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The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,940813,284 (3.65)155
It is the fourteenth century, and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur-the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe's population was destroyed. But what if the plague had killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been-a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt. This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world's greatest scientific minds-in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions, and Christianity is merely a historical footnote. Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.… (more)
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English (73)  French (4)  Hungarian (2)  Italian (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (81)
Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
"I don't understand why this is happening!"
He nodded. "We so seldom understand why things happen."
She laughed shortly, a single "Ho!" Then: "But I like to understand."
"So do I. Believe me; it is my chief delight. Rare as it is." ( )
  Jon_Hansen | Aug 6, 2020 |
While I was intrigued by the premise of this alternate history sci fi novel, I found some aspects of it disappointing. The writing style was engaging, especially in the first few sections. But the reincarnation aspect for me was a real turn-off; it introduced a level of fantasy/speculative fiction that detracted from the book. I could have put up with it but then in the fourth book, one which I would have otherwise liked a lot, too many important discoveries & inventions were attributed to a single person/group to be believable. After that, I was disinclined to give the book/author the leniency that I might have otherwise awarded it/him... ( )
  leslie.98 | Jun 28, 2020 |
This one's going right in the category of OMG this is epic SF of a very serious nature and scope.

It goes well beyond the "normal" subgenre of alternate histories to throw us into a vast and very impressive exploration of China and India as they completely dominate the culture and space of the entire world under the slight alteration: that most of the Caucasian world died off in the Black Plague.

It's really gorgeous and it flows really well. Expect many short novellas giving us snippets of time from the plague and progress it forward until we have a fully technological world. Christianity is a footnote. Muslims are dominant, as are Buddhists, but what really fascinated me was the poetry, the history of science and different terminologies, the odd similarities to our own history, including population pressures, various warcraft and a world war, the suffrage of women, medicine development, and so much more.

But what works best for me was a really brilliant thread of reincarnation. As in, tying all the novels together in a later scholarly work that reconciles a few great souls from incarnation to incarnation through history. We get the lives of those characters in the whole novel, and it really is gorgeous. A Buddhist SF that not only focuses on being self-referential and consistent, but it does it in a very detailed and academic way that feels almost too gorgeous for words.

Brilliant doesn't really do the work justice.

I'm not going to say it doesn't get slightly overburdened by the science bits as if it was just a vehicle for some particularly juicy fundamental discoveries, but I also like that kind of stuff. I didn't mind. It did make the text a bit large, however. :)

I was reminded very favorably of some other epic SF tomes like Poul Anderson's Boat of a Million Years. We have all of Time to work in and the idea exploration is breathtaking.

This one might become one of my favorite KSR novels. Easily. ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
70% into this giant tome, I gave up.

The premise is interesting: what if the Black Death had killed off 99% of Europe, essentially wiping out Christianity? The book covers several hundred years of history, jumping all over the globe from China to India and the Americas. It maintains some semblance of narrative continuity by focusing on two characters who are constantly reincarnated and meet in life after life.

Unfortunately, the answer to the question "what would have happened if Europe had been wiped out" is "exactly the same thing as what happened with Europe, except everything was done by Asians instead."

Reading this is like playing a game of Sid Meier's Civilization, where no matter what nation you play, you end up developing identical technologies and political systems. This book still has an guy who is basically Isaac Newton, and a woman who comes up with Marxism. I stopped reading when they developed steamboats and telegraphs.

The book is also very very long, and sometimes very very tedious. There are long treatises on philosophy and science and comparative religion which might be interesting if they had any bearing on the plot, but just end up being tedious. ( )
  Gwendydd | Feb 2, 2020 |
Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt caused a sensation in the SF world when it came out in 2004. In this timeline, the Black Plague kills off the entire population of Europe in the late 14th century, so it’s up to the Muslim world, China, India, and the Native Americans to advance human civilization forward.

But for all the excitement of the premise the execution was tepid. It wasn’t the epic, adventure-filled journey through time I was expecting; it was more a novel of ideas, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. There was nothing I hated about it, but nothing that I loved or admired, either. It’s a hard book to summarize and an even harder one to come to an opinion on.

The structure of the novel consists of eight parts, or books as the author calls them, set in different pivotal eras such as Medieval China, India during the Mughal period, etc. The alt-history stuff doesn’t even start until Book 3, when China discovers the New World (which is, amusingly, the San Francisco Bay area.) Some references, such as different place names, are thrown around before then, but honestly, most of the first 188 pages could have been taking place in this same old boring timeline.

The exception was a section of Book 1 in which Bold, a self-exiled warrior from the Golden Horde, wanders around a ruined Europe of abandoned towns and farms. But this doesn’t have the impact it should because as a foreigner he has no context for the plague event, and his capture by slavers, and subsequent journey, nearly made me put the book down. Specialized Tibetan Buddhist terms were thrown around with no explanation. The author seemed to want to play around with these religious concepts and so created a custom-tailored character — a half-Tibetan, half-Mongol — to stick them on and so describe the death of White Europe to the reader, but the extended purple-prose travelogue seemed to go on freakin’ forever. It read like something from a history textbook, a fictional depiction of the everyday life of an everyday man of the period.

On the way Bold, the half-Tibetan everyman, makes a friend of a Kyu, a black slave turned into a eunuch, and they go to China together which leads to more travelogues and a side story of the eunuch’s rise through the Imperial Palace ranks, only to be murdered for a reason never made clear. So is Bold, and in the Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist version of Limbo, they discuss their experiences before being reincarnated again. The eunuch is rather pissed about how his most recent life turned out, which was amusing and added a note of levity as the sanctimonious Bold points out his mistakes. But again, this wasn’t very promising for a novel as huge and lauded as this one was, and I didn’t know what in the adventure was meant to be the alt-timeline tweak that would set the world developing in a different way than our own. In reading the actual history of this period, the characters’ actions didn’t change things at all: China still scuttled its treasure fleet, the one responsible for the slavery of both characters, and I am still not sure if Kyu’s revenge-filled actions for his lost penis were to prevent this or encourage it.

Both characters, as well as seven or eight other ones, reincarnate as the main characters in all the stories thereafter, all bearing names having the same initial. B and K are the most active ones, followed by I. They keep the same personality traits: I is intellectual, science-driven, innovative; K passionate for justice and a natural born leader and skeptic; B laid-back, humanistic, and kind of a smug know-it-all. I thought of them, respectively, as Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. This main trio, and their compatriots, has its own story concurrent to the epic one as they seek to expunge their shared karma and reach Nirvana. It’s not a bad plot device, but as I read some reviews of the book beforehand, it’s one I had foreknowledge of. If I had started my reading cold I would have had no idea what was going on.

The eight books of their adventures are more like novellas, though they aren’t structured as such; as was established in Book 1, most of the prose sounded like extrapolation disguised as narrative. Any of them might have made a complete novel in itself if they were fleshed out. IMO they didn’t hang together that well. The Bardo episodes connected them, and as a lapsed Buddhist I had to chuckle at the characters’ reactions to each setback and triumph and their very real complaints (as every good Buddhist knows, the goal is to overcome one’s karma and rise through the eight worlds to reach Bodhisattva status and finally Nirvana.)

But the stories didn’t show them progressing or regressing, making the choices that would determine their fate. The choices that would lead them to overcome their Lower Worlds – Hell, Animality, Hunger, Anger. I felt that the author was telling their stories, not showing them, and for the life of me he couldn’t write an engaging conflict or a character arc. Though he could write — the book wasn’t painful to read, I enjoyed it for the most part, even the long-winded bits which were reminiscent of discussions I’d had with my fellow Buddhists.

In earlier chapters the idea of karma is addressed, as K, having set a neighborhood on fire in China, and then murdering a corrupt headman and his no-good son in India, must atone by being reborn as a lower creature — a tiger. By which I think the author means the reader to think “Bad K, no cookie for you.” But by showing K’s actions as justified by having him/her kill people who richly deserve it, the point gets lost. The moral seems to be K should just shut up and let bad things happen to good people. That kind of passiveness is not what being a Buddhist means at all.

There’s also some racism flung around. Throughout the book the Chinese are painted as a numerous, ever-replenishing horde out to mindlessly conquer the world, inserting a white male American’s opinion into the heads of characters who are supposed to Muslim and Mongol. Gee, I guess he forgot all about those plagues and typhoons and devastating floods that trouble that nation.

With a few exceptions, the characters don’t really come to life either. They’re genial, but in many cases they serve merely as conduits for the author’s scholarship. By the time we get to the Industrial Revolution, which takes place in India, not England, the stories have become repetitive too, mostly about how B is a spineless, hero-worshipping type who seeks a higher spiritual awareness, but constantly chooses the wrong sponsor. Most of the time that sponsor is S, a craven, selfish type who always reincarnates as a powerful ruler and abuses that power to make others suffer, which makes no sense at all, karma-wise.

Of course, that may be the way the author sees it, or thinks Tibetan Buddhism sees it, because that’s the framing religion of the book. At times he even portrays it as a clunking, bureaucratic, impersonal machine that processes each freshly dead soul and shoots them out again willy-nilly to try again in a new rebirth, devoid of the memories that might make them remember and progress. It’s amusing, but the effect is a lack of gravitas and a higher spirituality. A reborn soul, in Buddhism, would know, or feel, what is right and what is wrong to overcome their karma; good and evil are absolutes, and so are mercy and hate, and by not showing the characters’ interior thoughts about their moral dilemmas, this system of belief is seriously shortchanged.

The author missed an opportunity to tie up this story of shared karma among B, K, I, and the others when he shows, in the next-to-the-last book, how the ancient Tibetan village in which they all died centuries ago was unearthed in an archaeological expedition, with all their original identities; surely that must have led to some realization of shared karma and its expungement? But it’s brushed aside.

There were other things I did not like. There were too many unfamiliar terms thrown around, for one thing. I was fine with the Buddhist concepts, but many others needed a glossary to make sense of. The maps were not all that helpful, either. The author enjoyed making readers play a guessing game about which familiar modern-day places were transposed into the changed locations of his alt-history. I only understood the fabulous city of Fangzhang was San Francisco by the mention of Mount Tamalpais, for example, as the scenery described could have been anywhere coastal USA. And the great Muslim city of Nsara was… modern day Bayonne? Rochefort?

Who knows.

As I am writing this, I am still not sure how I feel about the book. I enjoyed it intellectually in spite of its narrative faults, yet felt it could have been more disciplined. I was going to rate it two and a half stars, but the last chapters surprised me, tying up the various philosophies and plotline in a way I thought made sense, as well as adding an ominous, or ambiguous note. So, three stars.

Caveat: It’s a big commitment to read and probably will frustrate you at some point, so if you’re merely curious about how this timeline worked out, I’d pass. ( )
1 vote Cobalt-Jade | Jan 2, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
If there is a weakness in Robinson's work, it is perhaps this; his characters are so intelligent that they never shut up and often have fascinating conversations for page after page about the engineering of fortifications or the reconciliation of Sufism and Confucianism or, most extendedly, the ways that history works. It is always good talk, in which everyone speaks in character. For Robinson, science fiction is not only a literature of ideas, but a literature whose characters have lots of them.
added by SnootyBaronet | editThe Independent, Roz Kaveney
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kim Stanley Robinsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ayers, AlanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
TRIPITAKA: Monkey, how far is it to the Western Heaven, the abode of Buddha?

WU-KONG: You can walk from the time of your youth till the time you grow old, and after that, till you become young again; and even after going through such a cycle a thousand times, you may still find it difficult to reach the place where you want to go. But when you perceive, by the resoluteness of your will, the Buddha-nature in all things, and when every one of your thoughts goes back to that fountain in your memory, that will be the time you arrive at Spirit Mountain. -- The Journey to the West
Dedication
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Monkey never dies.
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The word of God came down to man as rain to soil, and the result was mud, not clear water.
Reincarnation is a story we tell; then in the end it's the story itself that is the reincarnation.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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It is the fourteenth century, and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur-the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe's population was destroyed. But what if the plague had killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been-a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt. This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world's greatest scientific minds-in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions, and Christianity is merely a historical footnote. Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.

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