Re: The Years of Rice and Salt

You probably already know that The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson tells an alternate history where the Black Plague wiped out Christian Europe, which leaves a world dominated by Buddhists and Muslims. This gives you a good excuse to explore parts of world history we don’t hear so much about.  As the generations pass, other wanderers are added to the “lost Christians”:  Jews, Armenians, and Zott (Roma). And as the generations pass, we see the same characters reborn: the Mystic, the Fighter, the Intellectual, and the Selfish jerk who makes trouble for the first three. There’s a couple other recurring characters, but so minor, I often missed them. After a few chapters you come to expect that just when they’re about to really make a difference, a natural disaster will kill them off. And then they regroup in the bardo.

Here, the bardo is an afterlife that the dead mustpass through, be judged, and sent to the next lives. The nature of the bardo changes–sometimes Mohammed sits in judgment, sometimes the biggest, baddest Chinese bureaucracy ever–but even unbelievers pass through it. The Fighter rebels in protest over the whole system. Nor does he cut the Mystic any slack:

“I’m sick of love and happiness–I want justice.”

When they take counsel together, they do a little better in the next lives. Still, much of the same kind of history happens, just with different actors. A couple of the biggest differences are made through the extraordinary (verging on unbelievable) efforts of particular heroes. The most progress comes when the Fighter is in charge, refusing to accept the world as it is.

I like how the book comments on itself, toward the end, discussing various ideas of reincarnation and various theories of history.  For instance, are we reading about the same people being reborn and making critical contributions to world history in each life, or just the same kinds of people?And while things do get better, I’m not sure whether the ending is a moment of hope or a promise of more of the same.

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4 responses to “Re: The Years of Rice and Salt

  1. As you probably know, Pam, I love KSR. But this one had mixed reviews and the whole rebirth cycle thing has put me off. So while it’s been on my reading list since it came out, I still haven’t gotten around to it. Your comments fall in line with other reviews I’ve read, if I interpret you right. “Meh.”

  2. I liked many of the life stories told, and some of my favorite bits happen in the bardo, but as you get toward the end of the book, you start to wonder what’s the point of this exercise? His world without Christian Europe ends up looking and acting an awful lot like contemporary Western Civilization. Kind of a roundabout way of saying “people are pretty much the same.”

    So which KSR books would you recommend?

  3. Yeah, I really get angry with books that make me wonder why I’m reading them 200 or more pages in. With his writing, that could happen 400 pages in. Laconic, he ain’t.

    I haven’t read them in years now, but I thought the Mars books were some of the best modern (post-1970) hard scifi ever. Not the liveliest at times in terms of plot, but in some ways almost good enough to be a manual for colonizing ye old Red Planet.

    I read The Memory of Whiteness years and years ago. It’s an odd book, again, kind of heftier on the ideas and lighter on the action, but sometimes that’s how a book needs to be. Things about it have stuck with me. Strangely, 40 Signs of Rain is still sitting on my shelf unread. Too many books, too little time.

    I know he’s not for everyone, but he has a permanent seat in my reader’s pantheon.

  4. I thought you were going to mention the Mars books. I found Red Mars such a hard slog, I haven’t gone on. It does read like a manual for colonizing Mars, though I have heard KSR deny it. I kept wanting to argue with the book’s premises and had trouble believing some of the characters’ motivations. That’s probably why I loved the way it all came crashing down at the end.

    I am interested in the 40-50-60 series, if only because so few SF writers have even tried to tackle global warming. But that’s another rant.