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The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
by Kim Stanley Robinson
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A sweeping alternative saga assuming that 99% of western Europe was wiped out by the plague and only China, India, and the Muslims remain. Everything changes--from the Renaissance to the "discovery" of America. There are 10 chapters and the same 2 characters appear in each chapter, only they have been reincarnated as somebody or something else. I found the pace of the book good, except in the middle with the philosophical and religious musings where it bogged down. Also the time in the bardo awaiting reincarnation got to be old after awhile. I'm not into sci/fi or fantasy at all, but this is a very good book and made me stop and ponder. My only complaint is that it is a tad too long--remove those musings and it's the "perfect" book! 784 pages ( )
It started with an interesting conceit, but failed to capitalise on it. Despite radical shifts in the distribution of global power, all nations still more or less followed the western arc of progress. The apotheosis of civilisation remained empiricist liberalism.
Robinson shows himself to be an idealist, having written yet another “romance in which humanity struggles to work out its dharma, to better itself, and so generation by generation to make progress, fighting for justice, and an end to want, with the strong implication that we will eventually work our way up to the source of the peach blossom stream, and the age of great peace will come into being.”
But, as always with Robinson, it is more complex than that, because Zhu Isao, the fictional founder of the League of All Peoples School of Revolutionary Change, continues that passage. It is probably the most explicit formulation of Robinson’s own poetics, so any Robinson aficionado would do well to read this carefully, more so, it should be of any interest to any student & lover of literature.
“It is a secular version of the Hindu and Buddhist tale of nirvana succesfully achieved. (…) The opposite of this mode is the ironic or satiric mode, which I call entropic history, from the physical sciences, or nihilism, or, in the usage of certain old legends, the story of the fall. In this mode, everything that humanity tries to do fails, or rebounds against it, and the combination of biological reality and moral weakness, of death and evil, means that nothing in human affairs can succeed. Taken to its extreme this leads to (…) people who say it is all a chaos without causes, and that taken all in all, it would have been better never to have been born. These two modes of emplotment represent end-point extremes, in that one says we are masters of the world and can defeat death, while the other says that we are captives of the world, and can never win against death. (…) two other modes of emplotment (…) tragedy and comedy. These two are mixed and partial modes compared to their absolutist outliers (…) they both have to do with reconciliation. In comedy the reconciliation is of people with other people, and with society at large. The weave of family with family, tribe with clan – this is how comedies end, this is what makes them comedy: the marriage with someone from a different clan, and the return of spring. Tragedies make a darker reconciliation. (…) they tell the story of humanity face-to-face with reality itself, therefor facing death and dissolution and defeat. Tragic heroes are destroyed, but for those who survive to tell their tale, their is a rise in consciousness, in awareness of reality, and this is valuable in and of itself, dark though that knowledge may be. (…) Now, I suggest that as historians, it is best not to get trapped in one mode or another, as so many do; it is too simple a solution, and does not match well with events as experienced. Instead we should weave a story that holds in its pattern as much as possible. It should be like the Daoists’s yin-yang symbol, with eyes of tragedy and comedy dotting the larger fields of dharma and nihilism. That old figure is the perfect image of all our stories put together, with the dark spot of our comedies marring the brilliance of dharma, and the blaze of the tragic knowledge emerging from black nothingness. The ironic history by itself, we can reject out of hand. Of course we are bad; of course things go wrong. But why dwell on it? Why pretend this is the whole story? Irony is merely death walking among us. It doesn’t take up the challenge, it isn’t life speaking. But I suppose we also have to reject the purest version of dharma history, the transcending of this world and this life, the perfection of our way of being. It may happen in the bardo, if there is a bardo, but in this world, all is mixed. We are animals, death is our fate. So at best we could say the history of the species has to be made as much like dharma as possible, by a collective act of the will. This leaves the middle modes, comedy and tragedy. (…) Surely we have a great deal of both of these. Perhaps the way to construct a proper history is to inscribe the whole figure, and say that for the individual, ultimately, it is a tragedy; for the society, comedy. If we can make it so.”
A bit later, might Robinson talk about himself? “Zhu Isao’s own predilection was clearly for comedy. He was a social creature.” Whatever the answer, it is clear that, as a species, we need more weaving indeed, more cooperation, more family. Isn’t that as good a meaning as any – especially if you consider Robinson’s one line version of human history: “Meanwhile a kind of monkey kept on doing more things, increasing in number, taking over the planet by means of meanings.”
Highly recommended – except chapter 9.
Full review on Weighing A Pig Doesn't Fatten It
I'm liking this a lot, but I can't sort out the characters in their reincarnations.
To the four great inequalities (farmers subjugated, women and children by man, slaves), I don't know why Robinson did not add a fifth: animals by humans. Grrrrrrr
Offended I am at the scene of the sultan having sex with a concubine in front of the doctor, a waiter and a eunuch, while four servants of the concubine held her legs up and out for her. Disgusting, and detracts from the book. wtf?
Finished, finally. It's a nice thought, that our soul-mates meet in the bardo, and somehow get together in the next life. If you don't believe in heaven and hell, it's a type of immortality. We all struggle with the thought of ending, and never seeing our loved ones again, but I remind myself, this is just the imaginings of a white guy, in the beginning of the 21st century (Christian reckoning). It is nice to imagine a world not imperialized by wipipo.
I notice Robinson ends his story in Davis, CA, where he lives. I give him a B, for effort, but for not including the very obvious fact that humans cannot keep increasing their numbers without giving up the animal agriculture industry, using so much of crops grown, and requiring death of wildlife and natural growth, to feed just a few. Dumbass species, we are.
I thought I was going to love this book, it had a great premise - what if 90% of the European population were wiped out in the Black Death but I didn't partly because I couldn't really like any of the characters.
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.
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Wikipedia in English (2)
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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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813 — Literature English (North America) American fiction
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