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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.)

The Years of Rice and Salt, it is rightly suggested by Robinson's interviewer Nick Gevers in the infinity plus guest-edited issue of Interzone, "may well become one of SF's key texts". It's hard to argue with that, although the odds are good that such a claim would be true of almost anything written at this stage of a career by the author of the Californias cover scantrilogy and the Red-Green-Blue Mars sequence.

The Years of Rice and Salt takes the form of a series of connected novella-length episodes spanning several hundred years of alternative history. It is, in the terminology used later in the novel itself, a "dharma history", a history told through the various incarnations of a central cast of fellow travellers, striving in each lifetime for some kind of improvement in the human lot and, ultimately, an understanding of what it is to live a life that is good.

They strive for a world of gardens and orchards, where there are no more empires, slavery, property, taxes, rich or poor, jailers or prisoners, armies, caste, hunger, suffering... And while progress is slow -- hence the long timescale -- they must learn to embrace each little victory en route. A utopian tale, on the surface, but more a tale of seeking utopia, of constructing it one block at a time and enjoying those moments of domestic happiness -- the years of rice and salt of the title -- along the way.

In the first section, a wise and patient Mongol warrior, Bold Bardash, is scouting ahead of an invading army from the east when he encounters fields full of unharvested crops, apples dry on the branches, a lack of cart tracks or hoof prints. And, above all, a distinct sense that something is different. That difference is what makes this history diverge from our own: in Robinson's timeline the Black Death has wiped out the population of Europe almost entirely.

Outcast by his own people as a possible carrier of the plague, Bardash explores the disease-depopulated cities of Europe and is then captured and enslaved, ending up in China with the dangerous eunuch Kyu loosely in his care. In many ways this first episode is Kyu's story, with Bold playing Watson to the eunuch's dark brilliance. Indeed this sets the pattern for the novel as a whole: Kyu, in his/her various guises, the stirrer, the challenger, the impatient catalyst for change; Bold the patient one, the moderating and reasoning influence, the tinder to Kyu's spark. These two form the central pair of the small cast of recurring characters.

Later, incarnated as Khalid and Bahram, they are joined by the third of the main characters, Iwang, an enquirer, fascinated by the patterns and physical rules that govern the functioning of the universe. Now in Samarqand at the dawn of this world's Industrial Revolution-cum-Renaissance, they are at the centre of a hotbed of radical scientific and technological innovation, where they must work within the requirements of a Khan who is both vain and preoccupied with military developments, and so the three become reluctant part-time players in an arms race, frustrated in what they really want to do but still achieving what little good they can.

The Years of Rice and Salt is at its best in the superbly detailed accounts of these characters' lives, and in the steadily growing sense of who they are and how they can overcome the constraints of mortality and human blindness. It is at its weakest in some of the earlier interludes between the real-world incarnations of the protagonists -- the shaggy god element sitting uncomfortably alongside the historical realism.

For a long time the reader must grudgingly (in this reader's case) accept the reincarnation premise as a given but then, over 300 pages in, during one of the interludes between incarnations, Robinson reminds us that there is a narrator to these tales, that this is an artifice, an act of storytelling. The fictional narrator, Old Red Ink, has constructed this narrative, both anthologising the various real-world episodes and the joining sequences, and s/he has done this for a purpose and within his/her own understanding -- the "truth" of the extrapolation is relative and it's embedded in the narrator's world view, highlighting how blind we are to all the comparable assumptions made in more conventional western narratives. It's one of those moments you sometimes get in good literature, an instant of insight, Robinson gently reminding us to interpret, to pay attention. Very nice.

The construction of the novel provides a marvellous way of exploring the development of an entire world over several hundred years but it does bring with it one central problem which frustrates the reader through much of the book.

The protagonists' true stories only unfold over the entire length of the novel and it's only on this grand scale that we really get a sense of shape and closure; on the closer scale of the individual novellas, lives are cut short, stories stop. This is clearly a conscious decision on the part of the author, not to impose the artifice of fictional hooks and tying up of loose ends at this scale of the novel: one of the recurring motifs in the book is that life is ultimately a tragedy -- people always die -- and sometimes the tragedy comes at awkward and unanticipated moments, cutting off a tale where the reader may have hoped to follow a particular story further without the ugly intrusion of fate. This is, despite the early frustrations for the reader, an effective approach: the sense of so many lives incomplete gives greater strength to the novel's final closure, a beautiful sequence where an aged Bao comes to some kind of understanding of history, life, and all the personal stories that constitute the human story.

Late in the book, Kirana talks of historians employing alternative histories, or "counterfactuals", to support their theories. She dismisses this as a useless exercise, "because no one knows why things happen" -- even real history tells us nothing, she argues. Asked why people like them so much she says they are just "more stories". One senses here the author playfully teasing out the book's underlying philosophy before the reader. Little things can have huge effects, just as grander events may ultimately prove mere distractions; while history repeats with apparent inevitability (the better the level of technology, the bigger the war, for instance) it is not, in itself, a predictive science.

This is much like a discussion of speculative fiction itself: although sf is sometimes portrayed as attempting to predict the future that is very rarely the case. Sf is, like Kirana's definition of counterfactuals, or even history itself, not a predictive discipline but rather it is just more stories. But they are stories about the present, about the culture in which they are written: stepping outside the confines of literary realism, sf gives us another way of looking at the present, 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.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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

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© Keith Brooke 16 February 2002