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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!
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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.
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on 11 March 2003
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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on 13 June 2017
Excellent and thought-provoking counterfactual. Its long and has quite a lot of philosophy of history, which may not suit some but I liked that aspect of it.
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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.
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on 29 January 2003
I enjoyed this book, but not as much as the 'Mars Trilogy'. 'The Years of Rice and Salt' begins splendidly with a dazzling trip around the medieval world beyond Europe: we visit China, India and the Middle East and see the wealth of beauty of civilisations that we in the West never learn about in our Eurocentric history lessons. Robinson successfully raises the question of what the world would have been like if the Europeans had suddenly died.
The first few chapters are stunning and imaginative, but as the story progresses the inspiration seems to run dry. There's a very tedious chapter in which two alchemists in Samarkand discover a vast number of scientific principles and inventions. They are like Galileo, Newton, Edison, Einstein and da Vinci all at once and it's completely unconvincing, since no explanation is given as to why these particular guys have the ability to invent everything. And the final chapter is a rather dull let-down with lots of pontificating about history but not a scrap of a plot.
Having said that, several chapters are wonderful, especially the mesmerising description of the Chinese discovery of America from the West. However, the sections set in America also contain the most glaring flaw: Robinson forgets to mention the Aztecs, a civilisation whose central city, Tenochtitlan, is believed to have been the biggest city in the world at the time the novel begins. While we can assume they were wiped out by smallpox or Chinese invasion this is never stated or discussed, and the omission nagged at my brain all through the reading process.
In summary, if you enjoy Robinson's leisurely style and tendency to pontificate, as evidenced in the 'Mars' trilogy, you'll like this book, but be aware that it needed a good deal more editing than it has been given.
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on 18 April 2010
This was a strange book for me. It seemed to be something between an alternative history novel and a philisophical novel. The best comparison i can make is that it is a mixture of Harry Turtledove and the French writer Bernard Werber.

I agree with the previous review which says that the book is effectively a collection of short stories which are linked by the fact that the they are in the same story Universe and the characters are apparently reincarnated.

The reincarnation element is a bit strange and I can't help getting the feeling that it is more a plot device to link the characters of the different stories than anything else. But it may also simply an expression of the authori's belief that reincarantion is a possibility, although the idea is also criticised and discussed by the characters.

As to the stories themselves, they are a mixed bag. Often it just follows the lives of the character in each stories and their influence on the world. The pacing is quite variable. In some cases, it seems to go slow while in other cases decades can pass in a few lines. Some of the stories seemed to go on for too long, where other stories that I was really enjoying seemed to end abrubtly as i was just getting into it.

The one thing that I found a little dissapointing was that there was not a lot of action. But that is more an example of not judging a book from its cover since my version has a picture of a ruthless looking islamic warrior on it. There is war and battles, but it is usually described in summarised 3rd hand form rather than happening in real life for the most part.

In saying that, I have to say I enjoyed the book and it did keep my attention most of the time. I did enjoy reading about the alternative world and especially enjoyed the debates on religion and philosophy that took place in the book, which were actually enhanced by the fact that they were not compared to Christianity, as just about everything is now adays.

In some ways there was not enough detail on how the world develops. One moment, you are in the middle ages and then suddenly the stories shift to the industrial age. And I found myself fiding it diffidult to imagine the modern age after reading about the middle age environment for so long. Also, the cultures were very summarised and it was quite difficult to imagine what they were really like except for a few cases.

Anyway, I found it to be worth a read if you are looking for a varied philosophical story novel in an alternative universe and not expecting lots of real time action.

But if you are expecting lots of action, I would give this a miss.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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