into a brick wall with this alternate history where the plague decimated Christendom, leaving Buddhism and Islam the world's primary religions. It is a reflective, intensely personal work told through a group of individuals, or jati in Hindu, who progress together through reincarnations from the time of Mohammad until roughly present day.
Each time this group is reborn, they can and often are different genders and different places in the world, but always with a name that starts with the same initial. We are witness to great discoveries (that roughly map to our own history) or quiet reflection on spirituality, religion, god, man, and suffering. There is much religious commentary and one thing I appreciate is a strong thread that discusses the feminist underpinnings of Mohammad's original concept for Islam--and how men in power have altered and abused that thought for their own ends.
The book is lyrical, funny, frightening, and ultimately enlightening. KSR doesn't pull any punches, nor should he, and we get well-formed, well-informed characters and a story that is driven by their desire to make things better for themselves and the world.
I also like how KSR, after the demise of characters in a given situation, has them return to the bardo, a place where their acts in their most recent lives are judged before they are sent back--with no memory of who they were (mostly) -- to live again. In the bardo, it's always about next time we'll do better. But there is always a skeptic and a dreamer. My favorite line was, "We may be in a hallucination here, but that gives you no right to be delusional!"
The second read, as with most books, exposes a richness and it was so easy to settle in, like a well-worn leather chair. If you liked the Mars series for its hard science, you won't find it here. But you will find a very personal reflection on what it means to be human in this world. I think that's why I admire KSR so much, I can go from Galileo's Dream to 2312 to Shaman and enjoy each for what they are. He is a fine, fine writer.
What I like most about The Years... is that it's a *hard* alternate history (as in *hard* sci-fi). It seems authentic and believable because it is firmly grounded in the actual history and geography. Robinson possesses truly encyclopaedic knowledge and isn't afraid to share it with readers; by the end of the book you'll probably learn a lot of new things about China, India, Buddhism, Islam and many other fascinating subjects. At the same time, the novel is pleasantly weird. Its world hits the same major milestones as our world: there is Renaissance of sorts, there is an Age of Exploration and discovery of Americas, there are world wars and nuclear weapons and so on, but at the same time everything is different because all of this is done by the Eastern and Arabic nations. Familiar continents and lands get new names, La Convivencia is actually a thing, feminist movement in Europe has to grapple with Islamic, not Christian, worldview, and so on.
The ten books that comprise the novel are pretty self-containted and vary considerably in tone, pacing and style, ranging from intense, action-filled sequences to lengthy religious and philosophical musings. Towards the last third the novel even partially morphs into a manifesto of sorts, a vision of a better future for this alternative timeline and, by proxy, for the "real" one, since they –surprise, surprise –turn out to be not so different after all. This part can occassionally get a bit sloggy (and seem a little at times) but I'd urge you to persist in spite of it, because the payoff is worth it.
Oddly enough, this is my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and I've seen a lot of folks say that it does not hold a candle to his Mars trilogy. If true, these books probably must be rated 10 out of 5 or something, because I haven't read a novel this original and this expansive in a while. Highly recommended.
The novel is a heady mix of adventure, speculation, religious philosophy and ventures into historiography. For a popular “genre” novel, or any novel for that matter, Robinson deploys an impressive array of knowledge of the cultures he deploys. The world is divided between empires of sub-continent Indians, the Chinese, various Muslim emirates, and a New World empire originating with the Iroquois Confederacy, and expanding to most of North and South America.
Sure, Robinson deploys impressive “historical” knowledge in explaining the big picture of his world (although toward the end, there is a great deal of speech making among the characters, which while important, is probably too long) but ultimately this novel is about characters whose names begin with B and K. They are constantly reincarnated, assuming new guises and, in a sense, evolving as they are reborn.
This is work quite an accomplishment. One has to wonder what a stiff, messy disaster Salmon Rushdie would have done with the same type of material. Robinson avoids this, giving us an entertaining and smart novel; two qualities that are difficult to deliver.
Top international reviews
"The Years Of Rice and Salt" is another example of the "alternative History" sub-genre of SF/Fantasy - the central idea of playing out a scenario in the real world's past, where a change in one or more specific events causes a divergence with the true path of history. Notable examples in the field would be: The Man in the High Castle (Penguin Modern Classics) by Philip K. Dick (The Axis powers win WW2), Pavane (S.F. Masterworks) by Keith Roberts (The Spanish Armada succeed in deposing Queen Elizabeth) and Bring the Jubilee (Millennium SF Masterworks S.) by Ward Moore (The Confederacy win the American Civil War); prolific pulp author Harry Turtledove has created a cottage industry out of these "what if" scenarios. As such it's quite a crowded field for a writer to make his mark. Happily Kim Stanley Robinson has the literary weight, being well respected as an author of "Hard" SF (the "Mars" trilogy), to be taken seriously in any field he chooses to tackle. So how does he do? Pretty well, in the main.
The central conceit in this case is as follows: what if, in the 13th and 14th centuries, instead of circa-30% of Europe's population dying during the Black Death, 99% of them were killed? In other words, what would the last 700 years of Earth history have been like, if you almost entirely remove the influence of White, European (and most crucially) Christian culture? A world without Shakespeare and Hume, Spinoza and Decartes, Newton and Nieztche. Also no Columbus, Cortez or Vasco Da Gama; nor the catastrophes of the Inquisition and Reformation.
It wouldn't be ruining the novel to suggest that you instead fill the vacuum between the other great world religions: Islam and Confucianism/Buddhism. And fill the world they do, with their joint Eastern sensibilities and conflicting ideologies (monotheism versus... polytheism without god? What would you call them?). In this history, the East is the ascendant, all-conquering world force.
Okay, so you have your all-encompassing scenario with it's intriguing premise. The next problem facing the author is: how do you tie together a story that covers 700 years of history without distancing the reader, given that the human lifetimes are so short? Another classic SF novel "Heliconia" faced the same issue and dealt with it by splitting the narrative into 3 distinct phases, each with a focus on a snapshot of time and a small number of characters. "TYORAS" deals with this in a similar way, except with a unique twist. In a nod to the eastern philosophies and themes of reincarnation that permeate the novel, we follow the same loose group of connected "souls" (known as a "jati" in the novel) as they recur in several different lives and cultures (and even species). Each soul can be identified easily by the first letter in their current host's name (e.g B, K, I, S, P etc,etc.) and they carry with them a similar temperament and personality throughout.
Thematically, Robinson appears to have a number of points to make: 1) great ideas tend to have their time 2) The opressed tend to remain oppressed and the rich and powerful tend to say that way too (regardless of who holds the whip) 3) How different world culture would be where the dominant theological and philosophical themes are underlain by a belief in reincarnation and cyclical renewal, rather than original sin, damnation and salvation.
Most of which, I ought to say, does resonate. There are a couple of niggles which make it less than perfect. Firstly, it's quite long and rambling. Some of the passages can tend towards tediousness and there are some deliberate oddities with the narrative which might grate on some. Secondly, the Eastern religious aspect of it can be a little daunting, particularly if, like me, your knowledge of Eastern culture is pretty minimal. Perhaps this is what it's like for people from the East when they come across Euro-Christian culture and literature and are expected to comprehend the many subtle gospel references. I'd also say that, occasionally, the ambition of creating a new culture from scratch WITHOUT referencing our existing culture sometimes defeats the author - you can see him bending over backwards in order to parallel real advances like Newtonian Mechanics, Nuclear physics and Marxism, rather than conceiving of something completely novel. Consequently, the world ends up looking pretty similar, albeit with an Eastern flavour.
Minor criticisms aside, he's managed to achieve that rare thing in SF/Fantasy/Alternative history - real literary flare, a compelling story well-researched, convincingly plotted and masterfully executed. Recommended!
There's some interesting ideas in this book but it really needs the help of a professional editor.
In particular, the first book (the main book is split into ten sub books)- you don't have to end each chapter with, "If you want to know what happened next, read on...". This isn't a Choose Your Own Adventure book and most of us learnt how books work about the same time that we learned how to read.
The Alchemist book also comes across like the author surfed Wikipedia for significant scientific advances then tried to attribute them all to one guy...
Overall: an interesting concept but an uphill slog of a read.
This history, divided into exquisitely written episodes set sometimes hundreds of years apart and in different parts of the world, is a romantic, joyous and uplifting work. Often the tales told are set on the borders between cultures, religions, classes, even between sexes, and profound debates are conducted, often to no great effect, although the point Robinson seems to make is that any examination of the nature of life no matter how trivial has a cumulative effect on the society of the world.
There are some interesting social developments in America where the Native Americans, inspired by an adopted Japanese, form a league of Tribes which resists any incursions by Chinese or Japanese invaders.
Christianity has all but disappeared, and Europe and Asia are composed of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
In his Mars trilogy Robinson managed to create a continuity of narrative over about three hundred years by the device of the longevity serum which kept his main characters alive from the first landing on Mars through its terraforming to its independence and beyond.
Here, as a linking thread through the centuries he employs the unconventional device of reincarnation. Souls travel in groups, we are told, and are often reborn in the same area or reconnect in life. The souls here are recognised in the narrative by their initials since they return with names beginning with K, B and I. In the intermissions between chapters they return to `the Bardo' able, as they were not in the flesh, to recall their past lives. It's an effective device, as it's a metaphor for the evolution of the soul of society as a whole.
The souls cross the boundaries of gender and race, and even at one point, of species, as when the K soul, having murdered in her last life, is reborn as a tiger.
It's a beautiful and poetic novel, and shows once more Robinson's versatility and flare for sheer style and characterisation, ending, as always with KSR books it seems, with hope for the future of humanity.