Chadwick's Reviews > The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
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Jul 14, 08

bookshelves: sf, best-books-ever-man, utopian-anarchist
Recommended for: everyone
Read in July, 2008

An alternate history, in which the what-if is, what if European culture had been totally eradicated by the Black Plague. Using the conceit of a group of repeatedly reincarnated souls returning again and again as the thousand-odd year saga unfolds, Robinson hits yet again with a thoroughly brilliant work that asks all of the important questions that face us concerning life on earth, most crucially: how do we get it right?

In The Years of Rice and Salt, the world ends up being divided between Islam and China for most of what we consider to be the years 622-2002 C.E. All of the great scientific advances, all of the discoveries of the renaissance are undertaken by these two civilizations. Much of the ensuing history parallels very closely what we consider to have actually happened.

A notable difference that Robinson proposes lies in the failure of either China or any of the Muslim powers to completely colonize the New World (due, perhaps to the lack of Europeans as an enemy on the Eurasian continent, leading to constant strife between the two powers), allowing the Iroquois League to expand into a major world power, with the help of the members of the Japanese diaspora. Their matrilineal succession and league-based structure becomes an inspiration for various progressive and revolutionary groups in both China and the Dar-al-Islam.

Like much of Robinson's work, this is emphatically a utopian novel, but with the author's characteristic intellectual rigor. One of the functions of the reincarnation device is to emphasize that utopia is something that is built incrementally, taking lifetimes of failure and imperceptible, minuscule progress before any possibility of change can be enacted. This is further driven home by the conversations between the principal characters during their brief spells in the bardo, as they await their next incarnations, momentarily reminded of all of their previous lives.

I think that this work is notable for a number of reasons. What sticks with me upon this first reading is Robinson's focus upon gender equality as crucial for social progress. That is, of course, obvious to most educated readers alive today, but his imagining of the rise of feminism in the monolithic cultures of Islam and imperial China is quite sharp. One character goes so far, in attempting to explain Islam's loss in the novel's analogue of WWI, as to say that Islam's greatest weakness lies within its conversion of fully half of its society to illiterate beasts of burden.

Robinson may be preaching to the choir, but this novel is a great example of the unique potency of speculative fiction to ask questions about how we fix the fucking mess we're in.
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Quotes Chadwick Liked

Kim Stanley Robinson
“We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons, we will build roads through the mountains and across the deserts, and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more quadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more caste, no more hunger, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt


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