(HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, 724 pages, hardback; published 4 March 2002. HarperCollins, £7.99, 772 pages, paperback, published 3 February 2003.)
Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is a strange book.
On the surface it's a novel about an alternate history in which the Plague wiped out Europe's population in the fourteenth century, nearly extinguishing both Christianity and caucasians. The world that unfolds in Robinson's centuries-spanning epic is dominated by the clashing empires of China and Islam.
At first, the book seems to be a mosaic of chronologically arranged stories set in various locations, each tale changing voice to reflect the place and era it depicts. But then it gradually becomes clear -- partly through the device of having the characters of each episode meet in "the bardo," where souls wait between reincarnations -- that the book is one long narrative that follows a group of souls whose lives are fated to come together time and again.
But then, other textual evidence -- for example, odd, unexplained footnotes -- points towards the book being a literary work from Robinson's imagined world, a historical novel combining historical "found" documents with an anonymous (or at least undisclosed) writer's own prose.
The Years of Rice and Salt, then, is a subtle fiction within a fiction, a novel about the history of another world written as if by someone from that same world. The characters in this book are not necessarily historical figures, but rather literary creations of the author "channelled" by Robinson. The fantastical elements -- such as reincarnation and other supernatural events -- are not to be taken literally. Rather, they are either literary devices or they reflect the religious beliefs of the mysterious "author".
None of this is ever made explicit. The nature of Robinson's novel is seductively elusive.
The Years of Rice and Salt is bizarrely structured and even more strangely narrated. But what else would you expect of a book from another world?
Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction
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© Claude Lalumière 13 July 2002, 12 April 2003