Jesse Field's Reviews > The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
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Jul 09, 2010

it was ok
Read in July, 2010

One day in the street, rattling off some story or other, she stopped and looked up at him, surprised, and said “I want to know everything!”


I respect very much the intentions of this book: to re-invent a wide range of historical readings, to activate the historical imagination, to envision a world where Islam might not seem attached at the hip to violence, intolerance and authoritarianism, and to argue for the human experience as a slow, blundering evolution towards higher moral and ethical consciousness. Kim Stanley Robinson aims for all of these lofty goals, and he hopes to frame them all as hit adventure stories as well, starring a common cast of character-types as they live, die, and return to earth again as different people in different places.

For me, though, a truly laughable writing style (seriously, lines like “One night can change the world” would make good drinking games for alcoholics of taste) makes it impossible to really enjoy Robinson. I say this with great sympathy, because I can all too well picture my efforts at story leading to such a train wreck. I leave two notes here in case I ever return to this book (thanks to AB for presenting me with a copy), to measure whether my taste will change or whether I might ever learn more from the book about the art of storytelling.

1. Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t understand tension, conflict and crisis. Book One of this 10 book monstrosity doesn’t have a clear protagonist. Bold Bardash, an incarnation of the Monkey figure, is allegedly the protagonist, but Robinson all too often conflates his third-person omnipotent narrator voice with Bold’s own voice, with the result that Bold only reacts to circumstance, and never seems to be making a decision that determines himself as a character.

On the other hand, the character with a clear motivation and clear values is Kyu, the little African boy whose penis and testicles are severed in one clean slice by the Chinese sailor-eunuch acting as first mate to Zheng He. Why isn’t Kyu the protagonist? The buddy drama that this first book enacts asks us to care about Kyu a lot, but assumes we will identify with Bold as protagonist. The result is a crippled story, and I would submit that it effectively has no climax, because neither character is forced to make a crisis decision to conclude the story.

2. Kim Stanley Robinson can’t write sentences. I submit a few examples:
A confused and often angry little girl, in fact, although clever in manipulating others, quick to caress or to yell, and very beautiful.

Shaking his head at Bahram’s drunkenness, Khalid began going through the box, whistling and chirping.

Strange the people who surrounded us in this life.

The emperor was inclined to avenge this unprovoked assault (if you did not count the two unsuccessful attacks on Nippon made by Kublai Khan), and to remove the danger of any future problem arising from Nippon, by subjugating it to Chinese suzerainty.


KSR’s defense to both of the defects I point out would probably be that he is working with very large blocks of data to shape a ten-act epic, what one effusive newspaper critic calls “a meditation on history and humanism.” I would respectfully (okay, not too respectfully) disagree with this implied distinction between form and content. I think the banality of story in these ten books figures a deeper banality of message, which is something like, “We humans can learn to live with each other eventually, but it’s going to be painful.” Gee, thanks. Next!
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