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The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley…
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The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

by Kim Stanley Robinson

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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.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
The history of mankind retold as a counterfactual, and from the perspective of several interconnected souls reincarnated again and again on their journey to enlightenment. This book is an impressive logistical accomplishment, though sometimes a bit of a chore to read. There were powerful, beautiful moments, and many sections that seemed unnecessarily long and academic. ( )
  scrapironjaw | Jul 13, 2015 |
In the 14th century, the plague hit Europe. But instead of killing a third of the population, it kills 99%. Islam and Buddhism rise, along with China and the Ottoman Empire. The New World is settled west to east and India becomes the country to spark the Industrial Revolution. This tale that spans centuries is told through a series of reincarnations, through religious and philosophical discussions, and through scientific discoveries.

I dived into this book very much looking forward to a grand, sweeping alternate history. However, this book wasn’t told the way I thought it would be. Using reincarnation to keep some semblance of the same main characters throughout the tale, the book still reads more like a sequential collection of short stories. The alternate history component is really subtle for the first half of the book. If you had not read the description of the book and just set into it, you would think that it was a plain historical fiction told from the viewpoints of the Muslim empire, China, and India. A few things indicate what is going on in the first half (such as the Chinese fleet discovering the western coast of the Americas). Yet much of the focus is about what is going on internally for these various empires.

The second half really makes it apparent that this is an alternate history but it is not until the end that the plague of the 14th century is discussed in what would be modern scientific archaeological circles. I found the second half of the book more interesting as the various governments and empires have spread and now have to deal with one another. I especially liked that some Native American groups managed to hold their own in this alternate history, becoming sovereign governments the other nations had to deal with.

Much of the book delves into various religions and philosophies. This is done through the main characters of each reincarnation. While it is done well, it is also done thoroughly and many ideas are repeated throughout the book. This is my only criticism of the book: sometimes this focus on religion and philosophy would get repetitive and I would tune out. While I understand that each reincarnated character believes they are experiencing these thoughts and moments of celestial clarity for the first time, after the 4th or 5th character went through this experience, I was worn out. There are very long stretches of contemplation and reflection and not much action in the first half of the book. The second half has a much better balance.

The ladies were no shrinking violets in this book. Roughly half the book is told through the eyes of female characters. They are religious leaders, philosophers, poets, historians, scientists, etc. Yet they still have to struggle against patriarchy, except in one Native American nation. As a side note, it was nice to see a few lesbians represented in the last quarter of the book.

It was very interesting to see how history could have been affected by so many Caucasians and Christians dying out in the 14th century. Indeed, the red-headed Caucasian becomes a rare being indeed and highly prized among some harem owners. While little pockets of Christianity continue on, it is a small cult-like religion. This aspect of the book was fascinating. While this was not the book I expected when I picked it up, I am very glad I gave it a listen. Plenty of food for thought lies within this book.

I received this audiobook at no cost from the publisher via Audiobook Jukebox in exchange for an honest review.

The Narration: Bronson Pinchot gave a decent performance. His character voices were all distinct and he had believable female character voices. My one little quibble is that he sometimes chose to do an accent and sometimes not. So sometimes we would have characters with foreign accents and then in the next reincarnation story none of the characters would have accents. Sometimes I was listening to an excellent performance and sometimes it was just OK. ( )
  DabOfDarkness | Jul 11, 2015 |
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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
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Monkey never dies.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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