The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history in which all of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death. It isn’t your standard kind of alternate history. It covers the whole period from 1451 to 2002 (when it was written) using the same characters, by the method of having them die and be reincarnated multiple times in multiple places, with interludes in the Bardo, the antechamber between lives. The book isn’t really a novel, it’s a series of linked shorter pieces, some of which I love, some of which I like, and one of which I can’t stand. The characters’ names change but they retain the initial so you can tell who they are. Their personalities change with time and experience. Each of the shorter pieces has its own style, some like fairytales, some with footnotes, some very closely focused points of view and others more distanced.
The structure seems at first as if it’s going somewhere and linking the book, but it doesn’t entirely work for me, especially with the way it finishes. I’ll forgive it this because there is one bit where the characters don’t know if they are alive or dead and neither does the reader—that’s not a reading experience I get every day, and I can’t see any other way I might have had it. (Robinson’s good at doing weird things to your reading head. In Icehenge he makes you argue that the first section couldn’t have been made up.) Reincarnation is a fantasy device, but it’s treated much more science-fictionally, even with gods and demons, and there’s a hint late on that it might all be a metaphor. I don’t like that, and I felt there just isn’t enough resolution to the Bardo stuff for me to feel it’s quite justified. On the other hand, I don’t see any other way he could have written about such a vast span of time and space—a more typical dynasty or even sets of dynasties couldn’t possibly have had the range.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s always a hit-and-miss writer for me—I love some of his work and get bored by other things. If you want a calibration, I loved The Wild Shore and Pacific Edge and yawned my way through The Gold Coast. The Years of Rice and Salt does both at once—I love the first two thirds and am wearied by the end. It’s probably the book of his I’ve re-read most frequently, because I keep trying to decide what I think of it. I like the earlier part of it so much more than the later part of it, and that makes it hard to be fair to it when I’ve just finished it. Whenever I start re-reading it I love it, and whenever I finish it I’m ambivalent again.
The most interesting thing The Years of Rice and Salt does is give us an Earth without Europeans, with practically no white people and with no white point of view characters. I don’t think this is something that could have been written much earlier than it was written. SF is still so US-centric that a world with no US at all and with the cultural focus on Islam and China is really startlingly unusual. This was the first book I came across of the recent trend looking at the future of the rest of the planet (Air, River of Gods etc.) and when I first read it I was so uncritically delighted that it existed that I was prepared to overlook anything. I didn’t think about how it’s very convenient that they’re mostly women only in good times for women, the way they never happen to be in Africa or South America or Polynesia and only once (for each character) North Americans. (Kyo does start off African, but he’s taken to China in the Zheng Ho fleet as a boy.)
I think the Chinese and Islamic and Indian cultures are treated respectfully. I haven’t done close-up research into any of them myself, but they don’t contradict anything I do know, and where they are extrapolated it seems solidly done. They certainly feel very real. The book is at its best in the sections where it’s talking about daily life (“rice and salt”) and the way people live and die and are reborn and try to understand the world they find themselves in and make it a better one. I like the alchemists of Samarquand and I like the journeys, but my favourite section is about the widow Kang who has trouble climbing a ladder with her bound feet and who manages to recognise the scholar Ibrahim from previous incarnations. It’s all about life and love and respect and research. Robinson’s also very good on the way the world fits together, the way it is a planet. Someone suggested it on the Great World Novel thread, and part of why I was re-reading it now was to see whether I think it qualifies. I think it does.
Some people who know a lot more about the history of technology and early globalisation have argued with Robinson’s research in this area. I do think there’s too much similarity between his world and the real world—I don’t see why they’d have had a Renaissance analogue or a World War, and I’m not sure the Manchu invasion of China and the White Lotus Rebellion would have happened as scheduled either. I also don’t see why they’d have the same ecological problems we have, when they don’t have a widespread automobile economy and planes are only military with people and freight going in airships—their industrial revolution is sufficiently different that while they’d definitely have some pollution, I don’t think it would look as much like ours as it does. And I’m not convinced people would stay interested in Aristotle.
The whole later section, from the War of the Asuras, seems too closely modeled on us and not sufficiently an outgrowth of the world we’ve seen developing. It also becomes tediously focused on philosophy and considerations of the alternateness of the world. I’d certainly enjoy it much better if it ended before that. I can’t decide if the problems I have with the end are problems with the structure of the book or just that I can’t appreciate what he’s trying to do. I do like that by their 2002 they are as technologically advanced as we are, though they came to it by different paths.
The frame of reincarnation lets Robinson vary the lengths of the segments, and also how much of people’s lives he tells. Sometimes he starts in childhood and goes on until old age, other times it’s a very short time. “Warp and Weft,” the story of a samurai coming to the Hodenosaunee people admiring their political organisation and suggesting immunisation and some useful technological improvements, all takes place in two days. (“What these people need is a... samurai?”) The different style and length of the segments, along with the game of “spot the recurring characters in different forms,” makes it really feel like a cycle of time. I don’t know anything else that does this or even tries to do anything like this. The overall message seems to be “tend your garden and try to make the world better for future generations,” and if I’ve seen more interesting ones, I’ve also seen worse ones.
If you’re looking for science fiction with non-white characters, or fantasy with non-European mythology, or something with a huge span of time that’s aware Earth is a planet, or just something very different from anything else you’re likely to read, then do give this a try.