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The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson

(HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, 724 pages, hardback; published 4 March 2002. HarperCollins, £7.99, 772 pages, paperback, published 3 February 2003.)

I'm only about halfway through this, but it's the most impressive Robinson I've read since, since... well, ever, I guess. This is AH cover scanplayed with the net up, and the writing and characterization are just about as good as it gets. The opening episode -- just after the point of departure, when the Black Death exterminated humanity in Europe -- is nightmarish, chilling. (My willing suspension of disbelief for this virulent a plague lasted until now -- it's almost vanishingly unlikely that a disease would kill 99+% of its hosts. And if it did, why would it exterminate Europeans, while leaving Asians and Africans largely untouched? Bah. But let's grant KSR his One Impossible Thing -- which, after all, is at least as plausible as time travel -- and move on.)

If you would like a real review [caution: minor spoilers], read Keith Brooke's excellent one: [SF is] "stories about the present, about the culture in which they are written... a different lens to look through. And in The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson has ground and polished himself a particularly sharp lens."

The novel is structured as a set of linked novellas, dating from the point of departure (c.1400AD) to the present. In this alternate history, history subsequent to the megadeath is dominated by the Islamic world and by China. The breadth and depth of research here is remarkable, even daunting. For much of it, readers like me will just have to trust the author; fortunately, Robinson's research record in previous works is excellent. (His taste in politics and economics, on the other hand, is eminently debatable -- see any rasfw KSR/Mars thread.)

Keith accurately points out the strong 'shaggy god' element in the reincarnation scheme... and the reincarnation sticking-point.

The Leonardo sequence, in Samarkand -- very nice.

Karen Lofstrom wrote (at rasfw), in a much-less flattering review:

>It was so ##$$% didactic. I say that even though I tend to like didactic
>novels and I share most of KSR's political and religious convictions. If
>it irritated me, it would bug the hell out of our resident Libertarians
>and Republicans.

As a libertarian-leaning Republican, I'm a counter-example to Karen's theory. And for a calibration-point, I've read just about all of KSR's fiction, and enjoyed most of it. I'm always a bit surprised that someone would suppose that readers need to share the writer's politics (etc) to enjoy their work. This would be a dull reading program indeed.

After finishing it, I'm somewhat less enthused -- the second half brings back the sadly-familiar political speechifying that marred the Mars books. The sad thing is, just a little sharp editing would have salvaged these MEGO speeches/essays, some of which have interesting points and observations. Sigh.

Still, it's an impressive book, one that would repay rereading. Part of the fun is, KSR doesn't take himself too seriously. As in the too-fatal Euro-plague -- he has his characters discuss the problem at a conference. They throw out some reasonable ideas -- Nicoll's 'take a bath!' hypothesis among them, and a plague/anthrax double-whammy, which KSR took from current mass-extinction debates -- and then conclude that they really don't know, and may never know, why this plague was so fatal. So at least the author is addressing the weakest point in his 'counter-factual.'

As Keith Brooke pointed out, the characters talk about 'counter-factuals', too -- one reinvents the 'history is just one damn thing after another' shtick. And KSR gently reminds us that we're reading a story, a fiction, written apparently by one Old Red Ink, who has foibles and fallacies of his own. In other words, he's sneaking in the Gene Wolfe 'unreliable chronicler' business to muddy the waters: ie

possible *SPOILER WARNING*

the whole reincarnation business that ties the various Rice and Salt stories together is an invention -- or at least an embroidery -- by Old Red. Now, this could be viewed as a "we woke, and it was all a dream" weasel, but I think it's more a reminder that histories are written by historians, who have the usual "we won!" bias, not to mention the love of a good story. And of course, here we have a counter-factual 'history', written by a novelist, read by a wide assortment of folks who bring there own preconceptions to their reading.... The usual muddle of Real Life, even in alternate history.

So -- I recommend The Years of Rice and Salt to your attention, with the caveat that it has the usual KSR strengths and weaknesses, and so will alternately thrill and annoy you. At least some of the annoyances will make you think. This is a very good piece of work by an author who knows where he's headed, and just how to get there. Now, if only he had had an editor to blue-pencil those damn speeches...


Review by Peter D Tillman; More of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Amazon.com. Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more!

The Years of Rice and Salt is also reviewed in Adam Roberts' feature on the 2003 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist and by Keith Brooke.

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