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The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley…

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

by Kim Stanley Robinson

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This novel covers about 650 years over the course of approximately as many pages, ending in 2002 when it was first published. It is set in an alternate history where the Black Death of the 14th century eliminated the prohibitive majority of the European population. It is a necklace of ten novellas carrying out a thought experiment regarding world history in the absence of Western modernity. Author Kim Stanley Robinson is known for investing his fiction with both the sort of grand scope present in this book and also a presentation of political concerns embracing socialism and environmentalism. These are also on hand in The Years of Rice and Salt. After working through analogies for the ages of discovery, rational enlightenment, and industrialization, the great wars of our 20th century are reflected in the Long War, sixty-six years of global military conflict between a Chinese empire and a worldwide Muslim alliance. The last two sections of the book take place in a post-war world with challenges very similar to our own.

Although Robinson's style is often very cerebral, whether philosophical, scientific, or mystical, this book is still one that insists that the reader attend to bodies, and consider the libidinal cathexes that seem to drive both civilization and its discontents. His characters are often informed by deliberately-inflicted injuries: the castration of a young slave, a man's hand cut off in punishment, a woman's bound feet.

The title The Years of Rice and Salt appears in the book as a Chinese phrase denoting the stage of a woman's life between motherhood and widowhood. Metaphorically, Robinson seems to be suggesting that the entire modern period (whether our own or that of his conjectural parallel history) is such an interval for our species, and his characters often contemplate the arc of history and wonder about possibilities for human society. Typically, these thoughts arise in the context of the "Four Great Inequalities" theorized by his character Ibrahim ibn Hasam al-Lanzhou, one of which is the domination of women by men (406-411). Ibrahim appears in the section called "Widow Kang," which features this world's version of modern spiritualism, with a subversion of received gender codes just as in our own 19th century.

The "Widow Kang" episode is one that most highlights the fact that the ten stories are explicitly linked through the function of metempsychosis: Robinson re-purposes the Buddhist term jati (Skt, Pali "birth," but also "clan" or "sub-caste" in non-Buddhist Indian usage) to represent a persistent association of reincarnated individuals, who are also periodically reunited in the disincarnated bardo state. Although the novel presents reincarnation and the bardo as narrative facts, some of the book's last passages reflect on them more philosophically, observing: "Reincarnation is a story we tell; then in the end it's the story itself that is the reincarnation" (654). The epigram and first paragraph of the book imply that the two principal characters in the jati represented through all the stories are identical with the monkey Sun Wukong and monk Xuanzang of Chinese lore.

On the whole, this book is ambitious, profound, and often beautiful.
2 vote paradoxosalpha | Jul 10, 2017 |
I gave up after 100 pages... little description and the story such as it was was very skimpy on detail. I got the impression this book was a series of reincarnations but having followed the Main character, Bold, through one life I was not going to torture myself with another life. ( )
  Lynxear | May 12, 2017 |
Not to bad but a bit of a slog. ( )
  myojencards | Sep 5, 2016 |
The book is set between about A.D. 1405 (783 solar years since the Hegira, by the Islamic calendar used in the book), and A.D. 2002 (1423 after Hegira). In the eighth Islamic century, almost 99% of the population of Medieval Europe is wiped out by the Black Death (rather than the approximately 30-60% that died in reality). This sets the stage for a world without Christianity as a major influence.

The novel follows a jāti of three to seven main characters and their reincarnation through the centuries in very different cultural and religious settings. The book features Muslim, Chinese (Buddhist, Daoist, Confucianist), American Indian, and Hindu culture, philosophy and everyday life. It mixes sophisticated knowledge about these cultures in the real world with their imagined global development in a world without Western Christendom.

The main characters, marked by identical first letters throughout their reincarnations, but changing in gender, culture-nationality and so on, struggle for progress in each life. Each chapter has a narrative style which reflects its setting.

Within the novel's re-imagined world, many places are given unfamiliar names, mostly of Chinese or Arabic origin. For example, Europe becomes Firanja, Great Britain and Ireland become the Keltic Sultanate, and Spain becomes al-Andalus; while the Pacific Ocean and Australia are called by Chinese names Dahai (大海) and Aozhou (澳洲), respectively, and North America becomes Yingzhou, a land from Chinese myth.

The ten chapters (theme) are:

Book One - Awake to Emptiness - plague in Christendom; the Golden Horde; Zheng He's explorations and imperial China. This chapter is written in a style reminiscent of the Chinese classic, the Journey to the West.
Book Two - The Haj in the Heart - Mughal India and colonization of empty Europe.
Book Three - Ocean Continents - discovery of the New World by the Chinese military.
Book Four - The Alchemist - Islamic renaissance in Samarqand.
Book Five - Warp and Weft - Native Americans align with Samurai.
Book Six - Widow Kang - the Qing dynasty meets Islam in western China.
Book Seven - The Age of Great Progress - beginnings of industrialism in Southern India; Japanese diaspora to North America.
Book Eight - War of the Asuras - a world-wide Long War, fought with 'modern' weapons.
Book Nine - Nsara - science, urban life and feminism in Islamic Europe's post-war metropolis.
Book Ten - The First Years - globalization and sustainability.
Quite a few historical characters make large and small appearances in this world, including Tamerlane, Chinese explorer Zheng He, Akbar the Great, and Japanese Kampaku and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

In the last chapters the book becomes increasingly reflexive, citing fictional scientists and philosophers introduced in previous chapters as well as referring to Old Red Ink, who wrote a biography about a reincarnating jati group.

At the end of the book, we would get a picture of China finally recovering since the Long War. Everything seems to be in harmony and peace, until the goddess Kali is introduced once more in the final scene, hinting that chaos would return.

1 vote bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kim Stanley Robinsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ayers, AlanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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
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Monkey never dies.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553580078, Mass Market Paperback)

Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson delivers a thoughtful and powerful examination of cultures and the people who shape them. How might human history be different if 14th-century Europe was utterly wiped out by plague, and Islamic and Buddhist societies emerged as the world's dominant religious and political forces? The Years of Rice and Salt considers this question through the stories of individuals who experience and influence various crucial periods in the seven centuries that follow. The credible alternate history that Robinson constructs becomes the framework for a tapestry of ideas about philosophy, science, theology, and politics.

At the heart of the story are fundamental questions: what is the purpose of life and death? Are we eternal? Do our choices matter? The particular achievement of this book is that it weaves these threads into a story that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. This is a highly recommended, challenging, and ambitious work. --Roz Genessee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:52 -0400)

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Alternate history based on a world where the Black Death killed most of the population of Christian Europe, China, India, and the Middle East are dominant regions, and Islam and Buddhism the dominant religions.

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