The Years of Rice and Salt
[Reading Challenge 2019]

The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Random House, 2004

[Challenge # 6: An alternate history]

Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt caused a sensation in the SF world when it came out in 2004. In this timeline, the Black Plague kills off the entire population of Europe in the late 14th century, so it’s up to the Muslim world, China, India, and the Native Americans to advance human civilization forward.

But for all the excitement of the premise the execution was tepid. It wasn’t the epic, adventure-filled journey through time I was expecting; it was more a novel of ideas, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. There was nothing I hated about it, but nothing that I loved or admired, either. It’s a hard book to summarize and an even harder one to come to an opinion on.

The structure of the novel consists of eight parts, or books as the author calls them, set in different pivotal eras such as Medieval China, India during the Mughal period, etc. The alt-history stuff doesn’t even start until Book 3, when China discovers the New World (which is, amusingly, the San Francisco Bay area.) Some references, such as different place names, are thrown around before then, but honestly, most of the first 188 pages could have been taking place in this same old boring timeline.

The exception was a section of Book 1 in which Bold, a self-exiled warrior from the Golden Horde, wanders around a ruined Europe of abandoned towns and farms. But this doesn’t have the impact it should because as a foreigner he has no context for the plague event, and his capture by slavers, and subsequent journey, nearly made me put the book down. Specialized Tibetan Buddhist terms were thrown around with no explanation. The author seemed to want to play around with these religious concepts and so created a custom-tailored character — a half-Tibetan, half-Mongol — to stick them on and so describe the death of White Europe to the reader, but the extended purple-prose travelogue seemed to go on freakin’ forever. It read like something from a history textbook, a fictional depiction of the everyday life of an everyday man of the period.

On the way Bold, the half-Tibetan everyman, makes a friend of a Kyu, a black slave turned into a eunuch, and they go to China together which leads to more travelogues and a side story of the eunuch’s rise through the Imperial Palace ranks, only to be murdered for a reason never made clear. So is Bold, and in the Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist version of Limbo, they discuss their experiences before being reincarnated again. The eunuch is rather pissed about how his most recent life turned out, which was amusing and added a note of levity as the sanctimonious Bold points out his mistakes. But again, this wasn’t very promising for a novel as huge and lauded as this one was, and I didn’t know what in the adventure was meant to be the alt-timeline tweak that would set the world developing in a different way than our own. In reading the actual history of this period, the characters’ actions didn’t change things at all: China still scuttled its treasure fleet, the one responsible for the slavery of both characters, and I am still not sure if Kyu’s revenge-filled actions for his lost penis were to prevent this or encourage it.

Both characters, as well as seven or eight other ones, reincarnate as the main characters in all the stories thereafter, all bearing names having the same initial. B and K are the most active ones, followed by I. They keep the same personality traits: I is intellectual, science-driven, innovative; K passionate for justice and a natural born leader and skeptic; B laid-back, humanistic, and kind of a smug know-it-all. I thought of them, respectively, as Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. This main trio, and their compatriots, has its own story concurrent to the epic one as they seek to expunge their shared karma and reach Nirvana. It’s not a bad plot device, but as I read some reviews of the book beforehand, it’s one I had foreknowledge of. If I had started my reading cold I would have had no idea what was going on.

The eight books of their adventures are more like novellas, though they aren’t structured as such; as was established in Book 1, most of the prose sounded like extrapolation disguised as narrative. Any of them might have made a complete novel in itself if they were fleshed out. IMO they didn’t hang together that well. The Bardo episodes connected them, and as a lapsed Buddhist I had to chuckle at the characters’ reactions to each setback and triumph and their very real complaints (as every good Buddhist knows, the goal is to overcome one’s karma and rise through the eight worlds to reach Bodhisattva status and finally Nirvana.)

But the stories didn’t show them progressing or regressing, making the choices that would determine their fate. The choices that would lead them to overcome their Lower Worlds – Hell, Animality, Hunger, Anger. I felt that the author was telling their stories, not showing them, and for the life of me he couldn’t write an engaging conflict or a character arc. Though he could write — the book wasn’t painful to read, I enjoyed it for the most part, even the long-winded bits which were reminiscent of discussions I’d had with my fellow Buddhists.

In earlier chapters the idea of karma is addressed, as K, having set a neighborhood on fire in China, and then murdering a corrupt headman and his no-good son in India, must atone by being reborn as a lower creature — a tiger. By which I think the author means the reader to think “Bad K, no cookie for you.” But by showing K’s actions as justified by having him/her kill people who richly deserve it, the point gets lost. The moral seems to be K should just shut up and let bad things happen to good people. That kind of passiveness is not what being a Buddhist means at all.

There’s also some racism flung around. Throughout the book the Chinese are painted as a numerous, ever-replenishing horde out to mindlessly conquer the world, inserting a white male American’s opinion into the heads of characters who are supposed to Muslim and Mongol. Gee, I guess he forgot all about those plagues and typhoons and devastating floods that trouble that nation.

With a few exceptions, the characters don’t really come to life either. They’re genial, but in many cases they serve merely as conduits for the author’s scholarship. By the time we get to the Industrial Revolution, which takes place in India, not England, the stories have become repetitive too, mostly about how B is a spineless, hero-worshipping type who seeks a higher spiritual awareness, but constantly chooses the wrong sponsor. Most of the time that sponsor is S, a craven, selfish type who always reincarnates as a powerful ruler and abuses that power to make others suffer, which makes no sense at all, karma-wise.

Of course, that may be the way the author sees it, or thinks Tibetan Buddhism sees it, because that’s the framing religion of the book. At times he even portrays it as a clunking, bureaucratic, impersonal machine that processes each freshly dead soul and shoots them out again willy-nilly to try again in a new rebirth, devoid of the memories that might make them remember and progress. It’s amusing, but the effect is a lack of gravitas and a higher spirituality. A reborn soul, in Buddhism, would know, or feel, what is right and what is wrong to overcome their karma; good and evil are absolutes, and so are mercy and hate, and by not showing the characters’ interior thoughts about their moral dilemmas, this system of belief is seriously shortchanged.

The author missed an opportunity to tie up this story of shared karma among B, K, I, and the others when he shows, in the next-to-the-last book, how the ancient Tibetan village in which they all died centuries ago was unearthed in an archaeological expedition, with all their original identities; surely that must have led to some realization of shared karma and its expungement? But it’s brushed aside.

There were other things I did not like. There were too many unfamiliar terms thrown around, for one thing. I was fine with the Buddhist concepts, but many others needed a glossary to make sense of. The maps were not all that helpful, either. The author enjoyed making readers play a guessing game about which familiar modern-day places were transposed into the changed locations of his alt-history. I only understood the fabulous city of Fangzhang was San Francisco by the mention of Mount Tamalpais, for example, as the scenery described could have been anywhere coastal USA. And the great Muslim city of Nsara was… modern day Bayonne? Rochefort?

How a fan imagines the world of Rice and Salt. Artwork by Quantumbranching.
Click to see full size version.

Who knows.

As I am writing this, I am still not sure how I feel about the book. I enjoyed it intellectually in spite of its narrative faults, yet felt it could have been more disciplined. I was going to rate it two and a half stars, but the last chapters surprised me, tying up the various philosophies and plotline in a way I thought made sense, as well as adding an ominous, or ambiguous note. So, three stars.

Caveat: It’s a big commitment to read and probably will frustrate you at some point, so if you’re merely curious about how this timeline worked out, I’d pass. It’s not worth it.

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