on 30 September 2003
Subject-wise, _The Years of Rice and Salt_ pushed all the right buttons for me - opening with a Journey to the West pastiche was always going to score it points, then there was a section set in Samarkand, quotations from Ibn Khaldun, and some deftly-drawn portraits of medieval China. I'm a sucker for a) cleverness, and b) well-crafted settings outside the pseudo-medieval fantasy norm, and this book hits both markers. So I wanted desperately to like it. In some ways, I did.
But there are two fundamental flaws, in my opinion. Firstly, the device of reincarnating the same set of characters fails; none of said characters are distinctive or memorable enough from life to life, and so end up being effectively 'new' in every section/time period. There's little chance for the reader to develop any emotional investment before the section ends and the whole thing starts again, and it becomes difficult to truly care.
Its second problem is, curiously, its lack of scope and vision. While the novel's stage is an entire world over six or so centuries, the device of keeping the characters together in each incarnation means that each section concentrates on one small area, robbing the narrative of the benefits of multiple, varied viewpoints. The scale is narrow rather than epic, and the action tends to get bogged down in details. This would be fine if the details were used to build character or illuminate the larger picture - the themes of this alternate, Europe-less world - but a lot of it reads like navel-gazing.
Many of the truly interesting implications are skipped over in favour of scientists ahead of their time discovering exactly the same things at almost exactly the same time their counterparts did in the non-fictional world, as if Robinson feels that certain universal boxes must be checked along the road to 'development', whatever the structure or imperatives of a society. (Meanwhile, literature, drama and art get short shrift). Often even the same words are used - I know little about the history of scientific thought, but would a world whose development was shaped by Arabs and Chinese still have used so many Greek and Latinate constructions to label their deeds? (okay, so he can get away with Greek, Islamic scholars were big on Greek. but still).
While there are glimpses of greater things - Buddhist attitudes and beliefs are used very well, and the different trajectory of American history is intriguing, but frustratingly underexplored - Robinson seems to be more interested in following a pretty conventional path. Perhaps dictated by his reincarnation device, he surrenders to the temptation to work towards a conclusion, as if human history could have ultimate purposes or goals. (I imagine one could argue that this reflects the world-view of those he writes about, but intentional or not it doesn't work!). Ultimately, this is too big a topic for one novel, and in trying to cover everything the author spreads himself too thinly, and ends up short-changing a fascinating world.
Despite these caveats, this remains a hugely enjoyable and memorable read, a rich tapestry of cultures and ideas rarely explored in genre fiction. Worth a look.
on 9 April 2011
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 scenario in the real world's past, where a change in one or more specific events causes a divergence with the true path of history. Notable examples in the field would be: The Man in the High Castle (Penguin Modern Classics) by Philip K. Dick (The Axis powers win WW2), Pavane (S.F. Masterworks) by Keith Roberts (The Spanish Armada succeed in deposing Queen Elizabeth) and Bring the Jubilee (Millennium SF Masterworks S.) by Ward Moore (The Confederacy win the American Civil War); prolific pulp author Harry Turtledove has created a cottage industry out of these "what if" scenarios. As such it's quite a crowded field for a writer to make his mark. Happily Kim Stanley Robinson has the literary weight, being well respected as an author of "Hard" SF (the "Mars" trilogy), to be taken seriously in any field he chooses to tackle. So how does he do? Pretty well, in the main.
The central conceit in this case is as follows: what if, in the 13th and 14th centuries, instead of circa-30% of Europe's population dying during the Black Death, 99% of them were killed? In other words, what would the last 700 years of Earth history have been like, if you almost entirely remove the influence of White, European (and most crucially) Christian culture? A world without Shakespeare and Hume, Spinoza and Decartes, Newton and Nieztche. Also no Columbus, Cortez or Vasco Da Gama; nor the catastrophes of the Inquisition and Reformation.
It wouldn't be ruining the novel to suggest that you instead fill the vacuum between the other great world religions: Islam and Confucianism/Buddhism. And fill the world they do, with their joint Eastern sensibilities and conflicting ideologies (monotheism versus... polytheism without god? What would you call them?). In this history, the East is the ascendant, all-conquering world force.
Okay, so you have your all-encompassing scenario with it's intriguing premise. The next problem facing the author is: how do you tie together a story that covers 700 years of history without distancing the reader, given that the human lifetimes are so short? Another classic SF novel "Heliconia" faced the same issue and dealt with it by splitting the narrative into 3 distinct phases, each with a focus on a snapshot of time and a small number of characters. "TYORAS" deals with this in a similar way, except with a unique twist. In a nod to the eastern philosophies and themes of reincarnation that permeate the novel, we follow the same loose group of connected "souls" (known as a "jati" in the novel) as they recur in several different lives and cultures (and even species). Each soul can be identified easily by the first letter in their current host's name (e.g B, K, I, S, P etc,etc.) and they carry with them a similar temperament and personality throughout.
Thematically, Robinson appears to have a number of points to make: 1) great ideas tend to have their time 2) The opressed tend to remain oppressed and the rich and powerful tend to say that way too (regardless of who holds the whip) 3) How different world culture would be where the dominant theological and philosophical themes are underlain by a belief in reincarnation and cyclical renewal, rather than original sin, damnation and salvation.
Most of which, I ought to say, does resonate. There are a couple of niggles which make it less than perfect. Firstly, it's quite long and rambling. Some of the passages can tend towards tediousness and there are some deliberate oddities with the narrative which might grate on some. Secondly, the Eastern religious aspect of it can be a little daunting, particularly if, like me, your knowledge of Eastern culture is pretty minimal. Perhaps this is what it's like for people from the East when they come across Euro-Christian culture and literature and are expected to comprehend the many subtle gospel references. I'd also say that, occasionally, the ambition of creating a new culture from scratch WITHOUT referencing our existing culture sometimes defeats the author - you can see him bending over backwards in order to parallel real advances like Newtonian Mechanics, Nuclear physics and Marxism, rather than conceiving of something completely novel. Consequently, the world ends up looking pretty similar, albeit with an Eastern flavour.
Minor criticisms aside, he's managed to achieve that rare thing in SF/Fantasy/Alternative history - real literary flare, a compelling story well-researched, convincingly plotted and masterfully executed. Recommended!
on 6 June 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.
on 19 May 2002
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.
on 20 September 2006
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 Aztec civilisation to progress, explore and develop technologically. In Robinson's alternate world the plague rampaged through Europe in the 14th Century and wiped out virtually the entire population. This, when the Mongols began exploring from the East, they discovered an empty land.
This history, divided into exquisitely written episodes set sometimes hundreds of years apart and in different parts of the world, is a romantic, joyous and uplifting work. Often the tales told are set on the borders between cultures, religions, classes, even between sexes, and profound debates are conducted, often to no great effect, although the point Robinson seems to make is that any examination of the nature of life no matter how trivial has a cumulative effect on the society of the world.
There are some interesting social developments in America where the Native Americans, inspired by an adopted Japanese, form a league of Tribes which resists any incursions by Chinese or Japanese invaders.
Christianity has all but disappeared, and Europe and Asia are composed of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
In his Mars trilogy Robinson managed to create a continuity of narrative over about three hundred years by the device of the longevity serum which kept his main characters alive from the first landing on Mars through its terraforming to its independence and beyond.
Here, as a linking thread through the centuries he employs the unconventional device of reincarnation. Souls travel in groups, we are told, and are often reborn in the same area or reconnect in life. The souls here are recognised in the narrative by their initials since they return with names beginning with K, B and I. In the intermissions between chapters they return to `the Bardo' able, as they were not in the flesh, to recall their past lives. It's an effective device, as it's a metaphor for the evolution of the soul of society as a whole.
The souls cross the boundaries of gender and race, and even at one point, of species, as when the K soul, having murdered in her last life, is reborn as a tiger.
It's a beautiful and poetic novel, and shows once more Robinson's versatility and flare for sheer style and characterisation, ending, as always with KSR books it seems, with hope for the future of humanity.
on 22 November 2013
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. There's only 200 pages left to go, but now each new life just feels like a drone of words, the characters are dull, the events repetitive somehow even though they are different characters, different locations. I almost feel like I've lost the plot along with the author, what was it supposed to be about again? To be honest I don't see the 'world without europe' aspect at all, all of these scenarios could have taken place with europe in existance. I also don't see a strong correlation between characters in each life, it's not obvious who is who or if they're making any progression. Sadly I haven't read any of this author's other works and the other reviews indicate they are superior, but I don't think I could stand reading anything else by KSR.
on 27 July 2004
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. Some eras are better worked out than others. Robinsons is however clear on at least three issues.
In order to survive humankind needs to forge crossborder and crosstribe alliances or leagues that foster cooperation and understanding.
Scientific progress is inevitable. Discoveries by Western luminaries like Galileo, Newton, Einstein, e.a. would have been made in other cultures anyway, even though local circumstances can have a far ranging impact on the dissemination and practical application of these insights. What matters is if and how the international community manages to deal with the challenges offered by new scientific developments.
Religions do not have timeless answers to timeless questions. They each have their own roots and genesis, which determine in turn the nature of the answers they provide. When society however moves too far away from the origins of a specific religion, the answers provided by that religion may no longer be relevant.
As already said, all this and more is packaged in ten chapters covering 600 years and 772 pages. In order to get some continuity in his story the author chooses to re-use a number of characters in different reincarnations. This allows him to jump from one era to another, from one continent and culture to another. In the end this may not have been such a happy choice as it sidetracks us from the main storylines, it fails mainly to create a sense of unity in the novel anyway and moreover it unnecessarily alienates readers who do not believe in reincarnation, thereby undermining the credibility of the rest of the story. The author includes even a number of scenes "in bardo", the buddhist limbo where souls await reincarnation and meditate on previous lives, the unfairness of the gods (so they exist anyway ?) and the sense of reincarnation if one cannot remember past experiences in a new life. The reincarnation approach even lands a character in the body of a tiger in one chapter...
At the end I remained with mixed feelings. On the one hand one is to consider this book a tour de force that often succesfully attempts to give valuable insights in the questions raised above. On the other hand it fails as a novel through lack of unity and the fact that the stories in themselves are very uneven in quality. I dread to say it, but maybe Robinson should have refrained from cramming all his ideas in a single book and have treated is as a - aargh - trilogy...
on 17 September 2003
This is a massive and ambitious work, perhaps too ambitious as it attempts to show how the world would have developed if the Black Death of 14th century Europe had been even more virulent, and instead of wiping out a third of the population it wipes out just about everyone in Europe. In doing so, KSR has set himself the task of recreating almost 700 years of history and all the geo-political, philosophical, religious, and scientific ideas and events that would occur in that span. In some ways, he comes close to succeeding, managing to present viewpoints that are probably very foreign to most Christians in at least a semi-understandable manner. But he also falls off the wagon at times and deteriorates into pedagogy and diatribe.
The book starts very slowly, following a single individual as he treks through the incredibly deserted lands of the newly depopulated Europe, and really doesn't pick up speed until we reach The Alchemist, where we see a grand flowering of scientific investigation, paralleling the accomplishments of Newton, Leibnitz, and other European researchers, but from a Muslim viewpoint. Here for the first time in the book do we get some depth to the characters, and a first peek at the overriding theme of the book, on the power and obligation of the individual to do his utmost to change the world for the better, even if only by a miniscule amount.
From here on the book is very uneven. Some sections, such as the ones detailing the events in the New World, are fascinating for their different development from our own history. Others bog down in debates over very foreseeable changes in and clashes between various religions (mainly Islam and Buddhism) and their sub-sects.
Part of the problem here is his set of continuing, re-incarnated characters between each major section. At just about the point where you become interested in these people, where they have real faces and recognizable emotions and problems, that section will end, and in the following section you have new characters, who have some of the traits of the earlier ones, but often the relationship is not obvious, and the character's names are strange enough to cause additional problems in recognition. Another problem is KSR's depiction of the bardo, where souls go prior to re-incarnation. His description of this spiritual plane never made a concrete image for me, nor did it seem to make much logical sense. And finally, KSR's commitment to the ideal of communism at times becomes too strident, with too much of a sugar-coated outlook on the possibility of changing human nature to where that ideal could really form a workable society.
So what is good? The grand sweep of this book will eventually catch you up in its implacability, the sense of inevitableness as KSR's imagined world shows so many striking, logical, and ultimately depressing parallels to our own. And by presenting some of the basic tenants of Islam in this fictional form, the reader will come away with a better appreciation of this religion and the possible power of its adherents as a force for good and enlightened investigation into all aspects of the world. Some of the poetry within these pages will evoke an awed feeling of 'this captures this feeling, this moment, exactly.'
A grand idea, an impressive attempt, but with too many flaws to be considered great. Still, it shows that KSR is not afraid of attempting something new, something that would give most authors a bad case of palsy to even consider.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on 6 May 2003
As a history addict, particularly ancient and medieval, I always find fascinating any scenario of what might have been and never was. The central idea of this book - a world shaped not by Christian European influence but by the East, that being Islam, India or China, seemed a very good start. And, having read the "Mars Trilogy" by the same writer, I was expecting much, maybe too much.
Well the book is not bad. It focuses on particular moments of this alternate History of Mankind, following a set of characters through successive reincarnations, as they try to understand themselves and the world around them, always trying to make it a better place in the small way that they can. I believe we could do very well without the reincarnations and the intervals in "Bardo" as the writer puts it. The book would loose nothing of its narrative potential and we would not have the trouble trying to follow which is which every time.
Otherwise, the general impression is that, although History is changed, it basically remains the same since the same gross and terrible mistakes are made by different peoples and nations.
I would not go so far as discourage anyone reading the book, I enjoyed it personally. But the overall impression is one of a really great book that it might have been, and sadly never was.
on 9 January 2013
Kim is obviously a very knowledgeable fellow but not the sort of guy you'd like to get stuck with at a party.
There's some interesting ideas in this book but it really needs the help of a professional editor.
In particular, the first book (the main book is split into ten sub books)- you don't have to end each chapter with, "If you want to know what happened next, read on...". This isn't a Choose Your Own Adventure book and most of us learnt how books work about the same time that we learned how to read.
The Alchemist book also comes across like the author surfed Wikipedia for significant scientific advances then tried to attribute them all to one guy...
Overall: an interesting concept but an uphill slog of a read.