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The Years of Rice and Salt [Hardcover]

Kim Stanley Robinson
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 Mar 2002

The Great Plague destroyed Europe. Now the world’s a different place … From the award-winning author of the Mars trilogy, ‘the ultimate in future history’ (Daily Mail), comes the most ambitious alternate history novel ever written.

As Bold Bardash, a horseman in the army of Temur the Lame, rides west across the steppe and on to the Magyar Plain, he comes across a town in which everyone lies dead. Long dead. Plague has struck Europe. Kali’s black blanket has fallen over the lands of the West and nothing will ever be the same again.

Into this empty land pour the opportunists: the merchants, slavers and warlords. The Chinese cross the oceans in their huge fleets; the Arabs traverse the deserts by camel and mule and the Mediterranean by dhow. The last Europeans are killed or enslaved – consigned to the seraglios of the sultans. So die the ancestors of Da Vinci and Copernicus; Columbus and Machiavelli; the Spanish Inquisition and the Conquistators; Shakespeare, Newton and the Pilgrim Fathers; Einstein and Hitler. And the world becomes a different place.

In this extraordinarily ambitious, poetic and powerful novel, Kim Stanley Robinson takes us on a journey through seven hundred years of history as it never was, but might have been.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st Edition edition (4 Mar 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002246791
  • ISBN-13: 978-0002246798
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.3 x 5.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 535,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kim Stanley Robinson has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. He is the author of over twenty previous books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the highly acclaimed FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN. He lives in Davis, California.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Kim Stanley Robinson's ambitious exploration of alternative history in The Years of Rice and Salt poses the daunting question "How would our world have developed without Europe?" (Or, rather, without European culture?) When the scouts of the Mongol leader Temur the Lame (Tamburlaine) enter Hungary in 1405, they find only emptiness and death. Plague has swept Europe off the gameboard of history.

The centuries that follow are initially dominated by expanding Islamic nations and the monolithic Chinese empire. It's a grand chronicle of rising and falling cultures, with individuals forever struggling to make a difference to the slow-motion landslide of events. Extra continuity is given by a touch of fantasy as the Buddhist wheel of reincarnation brings back the same characters (coded by initials) again and again with varied roles, relations and sexes. Their stories are touching and very human.

Episodes of our own history are artfully echoed. America is discovered by Chinese ships from the west, with fateful effects for the native tribes and the "Inka" theocracy further south. The scientific ideas of da Vinci's Renaissance are reflected by the Alchemist of Samarkand, reluctantly devising fresh weapons of war. New forms of government arise. Islamic splinter groups move into empty Europe and in that softer climate develop dangerous notions like feminism. A First World War eventually comes, later than we'd expect but horribly prolonged.

Then Muslim scientists begin to see the implications of the mass-energy theories of a savant from the Indian subcontinent:

Invisible worlds, full of energy and power: sub-atomic harems, each pulsing on the edge of a great explosion...There was no escaping the latent violence at the heart of things. Even the stones were mortal.

This immense tapestry of history that never happened is constantly illuminated by the small comedies, tragedies, romances and triumphs of memorably real individuals. The Years of Rice and Salt is a brave new landmark in alternate history, deservedly shortlisted for the British SF Association and Arthur C Clarke awards. --David Langford --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"a marvellous creation...Robinson writes beautifully....there are passages of narrative that are as good as it gets" -- The Times on Saturday

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars History without Europe 27 July 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Robinson's novel is an exercise in hypothetical history writing : how would the world's history have looked like if the entire population of medieval Europe had been wiped out by the plague and Temur's hordes had only encountered an empty wasteland ?
Robinson sketches the answer in ten chapters that deal with a period of approximately six centuries, describing the development of predominantly Musulman and Chinese empires through the experiences of a number of central characters whose fates are intertwined during succesive reincarnations.
In Robinson's hypothetical world history two major powerhouses come into being : the Chinese through sheer numbers are set to dominate a large part of the world, whereas Islam forges a far more fractitioned counterweight. In the end both world powers exhaust themselves in a long world war, setting the scene for a flourishing of other hitherto minor powers, India and - more surprisingly - the Hodenausaunee league of North American prairie indians.
In this thematically rich novel, Robinson meditates about a large number of themes : the influence of religion on state and culture, the optimal organisation of society and government, the development of science and its relation with religion and its impact on the balance of power between nations, the degrees of freedom in historical developments, the importance of women taking their place in society as the equals of men, the importance of the development of supranational scientific and governing bodies.
Quite a mouthful. Does Robinson pull it off ? Ambitious novels like these are bound to fail : their scope is simply to wide and in this case even 772 pages can hardly suffice to provide all the required answers. The quality of the different chapters is pretty uneven.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best KSR novel ever. 19 May 2002
By A Customer
I've just finished reading KSR's latest, and greatest novel. If you've read any of his previous books, you'll find the the same qualities; attention to detail bordering on obsessive, beautiful, rich narrative which describes people & places with such colour that one feels as though one is remembering a personal experience. The trademark tiny flashes of humour; a line here, a phrase there.
This novel is a good deal more accesible than the Mars trilogy; you don't need to be a historian to enjoy it (though I did learn a great deal about our actual history). Rather, this book is about personal relationships, with the historical events often appearing as background, rather than the principal subject. Using reincarnation as the plot device to carry the same characters through almost 1000 years, I really became attached to the characters through the book, much more than I did with the Mars characters.
As the story of the world-without-Europeans unfolds, 'B', 'K' and 'I' continually meet each other in a succession lives, and slowly begin to realise that they knew each other in previous re-incarnations. And between lives, they re-group and attempt to lay a kind of path for themselves, always to be re-born as different people, but always as the same individuals.
Up to this point, 'Pacific Edge' has been my favourite KSR book; The Years of Rice and Salt now takes the lead. Take a week-end off and eat, drink and live this book; you'll have a new appetite for knowledge of the world around you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very good but flawed 11 Mar 2003
By A Customer
I enjoyed this book and it certainly is a good idea. It follows the characters of K, B and I through 1000 years of alternative history. Each chapter is a short story set in a different place and time and uses the 3 main characters plus a few others repeatedly as reincarnations of the same souls. Some others commented on the nature of the characters but to me they seem Hindu, K is Kali (always trying to change things), B is Brahma (looking for order), though I am not sure who I is supposed to be.
The book has some really good chapters, I particularly liked the idea of the Japanese being forced into exile in North America by the Chinese and forming an alliance with the Native Americans. The Chinese discovery of North America is also well handled.
The flaws of the book are in two areas. As others have commented the book runs out of steam a bit towards the end though I enjoyed the last chapter and the ending. The Great War is not properly told and the section on the Chinese revolution could be a lot more interesting given a bit more space. The penultimate chapter about Nsara is boring and adds nothing to the history. Secondly I think he overstretches himself on the philosophy. He attempts to educate the reader on non Christian world religions such as Islam and Buddhism and has some success. However there is always an obvious anti Islamic bias, particularly regarding Islam's treatment of women. He may have a valid point but he goes on and on and on about it. And as he points out himself women weren't much better treated in other cultures. Eventually he falls into the trap of having to have a 'War of Civilizations' between Islam and the rest. Sound familiar?
All in all though a good and interesting book. It's a great idea and a better writer could have made something spectacular out it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Oriental" alternate history of the world 6 Jun 2009
When the Mongol hordes reach Europe to fulfill their destiny of plunder and destruction, they find it empty... The whole population has been wiped out by the Pleague.
This is the premise on which the book is built. We then follow eight centuries of alternate world history, in a world without Westerners. Chinese discover the New World, Muslims settle in Europe, and everything is completely different.

The book is written from a non-Western perspective. For instance, what makes us care about the characters that we meet over the centuries is that they are successive reincarnation of the same limited number of people. Since the author is still an American, the result is a narrator that is neither fully oriental nor fully familiar, which is exactly the kind of alien feel that makes this alternate history credible.

This is one of the best book I've read, and it towers high over all attempts at alternate history. In that domain we are usually treated either to fantasy worlds without credible links with real history, or with "what if" scenarios that make very little change compared to actual events, and often maintain a very close contact with real history. However, in the "Years of rice and salt", we diverge from history in the late middle ages and never look back.

The book gets weaker as we near the twentieth century, the parallels with history as it really happened get closer. As the scale of the events grows larger and more complex, we are reaching the limits of what a single author-reader pair can achieve, and we progressively "get lost" in the third part of the book.

Still, definitely 5-stars for me, the "6-stars" first half making up for the 4-star last part.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars tedious
This book at first glance combined many topics I adore, but I fear it will be one of the few books I can't bear to finish. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Blissra
3.0 out of 5 stars Great concept, badly executed
Kim is obviously a very knowledgeable fellow but not the sort of guy you'd like to get stuck with at a party. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Johno
4.0 out of 5 stars The Journey is the Reward
Kim Stanley Robinson's book follows a small group through a half millenium of alternate history, from when the Black Death wipes out most of Europe to roughly the present time. Read more
Published on 3 Jun 2011 by John M. Ford
4.0 out of 5 stars Esoteric, quirky and illuminating
Where to start with this epic...

"The Years Of Rice and Salt" is another example of the "alternative History" sub-genre of SF/Fantasy - the central idea of playing out a... Read more
Published on 9 April 2011 by Mr. Joel C. A. Cooney
1.0 out of 5 stars So Slooow
I've loved this author's other stuff (Mars trilogy). I hated this book. The idea is ok. An alternative earth where Europe is wiped out by plague and China becomes the dominant... Read more
Published on 2 Aug 2010 by Mr. N. J. Keighley
4.0 out of 5 stars marvellous
An enjoyable meander through the interwoven multiple incarnations of several persons. It takes place in a parallel reality that peels further away from our own history, as the... Read more
Published on 22 April 2010 by peteb
4.0 out of 5 stars Unusual but enjoyable book
This was a strange book for me. It seemed to be something between an alternative history novel and a philisophical novel. Read more
Published on 18 April 2010 by Moray Greig
1.0 out of 5 stars KSR's worst book
I bought this book as I'd enjoyed Robinson's other books so much, particularly the Mars trilogy. While it started out well, The Years of Rice and Salt descended quickly into... Read more
Published on 15 Jan 2009 by Christopher Ward
5.0 out of 5 stars Europe without Europeans
Robinson takes the basic premise of that of Christopher Evans' `Aztec Century'. There, the plague devastated Europe to the extent that social progress was halted, allowing the... Read more
Published on 20 Sep 2006 by Rod Williams
2.0 out of 5 stars great idea, poor execution
I bought it on the strenth of the premise alone and struggled to ever engage with a book I dearly wanted to. Read more
Published on 9 Jun 2006 by Tom
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