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The Years of Rice and Salt Mass Market Paperback – June 3, 2003
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
In the Mars trilogy, I started out not really caring about the characters, they were just there to express the aspects of Mars, but by the end they had grown and developed and aged to the extend that I was surprised by the emotional connection I felt toward them. This could have happened in this book, because the characters are 'reincarnated' between sections. Yet the opposite occurred - I cared about them in the first few sections and was saddened by their demise as they went along ... but by the last few sections the characters were lost among more and more sections of dull philosophical musings and I found myself caring less and less about them.
I was also distracted by some of the conventions the author chose to adopt to give an alternative 'feel' to the universe. I couldn't follow the dates at all so I couldn't mentally compare the timeline to actual history. Continents, elements, weights and measures were given different names which confused me more than once. Some of this (like the timeline) was meant to be explained by figures in the book but I had the Kindle edition and it was very difficult/impossible to read them.