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The Years of Rice and Salt Hardcover – February 26, 2002

3.5 out of 5 stars 269 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson delivers a thoughtful and powerful examination of cultures and the people who shape them. How might human history be different if 14th-century Europe was utterly wiped out by plague, and Islamic and Buddhist societies emerged as the world's dominant religious and political forces? The Years of Rice and Salt considers this question through the stories of individuals who experience and influence various crucial periods in the seven centuries that follow. The credible alternate history that Robinson constructs becomes the framework for a tapestry of ideas about philosophy, science, theology, and politics.

At the heart of the story are fundamental questions: what is the purpose of life and death? Are we eternal? Do our choices matter? The particular achievement of this book is that it weaves these threads into a story that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. This is a highly recommended, challenging, and ambitious work. --Roz Genessee

From Publishers Weekly

Having revolutionized the novel of planetary exploration with his Nebula- and Hugo-winning Mars trilogy (Red Mars, etc.), Robinson is attempting to do the same to another genre with this highly realistic and credible alternate history. It's the 14th century, and the Black Death has swept through Europe, killing not 30% or 40% of the population but 99%. With Europeans now no more than a historical curiosity, the empires of China and Islam spread rapidly across the world. India, caught between superpowers, struggles to maintain its independence until, fueled by a scientific renaissance, its forces besiege and conquer the great city that in our world would be called Constantinople. The New World is discovered by the Chinese, who rapidly settle the west coast, while an Islamic fleet lands at the mouth of the Mississippi. Eventually, the enlightened Indian nation of Travancore comes to the aid of the beleaguered native people of the New World. New technologies appear as the centuries go by and, as often as not, are applied to military ends. Adding a mystical balance and a human note to this counterfactual history is a small cast of recurring characters who live through each episode of the book as soldiers, slaves, philosophers and kings. Dying, they spend time in the afterlife, only to be reborn into the next era, generally with no knowledge of their past lives. Robinson, who has previously demonstrated his mastery of alternate history in the classic short story "The Lucky Strike" and his Three Californias sequence, has created a novel of ideas of the best sort, filled to overflowing with philosophy, theology and scientific theory. (Mar. 5)Forecast: The restrained jacket art, not at all typical of SF, suggests the publisher is aiming to attract intelligent mainstream readers as well. Certainly the depiction of how a moderate or even a liberal Islamic state might evolve couldn't be more timely.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; First Edition edition (February 26, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553109200
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553109207
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (269 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #570,326 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed this book. The concept (the Black Plague is 99% lethal and entirely wipes out Christian Europe in the 14th century) is very intriguing. Though the book spans 600 years of alternative history from the early 1400s till present day, the author ingeniously makes use of reincarnation as a device to maintain the same basic characters throughout the book ("B" the romanticist nurturer/protector, "K" the rebellious idealist, "I" the warm & inquisitive but detached intellectual, and "S" the self-centered troublemaking jerk.) The book details how China discovers the new world, how a Japanese Samuri teaches the Iroquois tribes to resist the Muslim and Chinese incursions into the New World, how the scientific revolution occurs in Samarkand, how a socially progressive industrial society develops in southern India, and how the entire 20th Century is spent in a massive World War between the Muslim and Chinese halves of the world. All of this is seen through the eyes of the characters, so it becomes a story of individuals caught up in the story of the world rather than just a historical outline.
The book does get a little preachy towards the end, with Robinson spouting off his theories of historiography. It was also a little confusing by the end when he seemed to be trying to undermine his own theory of reincarnation with the secularist/materialist dogma of his characters. I wasn't sure if Robinson was advancing his own views or just relating the views of his characters according to what would be consistent for them during that point in his history. I also thought Robinson failed to provide a compelling ending to his book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am a sucker for alternate histories -- be it (fairly) serious literature like Dick's "Man in the High Castle", silly stuff like Stephen Fry's "Making History" or potboilers like Vaterland. When I read the Salon review of "Years of Rice and Salt", I knew this was a book for me, and I was not too disappointed.
This is an extremely thoughtful, haunting and often poetic view of an alternate world in which the population of Europe was completely killed off by the plague in the 13th century. Europe develops as a culturally stagnant, technologically backward group of Islamic states, earliest in the shadow of more vibrant Islamic societies to the East, and later in the shadow of technologically advanced India and militarily united China. China colonizes most of the New World, with Islam grabbing the eastern regions of North America. The world that develops is familiar in two ways -- first, history overall follows reasonably predictable lines, and second, the particular cultures that survive the plague develop more or less as one would expect from their counterparts in the world we actually live in.
Robinson makes the inspired decision to tell a small-scale human story as well, using the device of reincarnation to allow variants of the same three or four characters (identifiable by their initials) to sort of span 700 years. It's very sweet to see the characters lead different lives, sometimes male, sometimes female, not always human -- always friends or lovers, always engaged in versions of the same struggles and conflicts. Eventually, we figure out that it's the weakest of the central characters that is the focus of the book.
The problem with the book is its ultimate shallowness.
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Format: Hardcover
Kim Stanley Robinson has done it again. This is a beautifully conceived and written book, with charm,
humor, and considerable depth. The reviews, including the editorial review, give too much information
- it is best approached as a blank slate, and that includes not looking to closely at the material
on the dust jacket. Nonetheless, if you would like to know more:
Kim Stanley Robinson revisits the history of the last six hundred years, and rewrites it, fusing Tibetan
buddhism with a classic "what-if" scenario. For the sake of simplicity he does not allow his alternate
history to diverge too radically from our own, all the way up through World War I. There is however a
sentimental streak in Robinson, and he allows common sense just a little more scope at the end than has
actually prevailed in the modern world.
I did wonder, reading this, who the audience would be. Not everyone who was taken with the
Mars Trilogy or the Three Californias would necessarily want to swim in these depths.
Robinson does supply a detailed time-line on page 1, and the main calendar in use is the Islamic one,
beginning in our 622 A.D.
(Though it is a lunar calendar, simply adding 622 to the Islamic date gives a fair approximation to the
Christian calendar - and one can always consult the time-line on the first page.)
From this point on I'll allow myself some "spoiler" remarks, so if you want to read the book fresh, stop here.
The premise is that the European plague of 1347-1349 mutated and wiped out the bulk of Europe half
a century later. The history that follows on this is both political and
intellectual/scientific/technological, and the latter seems to drive the former.
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