Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt

I’m a member of our local chapter of the Alaska Library Association. A few months ago we started a book group that seems to be one of our more successful ventures. For that group, I recently finished the Kindle edition of:

Robinson, Kim Stanley. 2002. The years of rice and salt. New York: Bantam Books.

This is a book of two intertwining stories – A story of three civilizations: China, the Muslim world (Dar al Islam) and India (plus its allies) and a story of reincarnated souls dealing with themselves, each other, the world at large and sometimes with a bewildering assortment of gods.

Europe is not a factor because the book assumes that 99% of Europeans were killed off by the Black Death in the 1300s. Despite the chronological table in the front of the book, I was confused at times by when events were supposed to be happening. So I recommend the spoiler laden Wikipedia article on this book for people who wish to explore the chronology further.

The years of rice and salt is divided into ten books, which usually switch between civilizations. Book I was teeth grinding for me. Each of the book’s eight chapters ended with a remark from a 3rd person omniscient narrator that reminded me I was reading a book. This was particularly jarring because Robinson did such a fine job of immersing me in the empty world of Bold, a deserter from the Tamerlane’s army. Temur had decided to invade Europe. But all Bold and his advance party found were empty towns. Emptied by plague. When Bold reports this to Temur, he orders Bold and all of his fellow scouts to be killed and burned. Bold escapes into the now empty European wilderness and wanders for weeks. When he is finally caught by passing Arab slavers, he is grateful — and we understand why. But then the narrator reminds us we’re reading a book and the spell shatters.

Fortunately, this device is dropped for the remaining books. I think it should have been edited out of Book I before publication. If you can get through Book I, the rest of the work is fairly enjoyable.

One of the more notable differences between the world of Rice and Salt and our own, is that Native Americans in what we know as North America managed to hold onto the middle part of the continent fending off Chinese colonies on the West Coast and Muslim colonies on the East Coast. They eventually join with a system of democratic leagues in India to dispute the main empires of China and Dar al Islam (collection of Muslim states) for control of the planet.

One surprising similarity between our world and the world of Rice and Salt is that after a brief period of enlightenment, Islam was perceived as a backward and woman-hating civilization with small pockets of progressives. This is rather surprising to me. The pressure of China on Dar al Islam in their world was different from the pressure Europe put on our world. For one thing, Christian Europe was obsessed with the Holy Land that was also sacred to Islam. China was different – it only competed for trade and territory.  This lack of a religious war component on the part of China should have been a bar against fundamentalism in Islam as it had less to react to.

One thing that did bother me was that most of the scientific advances in the world of Rice and Salt came in the same order as our world. Additionally, most of the most important advances came from the same two Muslim characters – think of Newton, Galileo, Pasteur, van Leeuwenhoek and a host of others rolled up into two people. While I think think there would be scientific advancement on Earth if there had been no Europeans, I do think it would have developed differently because different peoples have different interests – maybe the Chinese would be more advanced in medicine but less advanced in labor saving devices because of their larger population. Maybe the Muslims around the Mediterranean would be very advanced in irrigation and desalination but deficient in something else. Or very advanced in optics, but not electricity, and so on.

Turning from the story of the worlds to the story of the reincarnating individuals, it is hard to say much without providing spoilers. One spoiler that I think is in your best interest is that for the most part, characters are reborn with names starting with the same first letter as the name of their previous incarnation. So Butterfly is a reincarnation of Bold, and Kheim is a reincarnation of Kyu. This information is offered in the Wikipedia article and by Robinson himself very late in the book. While it was somewhat entertaining to guess which new character was which old character, it was sometimes confusing and took away from the flow of the story. So I think you’re better off with the secret decoder ring. Once you identified a character’s previous reincarnations, the similarities and growth of the character were apparent.  Robinson does a good job of making characters similar to, but not exactly like the person they were in a past life.

Overall though, it is a good read. It’s a decent alternative history story with good characters. It does get a little preachy on what justice looks like but it is not overbearing in doing so.