The Years of Rice and Salt imagines a world without Europeans. As I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, all these little losses kept popping into my head. No Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Jimi Hendrix. No Leonardo da Vinci or Renoir or Michelangelo. No William Shakespeare, no Austen or Dickens. No croissants, lasagna, or sauerkraut and German sausage. It was a strange and interesting experience.
This novel often seems more like a series of short stories than anything else. The narrative travels chronologically through an alternate history where the Black Death plague was three times more deadly than it was in our history. The first chapter sees a pair of Mongol warriors exploring the Balkans and finding ghost towns. Having read some of the accounts of what the Black Death was like, it wasn’t hard to make the same leap Robinson did. One of the tricky things about alternative history, I imagine, is creating a convincing history after the point of divergence. Because the reader will always be wondering if it might really have happened this way. Robinson’s history does progress along roughly the same lines as our own history. There are analogs to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Age of Exploration and World War, all with their own Muslim or Chinese or Indian or Central Asian flavor.
The chapters (and the years) roll by and we meet presumably new characters as they discover North America (Yingzhou), start their own periods of scientific achievement and exploration, and go to war for seventy years. I say presumably, because Robinson makes use of the Buddhist idea of jati (reincarnation through various levels) and follows a handful of souls as they make their way up and down the levels. Occasionally, the chapters are interrupted by visits to bardo, where the souls can remember that they know each other and try to figure out what they learned and what they’re supposed to do in their next existence. The souls’ names always start with the same letter, making it easy to spot who is who until you learn to recognize K’s fierce and angry spirit, B’s spirituality, and I’s intelligence and curiosity.
I appreciated the way that Robinson committed to the idea of a non-European world. He uses the Islamic and Chinese calendars to mark time. As the timeline gets further and further away from the point of divergence, I had to translate technological and scientific terms. For me, the translation was a large part of this book’s charm. Robinson even uses stylistic devices from Chinese literature: sections of poetry dropped into the prose, explanatory notes wedged into the paragraphs they elucidate. Robinson’s talent really shines in this book. It’s almost as if The Years of Rice and Salt comes from this alternate history, too.
It struck me as I read that this was a book about ideas, more than it was about plot or character–reincarnation notwithstanding. There are a few places where the book bogs down as characters ponder history or culture or gender roles. I and K in particular have the academic germ (at least when K’s not leading a revolution or fighting a war), and they can’t resist sharing all their thoughts on reconciling Islam with Confucianism or on why women are so far down the totem pole or on the implications of a heavy metal with an unstable isotope. It would be tempting to skim over them. My advice to other readers is to remember that this is a book about ideas. When the characters start to muse, go with it. You’ll find yourself thinking about history and all the rest in a new light.