Kim Stanley Robinson,
The Years of Rice and Salt
(Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2002)

The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternative history of the world, diverging from our own historical time-line at that point in the 14th century when the Great Plague, or Black Death, swept Europe. In this version of history a much more virulent strain of the plague kills off completely the population of Europe -- no Christopher Columbus, no Popes, no Napoleon or Hitler.

Now it is China and civilizations of the East that rise to dominate the world. The narrative finishes at a time approximating the present giving it a span of about 700 years of human history, a tall order even allowing for the book's 600 odd pages. Although by necessity a historical record of events, the book tells its story mainly through the lives of its characters.

The world depicted in the novel, though clearly different from own, is yet strangely similar. Early on the insights and experiments of gifted individuals give birth to the scientific method so that the glories of God's (Allah's) creation are more fully revealed. Rulers demand of science that it deliver weapons of war. Empires rise and fall, there are wars (religious and otherwise), famines and world war -- the familiar catalogue.

Of course, it is the differences between this fictional world and our own that sustain the novel. Having established the whole premise of the story on a chance occurrence (a mutation in a plague bacillus), Kim Stanley Robinson takes care not to have it appear as though his characters stumble from probability to probability. Indeed the elaborate manner by which this is achieved (the barrier between death and life is made thin and permeable), characterizes the novel and gives it its unique voice. However, this contrived continuation of individual personalities across lifetimes does not introduce any element of wish-fulfillment fantasy. In the latter stages of the novel for example some of the characters face the intellectual choice (as in our world) between a religious understanding of the universe as something planned and determined, and a scientific understanding of it as something fundamentally impersonal and random.

No plot summery could do justice to this novel or its plot devices that combine to build the coherent narrative that successfully guides the reader through 700 years of history, 700 years of imagination. The author is an accomplished science fiction writer and therefore resorts without apology, particularly near the end, to that mainstay of SF story-telling the "info-dump" (passages of expository prose), for instance in the form of extracts from contemporary historical writings.

Such crude transfers of information may not be to the literary reader's liking, but Robinson overcomes such criticism by the sheer scale of his achievement in writing this novel. So what exactly has been achieved? Alternative history is an established sub-genre of science fiction. An often remarked attribute of that genre is its capacity to generate a sense of "estrangement," i.e., the familiar is made appear new or "strange" so that the reader's mundane everyday experience can be viewed with new unhabituated eyes. To take just one example of this from this novel: at the end of the long historical journey we reach a technologically advanced society, but one possessing a Buddist ethos. Thus reading the novel brings the historically rooted all pervasive but muted Christian ethos of today's Western world into sharp relief.

The Years of Rice and Salt is a story of individual struggle told on a broad historical canvas. Inextricably entwined with such tales are treatises on religion, philosophy and history. In doing all this Kim Stanley Robinson may have demanded more from fiction (even science fiction) that the form can deliver, but his attempt is a wonder to behold and should not to be missed.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 22 June 2002

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