Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy: Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1995) chart the future trajectory of a martian colony, and the terraforming project that remaps the surface. It’s a complicated trilogy, with a strong focus on issues of political governance and technological development. More recently, Robinson has published his Science in the Capital series, with Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007), which explores issues of politics and climate change.

One of Robinson’s more interesting works however, is The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), an alternate history novel where the Black Plague wipes out European civilization, charting the progress of a world dominated by Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist, Confuscianist and Hindu culture and philosophies. It’s a long novel, spanning almost 800 pages. This book is composed of several smaller narratives, linked together by the reincarnation of the different characters, charting the time between 1405 CE to 2002 CE. I didn’t find that the individual narratives linked together strongly enough, the piece as a whole felt rather disjointed.

Where Robinson’s story excels is in the imagining of the development of this world. With the void left by European Christianity, a different form of colonialism takes place. North America is actually colonized from the west coast, by Chinese explorers.

While I appreciate Robinson’s vision, the end result of his alternate history is still uncomfortably similar to our history today: “Things were better but not in any rapid marked way. Different but in some ways the same. People still fought, corruption infected the new institutions, it was always a struggle. Everything took much longer than anyone had anticipated, and every few years everything was also somehow entirely different. The pulse of history’s long duration was much slower than an individual’s time” (724). The later sections of the book tend to loop back, becoming ever more philosophical in nature.

Where The Years of Salt and Rice excels is in telling the individual stories which convey the different vector in which history takes. I found the Mars trilogy to focus too much on the long view of history, especially when genetic engineering dramatically lengthens human lifespans. By focusing on much shorter sections of the intimate lives of characters, this novel provides not only the overall trajectory of the story, but also the specific details that bring the world to life. However, as others, such as Jo Walton have pointed out, this devolves towards the end of the novel. It’s a story with a great premise, but the narrative breaks down in the end.

Sadly, the sudden change in political climate post-9/11 limited the initial reception of the text. A novel in which Christianity is all but wiped out in the 14th century, and in which Muslims compete with the Chinese as the two major world superpowers would be seen as offensive in the sudden xenophobia that washed over North America in the wake of the September 11th attacks. While The Years of Rice and Salt won the Locus Award in 2003, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids. While I can’t quite argue with this, as I believe that Sawyer’s more personal narrative structure was more effective, I think that far fewer people ended up reading Robinson’s novel than it deserved.

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