Daniel Roy's Reviews > The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
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May 03, 11

bookshelves: alternate-history, favorite

Let me start by saying that I'm not generally a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson's work. I loved Red Mars, then stumbled through Green Mars and gave up in disgust at Blue Mars. I found they were filled with exposition and endless descriptions of landscapes, and I really didn't like the fact that the main characters stuck it out through three novels instead of allowing more interesting characters to take their place.

I felt drawn to The Years of Rice and Salt, even though the same annoyances seemed present. That being said, if like me you were burnt by Blue Mars but are intrigued by the premise of this book - do yourself a favor and pick it up. It's a work of staggering immensity, yet such a personal and touching novel that one wonders how historical scope and intimate drama could ever be weaved together so finely. The "immortality" of the main characters, while a mere plot device in the Mars trilogy, is at the core of the theme of Years of Rice and Salt : it speaks of the role of individuals in History, of how individual actions and lives weave the tapestry of History, and how the dramas of daily lives influence and are influenced by the unfolding twists and turns of Humanity. The individual lives it depicts are poignant, and play superbly against the backdrop of this alternate history where China and Islam are the two major powers of the world. More than a plot device, reincarnation is used here to paint deeply personal portraits of each period of history. Of particular interest is the role that Native Americans play in this alternate history : the way their culture grows and envelops other nations is, I felt, the true tragedy at the heart of Rice and Salt, speaking of squandered opportunities when the West conquered the New World.

The novel builds like a puzzle through 11 stages of human history, and what finally emerges is a humanist, ecologist and even feminist tale of compassion, tolerance and hope, something that transcends its alternate history roots to speak of the Heart of Mankind. If it were just for its historical scope, The Years of Rice and Salt would have been an interesting anecdote in the alternate history genre. Instead, this novel is a major achievement that transcends science-fiction, and should stand at the very top of the alternate history genre for years to come, and as Robinson's crowning achievement.
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