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The Years of Rice and Salt

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As Bold Bardash, a military horseman, rides west across the steppe and on to the Magyar Plain, he comes across a town in which everyone lies dead. Long dead. Plague has struck Europe. So die the ancestors of Da Vinci, Newton, and Shakespeare. An alternate history of the last seven hundred years, a world vastly different from the one we know, the past 700 years as it could have been... The Years of Rice and Salt. It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur, the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe’s population was destroyed. But what if? What if the plague killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? A look at the history that could have been, a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.
This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world’s greatest scientific minds, in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions and Christianity is merely a historical footnote.
Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.

784 pages, Paperback

First published June 3, 2002

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About the author

Kim Stanley Robinson

224 books6,472 followers
Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer, probably best known for his award-winning Mars trilogy.

His work delves into ecological and sociological themes regularly, and many of his novels appear to be the direct result of his own scientific fascinations, such as the 15 years of research and lifelong fascination with Mars which culminated in his most famous work. He has, due to his fascination with Mars, become a member of the Mars Society.

Robinson's work has been labeled by reviewers as "literary science fiction".

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

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Profile Image for Clouds.
228 reviews633 followers
May 10, 2019
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).

2003 was a wonderfully rich and diverse year for Sci-Fi and Fantasy!

My beloved Locus Sci-Fi Award went to this, Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt .
The sister award, the Locus Fantasy went to Miéville’s The Scar (which is awesome!)
Gaiman’s superb American Gods took the Nebula.
The prestigious Hugo was awarded to Sawyer’s Hominids .
The Separation , by Chris Priest picked up the Arthur C Clarke.
The BSFA award went to Felaheen by JC Grimwood.
McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow , got the Mythopoeic and shared the World Fantasy.
The other co-winner of the World Fantasy was The Facts of Life by G. Joyce.

Eight awards – eight different winners. How often does that happen?

I was pretty cautious before starting The Years of Rice and Salt . I’d only read one other Robinson before – Red Mars , many years before – and found it tough going at the time (but that’s another review).

I chucked this into my suitcase for my honeymoon, content that if it was too much of a grind for around-the-pool reading, my wife was packing plenty of lighter fantasy fare I could borrow.

My fears were all for naught – this is totally different kettle of fish to the Mars Trilogy.

Alternative history premise: the black plague obliterated Europe and the Eastern civilizations scrap over global conquest.

Story lens: reincarnation! A small family (?) of souls reincarnate in different forms and relationships with each other over ten novellas covering seven hundred years in a great karmic cycle.

I like Buddhism. I like alternative histories. I like the interlinked novella approach.

For holiday reading, this was perfect. I devoured a novella every time we took one of Malta’s quirky buses to a tourist trap. I sipped at them leisurely while lounging on the beach. I chatted about the wonderful ideas with my new wife while we enjoyed room service on our balcony. I loved the little between-life moments of the reincarnation.

By turns this book made me excited and tranquil. It reminded me a little of David Mitchell’s brilliant Ghostwritten with a touch of Wilbur Smith in each little adventure. It was one of those books I didn’t want to end. Surely there could be one more reincarnation? One more story?
I’m surprised by the number of negative reviews I’ve found, I guess it helps that I’ve always held Buddhist inclinations.

I give this five-stars without hesitation.

Not long after we returned from our honeymoon one our cats, Callie, escaped and was killed on the road near our flat. She was the prettiest, most affectionate kitty I’ve ever met – adored by all who met her (even dog people). When I found out that she had died, it was this book that came to mind. One of the stories involves a soul 'demoted' to a life as a tiger for one cycle.

I told my wife that Callie “was just too good to be a cat and they had to call her spirit back so she could be reincarnated as a person”. The idea was comforting. Those words were still in my head when, very shortly after, I discovered we were having a child. When I look into my baby son's eyes now, I wonder if, just maybe, there’s a bit of Callie's endless curiosity looking back. That makes me happy.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,100 followers
January 22, 2018
This one's going right in the category of OMG this is epic SF of a very serious nature and scope.

It goes well beyond the "normal" subgenre of alternate histories to throw us into a vast and very impressive exploration of China and India as they completely dominate the culture and space of the entire world under the slight alteration: that most of the Caucasian world died off in the Black Plague.

It's really gorgeous and it flows really well. Expect many short novellas giving us snippets of time from the plague and progress it forward until we have a fully technological world. Christianity is a footnote. Muslims are dominant, as are Buddhists, but what really fascinated me was the poetry, the history of science and different terminologies, the odd similarities to our own history, including population pressures, various warcraft and a world war, the suffrage of women, medicine development, and so much more.

But what works best for me was a really brilliant thread of reincarnation. As in, tying all the novels together in a later scholarly work that reconciles a few great souls from incarnation to incarnation through history. We get the lives of those characters in the whole novel, and it really is gorgeous. A Buddhist SF that not only focuses on being self-referential and consistent, but it does it in a very detailed and academic way that feels almost too gorgeous for words.

Brilliant doesn't really do the work justice.

I'm not going to say it doesn't get slightly overburdened by the science bits as if it was just a vehicle for some particularly juicy fundamental discoveries, but I also like that kind of stuff. I didn't mind. It did make the text a bit large, however. :)

I was reminded very favorably of some other epic SF tomes like Poul Anderson's Boat of a Million Years. We have all of Time to work in and the idea exploration is breathtaking.

This one might become one of my favorite KSR novels. Easily.
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
March 7, 2017
4 1/2 stars. Now rounded up to 5

Alternative history, a very believable tale of how the world's civilizations would have (could have) developed if, in the fourteenth century, the plague that killed 30-60% of the people in Europe had instead killed virtually 100% (including almost all Christians and Jews), while being less virulent in the middle east and Asia. The subsequent six plus centuries (up to roughly the present day) are dominated by an Old World population predominantly Taoist or Muslim, with generous contributions from Buddhism. From the latter the belief in reincarnation is appropriated as a central theme of the novel.

Most of the “Books” of the story, which deal with various crucial developments or turning points in these centuries, end with a short section set in the “Bardo”, that state of existence in between two incarnations of a soul. In this section the main character(s) (usually more than one) of that Book relates their feelings about the life just concluded; often, we also have suspicions confirmed that these characters are reincarnations of characters from previous Books. (This sounds hokey the way I am describing it, but for me it added another dimension to the story.)

I found the book’s references to the beliefs of the religions involved extremely interesting. The best of these was the 5th section of Book 2, The Road to Mecca, which I found to be a very convincing evocation of the Islamic haj. (Of course, whether it really is an accurate view, I know not.)

I also have to admit that what seem to be the views of Robinson on many of his characters’ deeply considered issues are similar to my own views. For example, in the last section of Book 6, one of the main characters writes “Wealth and the Four Great Inequalities”, in which he identifies these as follows:
… With this division of labor the subjugation of farmers by warriors and priests was institutionalized … This was the first inequality … the second and the third inequalities (were) of men over women and children … (and finally) added to the subjugation of farmers, women and the family was this fourth inequality, of race or group, leading to the subjugation of the most powerless peoples to slavery. And the unequal accumulation of wealth by the elites continued.
In fact this quote brings out a major theme of the book, and a major concern of many of the characters – that of the subjugation of women throughout history.

Altogether one of those works of fiction which I think I’ll dip into in the future, just to remember what Robinson said about certain things.


I recently finished reading and commenting on State of the World 2013 for our Transition Group.

Mr. Robinson wrote the final chapter of that book. (The synopsis can be seen here.)

He constructed a narrative in the chapter to the effect that science could still provide a way out of the crises we face. But he wasn’t talking about technology fixes or silver bullets, he seemed to be referring to a moral dimension of science; and he posited that science and capitalism could be viewed as in conflict. A rather extraordinary idea, I thought. In trying to figure out what exactly he was saying, I eventually ended up at his Wiki page where in a section called major themes (Here) I learned that Mr. Robinson is very concerned with (1) Ecological sustainability, with (2) Economic and social justice (and with alternatives to capitalism), and with (3) the idea of scientists as citizens. The second of these (and to some extent the third) is a rather major theme of the book here under review.

Hence I now know that not only is Robinson a great teller of tales, a good writer – he is also, from my point of view, a good man. That’s nice I think. I’m certainly going to read more books by him.

But I haven't yet.
Profile Image for Saadiq Wolford.
83 reviews6 followers
May 13, 2008
Dear Kim Stanley Robinson,

I think your Mars trilogy is one of the greatest pieces of science fiction every written. I've read it twice in the past ten years and will probably read it three more times before I grow old. I even read the first book in your eco-thriller trilogy and, though there's not much plot to speak of, thought it was interesting. In short, I love you, man, you're mi hermano.

But, damn, how did you manage to screw The Years of Rice and Salt up? The concept is golden: the plague completely wipes out ol' whitey in 14th century Europe, leaving the rest of history to be written by the Chinese, Arabs, Native Americans, and so on. That is enough alternative history for a trilogy, let alone a single book.

And, yet, it is DULL. I gave this my best effort, patiently wading through 400+ pages in search of a compelling narrative thread before giving up. If you want to write a philosophical treaties on Eastern thought, than please do so and sign me up as one of your eager audience. But don't try to cram it into the guise of novel and string the reader along with the barest of narrative threads...it's just not the right format.

I'm giving you two stars: one for originality and one because, at heart, I'm nostalgic for your earlier work and know that you're down with the program.

Profile Image for Travis.
23 reviews8 followers
July 22, 2008
lesson to be learned: just because you like one book (or in this case, three) by a particular author doesn't necessarily have to imply that you will have to like all books. This, my darlings, is a blatant case in point.

Thy premise: The black plague knocks out 99 percent of Western Europe - so far, so good. However, instead of focusing on the immediate after effects of such an event, as is the case with the first chapter, albeit in somewhat of a too stylistically poetic fashion, the novel instead embarks on a parallel (note, parallel, not alternative) history of the world as the rest of the world matures in the void of the white man's burden... which is also an interesting notion, except for one small snatch - each and every single story focuses on the reincarnated souls of approximately 4 individuals, all with similar names who are somehow or another responsible for, oh, basically EVERY major invention and innovation in the history of mankind, and somehow in the thick of it all, nearly always end up being massacred at the end of their respective chapters... by about the third chapter, oh my children, the proverbial jig was, oh, just kindasorta up and I was officially bored... and only reading the novel for a.) hope of improvement and b.) lack of any idea as to what i wanted to read next.... ho hum.

Back to the parallel history aspect - just slightly weak. especially with regard to temporal events. somehow, nearly every major invention in the novel coincided with its temporal occurrence in our respective tomes - the telescope and gravity in the 17th century, an industrial revolution with trains and steam ships in the 18th, a world war in the mid-20th, etc. Many apologies, but being a history buff, I know how it all happened - if i want to read about alternatives, I'd hope that it would be something other than just a word scramble of proper nouns as to the wheres and whats that form the specifics of said alternication... not to mention that one single Sufi alchemist somehow manages to claim the merits of Newton, Gallileo and Kepler all in one... erm, mildly suspect, ja?

eh, just thought I'd share...
Profile Image for Claudia.
960 reviews555 followers
October 15, 2021
TRIPITAKA: Monkey, how far is it to the Western Heaven, the abode of Buddha?
WU-KONG: You can walk from the time of your youth till the time you grow old, and after that, till you become young again; and even after going through such a cycle a thousand times, you may still find it difficult to reach the place where you want to go. But when you perceive, by the resoluteness of your will, the Buddha-nature in all things, and when every one of your thoughts goes back to that fountain in your memory, that will be the time you arrive at Spirit Mountain.

After reading this novel, I believe that KSR can stand proudly among the great philosophers of our time - I already included him among the most erudite writers ever lived. If I ever hear one more saying that speculative fiction is not literature, I will smack them on the head with this book.

In Red Mars trilogy I was astounded by his knowledge in physics, genetics, biology, politics, sociology, economics and a great deal of other fields. Here, his knowledge of history, geography, culture and religion blew my mind. The amount of research he does for every book he writes is enormous. And to take all this knowledge and adapt them to an alternate history which gives you the creeps how accurate it feels, is just amazing.

The blurb is precise in outlining the setup in which events are taking place. But in all these years of turmoil, we follow a few souls which reincarnate repeatedly, as different persons in different ages, always meeting but almost never knowing that they know each other since the beginning of times. The only time when they recognize each other is in the bardo, when they realize that soon there will be another rebirth and they try to do something different and meaningful in the next life.

To recognize them, their names begins with the same letter. There are several characters more or less important, but three of them are the main ones:

K – the revolutionary one, the Yang, the Water element as I saw them, always trying to change the world;
B – the faithful one, The Yin, the Earth element, always trying to temper K and aiming to Nirvana;
I – the scholar, the Wind element, which usually acts as a binder between the K and B.

Technically, this is not a novel; it consists of 10 stories, chronologically following each other on the timeline, each with its own set of characters which are different but all the same. We have no plot, no action and not exactly an ending. What we do have are lots of philosophical debates on Buddhist and Muslim precepts, extensive descriptions of cultural, social and political environments throughout the epochs and most of all, a vision of how the world would have looked like if Christianity disappeared and Islamic states and China would have ruled the world. There are also other nations which made their significant contribution in this alternate history, such as the historical state Travancore (India) and the Haudenosaunee (North-American natives). It may sound boring, but it isn’t; and keep in mind that this is not a favorite subgenre of mine. There are, as in every book, fragments more interesting than others or some which could have been shorter. But in every of the ten stories there is something to keep your interest going and I savored every word – Book 6 is my favorite; it has the best debates I ever read on any given subject. As to quote the author: “Certain moments give us such unexpected beauty”.

Although I mentioned that religion is an important part of the book, KSR brilliantly juggles through different point of views – atheists, fervent religious and agnostic. One example below and one of my favorites:

“The religions that say you should sacrifice or even pray to a god like that [who nevertheless act like bad children, deciding capriciously whom to reward and whom not to], to ask them to do something material for you, are the religions of desperate and ignorant people. It is only when you get to the more advanced and secure societies that you get a religion ready to face the universe honestly, to announce there is no clear sign of divinity, except for the existence of the cosmos in and of itself, which means that everything is holy, whether or not there be a god looking down on it.”

There are also concepts which today sound inconceivable, such as the Islamic Queen Katima, the founder of Nsara (Nantes), which later will be an important city in Firanja (Europe). Here’s the modern map for a better picture of the world:

Bottom line is, it’s a book you’ll either love or hate, that’s how I see it. It’s not an easy read and you have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. In the end, it is the story of the human species: no matter the setting or who rules the world, humans will always be greedy of power, always fighting for supremacy and money but there will also be genius, selfless minds to drive us forward. The question is how much we will last.

There is a lot more to say about it, but I will just leave you with some of my favorites quotes and hope you’ll give it a try some day.

There was no need to speak in this singing world, so huge, so knotted; no human mind could ever comprehend it, even the music only touched the hem of it, and even that strand they failed to understand—they only felt it. The universal whole was beyond them.
And yet; and yet; sometimes, as at this moment, at dusk, in the wind, we catch, with a sixth sense we don't know we have, glimpses of that larger world—vast shapes of cosmic significance, a sense of everything holy to dimensions beyond sense or thought or even feeling—this visible world of ours, lit from within, stuffed vibrant with reality.

“It doesn't work like that,” Butterfly informed him as they panted off together into the mists. “I've seen a lot of people try. They lash out in fury and cut the hideous gods down, and how they deserve it—and yet the gods spring back up, redoubled in other people. A karmic law of this universe, my friend. Like conservation of yin and yang, or gravity. We live in a universe ruled by very few laws, but the redoubling of violence by violence is one of the main ones.”

“It takes courage to keep love at the center when you know just as well as anyone else the real state of things! It's easy to get angry, anyone can do that. It's making good that's the hard part, it's staying hopeful that's the hard part! It's staying in love that's the hard part.”
Khalid waggled his left hand. “All very well, but it only matters if the truth is faced and fought. I'm sick of love and happiness—I want justice.”

“To a very great extent human history has been the story of the unequal accumulation of harvested wealth, shifting from one center of power to another, while always expanding the four great inequalities. This is history. Nowhere, as far as I know, has there ever been a civilization or moment when the wealth of the harvests created by all has been equitably distributed. Power has been exerted wherever it can be, and each successful coercion has done its part to add to the general inequality, which has risen in direct proportion to the wealth gathered; for wealth and power are much the same. The possessors of the wealth in effect buy the armed power they need to enforce the growing inequality. And so the cycle continues. […] All the world's various religions have attempted to explain or mitigate these inequalities, including Islam, which originated in the effort to create a realm in which all are equal; they have tried to justify the inequalities in this world. They all have failed; even Islam has failed; the Dar al-Islam is as damaged by inequality as anywhere else. Indeed I now think that the Indian and Chinese description of the afterlife, the system of the six lokas or realms of reality—the devas, asuras, humans, beasts, pretas, and inhabitants of hell—is in fact a metaphorical but precise description of this world and the inequalities that exist in it, with the devas sitting in luxury and judgment on the rest, the asuras fighting to keep the devas in their high position, the humans getting by as humans do, the beasts laboring as beasts do, the homeless preta suffering in fear at the edge of hell, and the inhabitants of hell enslaved to pure immiseration.
My feeling is that until the number of whole lives is greater than the number of shattered lives, we remain stuck in some kind of prehistory, unworthy of humanity's great spirit. History as a story worth telling will only begin when the whole lives outnumber the wasted ones. That means we have many generations to go before history begins. All the inequalities must end; all the surplus wealth must be equitably distributed. Until then we are still only some kind of gibbering monkey, and humanity, as we usually like to think of it, does not yet exist.
To put it in religious terms, we are still indeed in the bardo, waiting to be born.”

“Still, it brought home to them yet again how insane their opponents were. Ignorant fanatical disciples of a cruel desert cult, promised eternity in a paradise where sexual orgasm with beautiful houris lasted ten thousand years, no surprise they were so often suicidally brave, happy to die, reckless in frenzied opiated ways that were hard to counter. Indeed they were known to be prodigious benzedrine eaters and opium smokers, pursuing the entire war in a jerky drugged dream state that could include bestial rage.”
“Every sura of the Quran reminds us by its opening words—Bismallah, in the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Compassion, mercy—how do we express that? These are ideas that the Chinese do not have. The Buddhists tried to introduce them there, and they were treated like beggars and thieves. But they are crucial ideas, and they are central to Islam. Ours is a vision of all people as one family, in the rule of compassion and mercy. This is what drove Muhammad, driven by Allah or by his own sense of justice, the Allah inside us. This is Islam to me! That's what I fought for in the war. These are the qualities we have to offer the world that the Chinese do not have. Love, to put it simply. Love.”

“Against all that, certainly, but for what? What the Chinese were fighting for, Bai decided, was . . . clarity, or whatever else it was that was the opposite of religion. For humanity. For compassion. For Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, the triple strand that did so well in describing a relationship to the world: the religion with no God, with only this world, also several other potential realms of reality, mental realms, and the void itself, but no God, no shepherd ruling with the drooling strictures of a demented old patriarch, but rather innumerable immortal spirits in a vast panoply of realms and being, including humans and many other sentient beings besides, everything living, everything holy, sacred, part of the Godhead—for yes, there was a GOD if by that you meant only a transcendent universal self-aware entity that was reality itself, the cosmos, including everything, including human ideas and mathematical forms and relationships.”

And I end up with this prescient quote:

“They believed in a god of mercy, their Christ was all love and mercy.”
“Hard to tell that by what they did in Syria.”

More info on it you may find here: http://kimstanleyrobinson.info/node/345
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,952 reviews1,295 followers
September 26, 2009
I dug into The Years of Rice and Salt with much gusto, for its premise was an intriguing example of why alternate history can be so seductive. Yet almost immediately, my expectations were completely torn apart and shoved in my face. Sometimes this can be good; other times it ruins a book completely. In this case, while I quite enjoyed some of the philosophical aspects of the book, it failed to sustain my interest for its 760 pages.

In this version of history, the Black Death decimates the white Christian population of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire vanishes. Columbus never makes his infamous "discovery" of the New World. The Renaissance never happens. Shakespeare is never born. Robinson takes the discoveries our history often attributes to dead, white, male Europeans and transfers them to Muslim and Buddhist Chinese and Middle Eastern men and women. Muslim alchemists invent calculus while trying to measure the speed of light; a Chinese fleet ordered to invade Japan gets blown off course and winds up, eventually, in North America.

Given the fact that the back cover copy promises "a look at history that could have been—one that stretches across centuries.... Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars," perhaps my expectations were too simple. Robinson uses reincarnation as a plot device to carry his characters across eras and around the world. Although the characters don't retain their memories of past lives (except for a few instances) while living a new one, this device forces the reader to interpret their actions as part of a great karmic cycle. This is particularly the case for the first part of the book, where the narration reinforces the idea that each life is a chance to "embrace the Buddha-nature" and move on to the next plane of existence. Later in the book, the emphasis shifts from the characters to the necessity for society as a whole to come to grips with its own existence and embrace peace before it's too late.

And therein lies my problem with the book. Although the reincarnation device was not what I expected, I tolerated it. This isn't the first book I've read with reincarnated main characters; it probably won't be the last. However, the narrative style of The Years of Rice and Salt is demonstrably inconsistent in a way I can't reconcile with any dramatic purpose.

In the first "book," each chapter is numbered but untitled but has a short snippet that described what would take place: Chapter 1, "Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land; Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end." I liked those. Each chapter also ended with a fourth-wall-breaking remark, such as, "What happened in there we don't want to tell you, but the story won't make sense unless we do, so on to the next chapter. These things happened." I hated these; they were annoying, and I was glad when they stopped after the first book. So did the chapter descriptions though. In Book 2, the chapters had numbers and titles but no descriptions. In Book 3, the chapters had neither numbers nor titles. In Book 4, the chapters had titles but no numbers! And so on, changing apparently on whim, with neither rhyme nor reason. This irked me even more than the book's story—it distracted me from the story, which is a cardinal sin. Robinson's editor should have stepped in, either to standardize this practise or make sure there's an evident reason for it.

Suppose I'm just a complainer, though, who's way too obsessive over meaningless design decisions that don't actually pertain to the plot. Does The Years of Rice and Salt redeem itself in its story, in its heart-warming characters who struggle against centuries of adversity to advance the plight of humanity? Not really.

Reading this book, I was reminded of Umberto Eco, whose novels don't even try to pretend they're anything other than didactic philosophical treatises wrapped in a fiction taco shell. And I know some people find that unforgivable; I, on the other hand, don't mind it—if the author can pull it off. Robinson, at least in this book, falls short of the mark. He flirts with the concept of parallel history, chronicling the development of science in an order suspiciously similar to our own history's, just via Muslim and Chinese scientists. Oh, and there are airships, naturally. This flirtation undercuts the differences explored in the development of moral philosophy, governance, equality, power equity, etc. Once and a while we're treated to an interesting chapter in which one of the reincarnated characters shares a theory on the role of women in government or whatnot, but then we get page after page on the development of the law of universal gravitation (or later, smugly veiled references to relativity versus quantum mechanics).

I loved the sense of difference created on a macrocosmic level, watching China and Islam duke it out for control over the world. I liked how the indigenous peoples of North America actually prevent wholesale takeover of the continent by other of those two factions; indeed, their egalitarian style of government influences much of Europe and West Asia. For all of these broad strokes, however, Robinson neglects the minutiae of his characters' various lives. The detail he adds to the settings, many of which would be unfamiliar to Eurocentrically-educated readers like myself, doesn't quite compensate for this lack of characterization. Overall, The Years of Rice and Salt stretches itself too thin.
Profile Image for Aerin.
149 reviews541 followers
November 5, 2015
Now there is nothing left to do
But scribble in the dusk and watch with the beloved
Peach blossoms float downstream.
Looking back at all the long years
All that happened this way and that
I think I liked most the rice and the salt.

The Years of Rice and Salt is a thick, dense alternate history spanning continents and centuries. Its vast cast of characters includes, as the blurb puts it, "soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars". Through their eyes we see the forces that shape their world, which develops in strange and yet intriguingly familiar ways through the centuries.

That description to me sounds like a roadmap to Boredsville, and though I'd heard good things about this one, part of me was expecting a plodding, dry tome focused more on history's big machine and prominent personalities than on any relatable human drama. Normally I'd avoid that sort of thing like the plague -- which, incidentally, is where the book diverges from our reality:

Here, instead of killing a third of Europe's population, the Black Death kills 99%. White people are more or less nonexistent, Christianity is a footnote, and China and the Muslim nations have become the dominant powers shaping world history.

In ten sections, the book takes us from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century, and from China and India to the European wastelands and the New World. It is not only emphatically unboring, it's one of the most ambitious and stunning novels I've read in a long time.

The book is structured around its Hindu/Buddhist conceit, following the same set of characters through several incarnations as they struggle to evolve and pursue nirvana. Though their races and genders (and occasionally species) morph through time, they fill similar roles in every avatar. The character whose name starts with K is disaffected, angry, an iconoclast - often tortured or martyred for hir idealism, whether as a mutinous slave, a radical feminist, or a hotheaded scientist. K's foil is B, hir friend or partner (but rarely lover) who is the more hopeful, pragmatic and effective of the pair - it is B who is usually the POV character. Then there is I, who is usually a scholar or a mystic, and romantic partner to either B or K. And S, who is a dick, always antagonizing the other characters (which they get pretty pissed about in the bardo between incarnations, when they remember who they have been in other lives: "And you!" [K] roared. "What is your EXCUSE! Why are you always so bad? Consistency is no excuse, your CHARACTER is NO EXCUSE!")

In this way, the book avoids one of my main frustrations with sprawling epics like this - the lack of developed characters with an arc to get really invested in. Though the setting changes, here we're essentially following the same handful of people throughout history. And they do develop as themselves, but they also stand in for all of us. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, the story of humanity is the story of generation after generation striving to avoid the mistakes of the past and achieve the closest thing to perfection it is within our power to attain. And none of us ever gets there, but every new generation picks up the baton and gives it a shot anyway.

B: Come on, you can't deny it. We keep coming back. We keep going out again. Everybody does. That's dharma. We keep trying. We keep making progress... Here we are. Here to be sent back again, sent back together, our little jati. I don't know what I would do without all of you. I think the solitude would kill me.

K: You're killed anyway.

B: Yes, but it's less lonely this way. And we're making a difference. No, we are! Look at what has happened! You can't deny it!

K: Things were done. It's not very much.

B: Of course. You said it yourself, we have thousands of lifetimes of work to do. But it's working.

K: Don't generalize. It could all slip away.

B: Of course. But back we go, to try again. Each generation makes its fight. A few more turns of the wheel. Come on-- back with a will. Back into the fray!

And so, through genocides and world wars, injustice and devastation, these characters reveal their world to us as they endeavor, in small ways, to improve it. They make scientific discoveries, write influential books, build egalitarian societies, thwart wrongs large and small. Each section is told in a different style, which brings to mind Cloud Atlas (something several people pointed out to me when I described the book, though the two actually strike me as very different -- Cloud Atlas is about the repetition of themes across time, the connectedness of everything; Rice and Salt is about the impact of history on human lives and vice versa, and the will to evolve). Strangely, it also reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, another unexpectedly engrossing, satisfying philosophical SF tome - alternate universe rather than alternate history, though really, there's not much difference between the two. I felt the same way reading both books -- that thrill of having discovered something precious and perfect.

There's plenty in here to satisfy different interests: a vast and well-developed alternate history, an intriguing cast of characters, a crash-course in some tenets of Eastern spirituality, a meditation on the human condition, an array of metafictional highwire tricks, and ten ripping good stories.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Mosca.
86 reviews12 followers
October 8, 2012

What if the White European Christians had almost all died out in in the fourteenth century?

Kim Stanley Robinson has written an Alternative History that isn't steam punk, nor Nazis winning WW2.

This is a smart, well constructed, work of historical inquiry that spans seven centuries without the assumed Caucasian and "Christian" historical domination. There are a small cast of well constructed thoroughly "human" characters who live through those seven centuries in a very different Eurasia, Africa, and eventually the two Americas than the ones with which we, today, are familiar.

These seven centuries are seen in the context of a traditional Buddhist cosmology. This means that a handful of characters live, die, and are reborn through many lifetimes in different cultures, religions, genders, races, and even species. They are almost always unaware of their past lives or their souls' recurrent intentions. And, most times, the reader is also left unaware of these links. These individual karmic paths are not essential to the main intent of this book. They are, however, fascinatingly traceable for the attentive reader. And these paths very frequently and subtly reassemble groups, friendships, and love attachments through the centuries according to Buddhist karmic law. If you read to love characters, you will be well rewarded following the labyrinths of karmic paths that separate souls and reunite them in new cultures and contexts.

These seven centuries of Earth's history rewritten are presented to us in a manner that loves us as humans (and "souls") while walking us through our seemingly eternal karmic traps of wars, domination, disappointments, betrayals, and redemptions.

Of course, those historic scientific discoveries "we all know" are now reworked in new cultural contexts with different results. This is the beauty of Alternative Histories. But with this handful of sleepwalking "souls" reborn repeatedly in their own karmic cycles, this vast history of civilizations reconfigured takes on an unexpected intimacy.

Enjoy this one.
Profile Image for Zab.
24 reviews3 followers
July 28, 2007
In retrospect, it's surprising that there aren't MORE fantasy novels about a group of people being reincarnated multiple times, with lives sprawling through a centuries-long alternate history. But, if there were, most all of them would not be as good as this.

The reincarnation plot (complete with matter-of-fact scenes set in the "bardo" between lives) is an excellent way of tempering what would otherwise be a sometimes depressing plot. Basically, the novel starts shortly after the Black Plague kills everyone in Europe, so world history is dominated by the interactions between China, Japan, Muslim cultures based in north Africa and Europe, and an alliance of Native Americans.

It's certainly long, and the arc of history sometimes dominates the arc of narrative, and towards the end we get some multiple-page lectures about theories of history. But, overall, an excellent job.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,737 reviews674 followers
May 9, 2021
It has taken me a week to get round to writing this review, for two reasons. First, a sudden and intense TV obsession (Word of Honour, highly recommended) and second, concern about not doing 'The Years of Rice and Salt' justice. I first tried to read it as an undergraduate student, I think, and gave up pretty quickly. I was too impatient to appreciate Kim Stanley Robinson when I was younger, but now I'm in my thirties he's one of my favourite authors. This novel is different in setting to his sci-fi, while retaining the same themes that make his other books so satisfying: the pursuit of scientific understanding, the alleviation of human suffering, the pursuit of justice and equality, and management of the environment. The depth and nuance he brings to these topics really stands out. His novels are long and full of thoughtful detail; they repay careful reading. As soon as I started reading 'The Years of Rice and Salt' this time, I was enthralled. Both the concept and its execution are fascinating.

'The Years of Rice and Salt' is an alternate history in which, essentially, the Black Death killed all white people. Aside from a few isolated Scottish islands, Europe is completely depopulated. It is gradually reoccupied by people from the Middle East, becoming a loose network of Islamic city states. History proceeds without the West, along a different yet analogous path. Colonisation and world war aren't avoided, but occur differently. The main powers are China, India, and a league of Islamic states. The North American east and west coasts are colonised, but indigenous people retain control of the interior. Religion and resources still drive conflict, yet capitalism takes a somewhat different form without Christianity as its moral armour. The whole thought experiment is highly thought-provoking and impressively wide-ranging.

I would have happily read this counterfactual told in the style of a non-fiction history book. Instead, the narrative follows a small group of characters through a series of reincarnations, spread across 600 years and the whole world. Each section evokes a different time and place, using a range of stylistic conceits like inset text. These variations serve to distinguish the sections, while the continuity of characters ensures the narrative coheres. Between lives, the characters briefly unite in the Bardo and discuss their progress. These conversations and the nature of the Bardo give the book a powerful spiritual dimension. When aware that they've lived many times and will live many more, the characters ask: what is the aim of our lives? What should humanity be striving for? How can we do better next time? I really liked the detail that the Bardo changes over time. The most haunting section for me was during the Long War, when the characters couldn't tell whether they were still alive or dead in the Bardo. The war seemed to have collapsed the barriers between life and death. This section evoked a terrifying vision of trench warfare bisecting the whole of India, from coast to Himalayas.

War does not predominate in the narrative, however, as the characters are reincarnated as explorers, scientists, political activists, writers, teachers, and wild animals. Their relationships and experiences vary accordingly, while retaining an essential bond of community. Kim Stanley Robinson shows a completely new world history through their eyes and presents his essentially optimistic and progressive view of humanity. None of the political thinkers and leaders we know exist in this world, yet egalitarian ideas arise:

"This is the world we want you to help us make," he said. "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 qadis or mullas or ulema, no more slavery and no more ursury, 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, arms, armies, or navies, no more patriarchy, no more clans, 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."

Unsurprisingly, I found 'The Years of Rice and Salt' a happier and more hopeful reading experience than Kim Stanley Robinson's more recent novels The Ministry for the Future and New York 2140. In those, he seeks to write humanity a way out of climate change catastrophe, whereas this has the comfortable distance of alternate history. Still, the characters' philosophical and political debates encourage the reader to reflect on how history could have happened differently. 'The Years of Rice and Salt' doesn't claim that without white Europeans none of the atrocities of colonialism, slavery, and industrialised war could have happened; that would be an unconvincing cop-out. Nonetheless, the history of North America in particular would have been very different and the alternative here is considerably less destructive. I don't have enough historical knowledge to judge the overall plausibility of events. The details were nonetheless convincingly imagined: the music, clothing, attitudes to drugs, units of measurement, names of technology, and metaphors that developed without Europe and Christianity. This is an incredibly ambitious book that succeeds in telling an alternate world history that is both engaging and challenging. It was both escapist to read and a reminder of the huge impact that plagues have on the course of history.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
June 14, 2016
Rosado on the road.

Description: It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur - the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe's population was destroyed. But what if? What if the plague killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been: a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.

A carrot at the end of every chapter annoyed, yet teeth were gritted and the story proved immersive, mainly dealing with conscious re-incarnation through the eons of human social history.

Picked the right time to tackle this one as Ramadan has just started in Real Life and I learned a lot. Whilst on the subject of Rumi, he was mentioned with understandable reverence, DiCaprio is a not the best choice for that Sufi Persian poet by a long white chalk.

Profile Image for Jess.
441 reviews80 followers
September 11, 2016
Finishing this book was a chore. It was impressively researched, decently written, and incredibly insightful, but at the end of the day I found myself glancing at my watch and trying to remember why I was supposed to care.

The marketing of the book is quite misleading. This isn't just a straightforward alternate history book--What if the Black Death killed off 99% of Europeans and the rest of the world's civilizations survived? Rather more importantly, it is a story about reincarnation. You start in the fourteenth century just as everybody's realizing that European civilization has become completely extinct, and over the course of the book you jump forward in time a couple decades or centuries at a time until roughly the present day, all the while following the stories of a handful of reincarnated souls. These souls are quite handily identified because, whether they are a fourteenth century nomadic Mongolian warrior or a seventeenth century wealthy Chinese widow with bound feet, their names always start with the same letter. Usually two souls in particular are the "main characters" in any given section, but they are surrounded by a little crew of other souls who are trying to achieve enlightenment together. Ostensibly, the crew of souls is getting better and better at life until they finally reach their ideal state.

Except maybe not? Because despite this elaborate setup of reincarnation as a method of exploring alternate history, the whole purpose remained frustratingly unclear. The author introduced and dropped literary motifs and themes seemingly randomly throughout the book. And once I figured out that every section was going to end with the main soul-characters dying and being reincarnated, I found it very hard to give a damn about what happened.

Some sections were more interesting than others. But given the number of sections, I was surprised at how limited the scope turned out to be. There were no sections located in Africa (though African characters showed up in other sections of the book), and way too many sections located in China. The characters came from all walks of life, so that the same soul could be reincarnated as a Sultana, a literal tiger, and a simple Chinese foot soldier, which was really quite gratifying. But it became difficult to recognize the souls over time. The author started out carrying over personality traits as the souls were reincarnated, and then just decided to drop that idea, I suppose.

All that said, it would be rude not to mention just how ridiculously thorough the research on this bad boy was. It was all completely plausible--both the historical technology, events, and philosophy discussed, and how it would all have been subtly or dramatically changed without the influence of Europeans.

The idea that the Native Americans would have actually had a chance of holding their own against invaders from the Old World was extremely provocative. It made me a little sad, actually, to see how they might have progressed as a unified world power in their own right if they hadn't been wiped out by European diseases and greed.

Possibly the most interesting plot point of the alternate history was that without Christians (the religion was basically wiped out along with its practitioners), there would still be religious wars. But instead of being between the three main monotheistic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the religious wars would be between the concept of one god (Islam), many gods (Hinduism), and no gods (Buddhism). The resulting wars, as imagined by Robinson, lasted for generations, and led to rapid technological innovations as people found new and exciting ways to murder each other.

The concept of gender equality in this alternate history was also pretty fascinating. Still tied to religious ideology, the whole concept of women-as-people came into and out of fashion depending on a number of factors. You have fifteenth century woman heads of state and seventeenth century woman philosophers and twentieth century woman scientists... only for their also to be concubines, harems, and bans on the education of women. It was a depressing pattern of ups and downs.

Look, I would've enjoyed this book a lot more if the stakes were made clear at the outset, and if the main driver of the plot was action, rather than discussion. It's not a bad book, simply exasperating in its execution. If you want a really, really thorough and imaginative alternate history, and you're deeply curious about what the world would look like without European imperialism, check this shit out.
Profile Image for Chadwick.
306 reviews4 followers
July 15, 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.
Profile Image for Jemppu.
501 reviews93 followers
September 11, 2022
Generations spanning epic with a pleasantly intimate touch throughout. Wonderfully comprehensive and easy-flowing, philosophic rumination on the annals of humanity, and individual consciousness, in a way of re-imagining history.

KSR's inspiringly thorough grasp of the myriad of subjects really gets to build and drive the narrative all by itself, undisturbed and impressively effortlessly-seeming.

Brilliantly intellectually captivating; an inviting stream of thoughts to wade in. (And nicely narrated by Pinchot).

Reading updates.
Profile Image for Gabi.
698 reviews123 followers
January 20, 2021
All the stars!
And in the same breath I have to say that I can understand why a part of the readers couldn't even finish it.

Kim Stanley Robinson does not only write an alternate history he literally invents the whole of human history anew, starting in the time of the great plague spanning the generations til the era of atomphysics. In his story Christianity is nothing but a footnote in the annals, the fate of humankind is orchestrated by Muslim empires, China and Buddhism.
To bring this large span of time to life he uses the structure of independent novella-like parts with reincarnations of the same set of souls giving us snapshots of the respective times. Those tales are linked by shorter interludes in the "bardo", where the souls stay after the death of their previous and the birth of their next incarnation.

Since it is KSR the emphasis in the different tales lies heavily on science, social structure/politics and religious philosophy. Once more I'm astounded at the holistic (if this is the correct word here) interest and knowledge of this author. He is utterly brilliant in his way of re-inventing human history.
Simultaneously this is the point where this books isn't for everybody. The reader has to be interested in philosophy to appreciate what KSR is doing here. Otherwise it might end as a rather dragging, uneventful read.

For me it was perfect, both in structure and prose. I could have gone on for another 700 pages without any complaint.

Quite different from his Mars-trilogy, but equally outstanding.
Profile Image for Jack.
340 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2008
A classic of speculative fiction. This one has really stuck with me, and continues to inform my thinking on any number of topics, not least the clash of civilizations, the impermanence of human culture, the non-inevitability of European historical domination, how indigenous American societies might have survived and thrived, and more.

The book starts somewhat slowly, but is worth sticking with. Terrific circular structure to the storytelling becomes more and more powerful as the various tales and the trip through alternate-history intertwine. Robinson's ability to fully imagine an alternate timeline in which a bipolar world evolves that is dominated by Islam and China is truly amazing.
Profile Image for Sud666.
1,977 reviews162 followers
March 22, 2023
First I must say this book is "historical fiction" in the same vein as counter-factuals (essentially "what if?" scenarios), but could also be looked at as speculative fiction. Either way, it is entertaining and rather interesting.

The basis for this story revolves around the Black Death, instead of killing 20-30%, had a mortality rate, in Western Europe, of 99.9%. In this counter-factual, we look at the development of the world without the "Western" world ever contributing.

The story starts with Bold and Psin, two scouts for Timurlane, who return with news of the devastated lands out west. Timur falls to the plague as well and the story develops through Bold's eyes.

The story then turns a bit strange. KSR takes us on a spiritual journey as the characters of Bold and Psin are reincarnated. This is the method through which KSR travels through time-each character is a re-incarnated form of the previous characters.

Using this process we are taken through the "history" of the world-wherein China, India, and the Islamic states vie for dominance. While I enjoyed the counter-factual history, I did not care for the entire "spiritual reincarnation" stuff. KSR delves into many facets of this concept and it is the driving underlying theme of his story.

If you're looking for an interesting "what-if?" scenario-then you will appreciate this tale of a world that developed without Western influence.
Profile Image for Daniel Roy.
Author 4 books69 followers
May 3, 2011
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.
December 18, 2019
This rating is for the audio book.

This is another of those books I tried to read two or three times previously and never could do it despite knowing I would like it once I got involved in it. I would read a bit, then my mind would take off on its own little jaunt, and, well - look! A squirrel!
Sometimes a book is meant to be read out loud to me while I knit..

"The Years Of Rice and Salt" posits a world where Christianity is for all intents wiped out by the plague, leaving Europe nearly uninhabited for hundreds of years. The Eastern cultures are not as hard hit, or are spared. The religions of Islam, Hindustan, Buddhism thrive, alternatively struggling with each other and coexisting.
The story follows a cohort of souls that continue to progress together throughout many different lifetimes, trying in each existence to figure out what it is all for.

"The Years Of Rice and Salt" is one of 4 books I am listening to narrated by Bronson Pinchot, and he shows a depth of skill and vocal quality that amaze me. I actually picked up 3 of the books he narrates without knowing they were by him. He does a lot of speculative fiction, which I read, and now I will admit to being more inclined toward purchasing the audio book vs. the ebook if the price is similar and he is the narrator.
Profile Image for Derek.
550 reviews94 followers
July 7, 2011
I was very disappointed. It's not that the book is badly written - it isn't - but I thought I was reading a "what-if-European-civilization-had-never-developed" novel, but really it seems completely irrelevant that the Europeans were wiped out in a plague. Instead, it's a series of vignettes about life in other parts of the world, that seem like they could have occurred with or without Europeans present.
Profile Image for F. William Davis.
717 reviews22 followers
August 3, 2022
So this really was another accident of the classic "Frank didn't read the blurb before starting" variety and I can tell you that when I did stop to read it, I felt like a bit of a silly billy.

As such this "review" (which is far too long) will be, more than usual, a collection of thoughts from a timid (and in this case largely uninterested) observer, after which I'll add a little digression at the end about how this book bounced up into my current reading pile.

If you'd like an actual review that brilliantly explains what this book is about look for the review by Claudia on GR which is just spectacular. I was looking for some guidance and read that review when I was about half way through the book and it helped me focus a lot better in the second half of my read through.

This is not at all a book for me given my inability to retain historical data (not for a lack of trying). Also, it doesn't help that I don't read alt history in general and would prefer (or generally require) a strong scifi element if I did. I don't know enough about history to know when this really diverged. Or even how much of it was different to actual history which is, I'm sure, the main draw for these books. At 760 odd pages I was definitely in deep, deep water with this one.

All told and in hindsight, I was able to laugh and scream in equal measure throughout this story. It's quite brutal near the start and after witnessing the castration of a young slave boy I was ready to give up. I'm glad that I persisted in some respects, because I do hate to give up on a story, especially one by a favourite author, but also because the story would eventually bring me as much joy as grief.

Just briefly, in case you too didn't read the blurb before starting my review. The premise is: How would society have changed if the Black Death had wiped out an even more significant portion of the population?

Ok anyway, the story only began to catch my interest around 250 ish pages into it when the characters began to develop scientific concepts. For the reasons mentioned I don't want to comment too much about how different things in the book are from reality, so don't over analyse my take, but I was grabbing the notion that maybe science blossoms earlier because say the period referred to as the dark ages doesn't come about and consequently libraries aren't burned etc... and there's no information reset.

I can see it, if the right(wrong) persons weren't around for one thing, but also probably civilisation's prior obtained knowledge would have to be considered much more precious a resource in this scenario, of course I'm way on board with that idea.

For an example of how little the details could possibly mean to me; at one point the Khan is watching a demonstration of ballistics and wind resistance comes up as a topic. The Khan makes a reference to a knife slicing through butter and well I don't even truly know what century this is happening in beyond a guess so even though it sounds like a modern phrase I'm not sure if the Khan would have butter to reference or not. How old is butter? (A decade ago I would have been Googling this kind of thing while reading, but I'm just not that interested lately.)

All of this reinventing science at a different time or a different place is conceptually stimulating, however as a story this is rather dull. Particularly if you're already familiar with basic science and I'd presume that it's not much less dull even if you aren't. So, what is this book all about? What's the story and where is it going? I think basically imagine that Western dominance isn't a thing and we get a narrative of Eastern folks adding their values more dominantly into the march of progress.

Is it an optimistic view as I've hinted at above or ultimately a pessimistic take on what could have been? Well like any good story it flips a little back and forth with the flow of the narrative and I'll let you decide once you reach the ending for yourself.

With very few exceptions I generally don't enjoy watching others play sports and as it turns out, I now know that I enjoy reading about a fictional lacrosse game even less.

"Reincarnation is a story we tell; then in the end it's the story itself that is the reincarnation."

There are a few religions that feature to varying degrees in the story which is as you'd expect, but interestingly probably the most frequently mentioned religious idea is the Buddhist notion of reincarnation and at least twice we seem to follow characters into the afterlifey, transition period (like a catholic "limbo" I guess, where the person goes between incarnations). This inclusion of the supernatural and the occasional "keep reading to see what happens in the next chapter" thrown in by the narrator had me rather confused about what exactly was going on with this book.

Stories that span large periods of time can lose a lot of steam because of switching characters and consequently diminished attachment to the expanding cast. Marina J Lostetter got past this in her 'Noumenon' series by having her generation ship populated with clones, who were never quite the same person twice but managed to provide an ongoing connection. In this story reincarnation eventually serves that same function and I liked that aspect of the narrative.

Another thing I didn't pick up on, which I learned from Claudia's wonderful review, was that the author connected the reincarnated individuals by always matching the first letter of their names. This was one of the things which really helped me focus better in the second half and was actually necessary in order to understand and appreciate the final line of the book!

Here's a comical exchange about reincarnation that I wanted to share:

"just before we're sent back into the world, the Goddess Meng administers to us a vial of forgetting."

"I don't remember that," Keeper said.

"That's the point."

- (Zing! Well, duh! Keep up, Keeper!)

And a few more quotes which are just random observations from the text that I also decided to share:

"To be a human is easy, to live a human life is hard; to desire to be human a second time is even harder. If you want release from the wheel, persevere."

"In a rage he committed her to a monastery, then he burned the monastery down."

"A bodhisattva, Dizang Wang, took her spirit to the Forest of Corpses, where she helped the unsettled ghosts. After that she went down through the levels of hell, teaching the spirits there to rise above their suffering, and she was so successful that Lord Yama returned her as the Bodhisattva Guanyin, to help the living learn these good things while they are still alive, before it's too late for them."

"Think of equations as excuses, and you'll be fine! But all you do is think of ways not to think of things!"

And that's all I can really observe about the book for you, folks. It's possibly a good alt history but I'm not the person to ask. I've told you how it made me feel a bit of everything at various stages. KSR is probably the perfect author to do alt history because his books tend to be detail heavy and very focused on political and technological elements.

I'm going to end with the promised digression about how I got here, so most readers can probably skip the last few paragraphs, provided merely for entertainment value, at my own expense of course.

So how did I so mistakenly begin reading this book? Well, being a KSR fan this was already in my TBR pile and by chance this came up as a nomination for an August read in a scifi book club that I recently joined on fb. It didn't win the poll but on an impulse I decided to read the 5 or 6 losing nominations as well as the winner. To add to the hilarity of my silliness, I had actually voted for this based solely on familiarity with the author, again, I hadn't read the blurb at all. In a stunning bit of added irony, I had recently started a discussion in that same fb group about how I wasn't convinced that alt history was scifi and that I couldn't see myself reading much of it.

Well, it's not exactly my first alt history, I'm thinking of the Flashman papers and a short story by Eric Choi called 'The Greatest Day' and it is true that I enjoyed both of those but the former is a comedy and the latter very scifi so I definitely enjoyed them for reasons other than the alternate take on history that they presented.

This book has done nothing to change my mind and I still think I'll avoid alt history as a general rule except by accident (as in this case) or by hook, if historic events might be reimagined to include aliens or something similarly, unambiguously scifi.

I'm going to end with a quote from near the end of the book which many book collectors will appreciate and seems particularly fitting in this case, for me. Talking about the many and varied books on his shelves:

"But I have not read them, I must admit. They exist only for their titles, which say it all. They could be blank inside."
Profile Image for Denise.
364 reviews33 followers
December 29, 2019
Sometimes a 5 star sometimes 3 or maybe less. So many intriguing ideas that bounce around with a sorta kinda plot.
4 reviews
July 8, 2007
We had people over for the Fourth for the fireworks and, of course, the house had to be cleaned and by that, I mean all the books sprawled about the floor in lazy, often surly piles, crowding every available planed surface had to be reined in and brought to order. Rice & Salt got rammed into a corner atop the largest bookshelf in the living room and I'm looking at it now -- it balefully staring back at me.

I do not like this book. In fact, I've been trying to dump it for the last -- however long I've had it since after I read it, which, I think, is a good three years. Plot, character, story development, etc, I just didn't enjoy but, BUT there is so small part of me that refuses to add it to the Salvation Artm/Sell @ the Strand bag in the kitchen. Dunno why. The book is as if Steven Spielberg and Umberto Eco did movie together and this book is the adaptation of that film.

The fucked up part? I've read it twice. A book I don't like, I've read it twice.

What's it about? *Sheesh* Come to the house and get it out of here if you want to know that...

Profile Image for Matīss Mintāls.
170 reviews33 followers
May 15, 2021
Tik gari un tik garlaicīgi prot rakstīt tikai neliels skaits slavenu rakstnieku, un sociālās zinātniskās fantastikas autors Kims Stenlijs Robinsons ir viens no tiem.
"Rīsa un sāls gadi" ir kaut kāds šķidrs īru sautējums, kur KSR centies sajaukt uz konkrēto brīdi viņam aktuālas idejas vienā intensīvā un bagātīgā kokteilī, taču galā iznākusi šķidra balanda. Alternatīvā vēsture (ļoti neizteiksmīga un neinteresanta), klišejiski iestrādātas idejas par reinkarnāciju un garlaicīgi gari stāsti, kuros vēsturiskie notikumi un varoņu domas un darbības atspoguļo (jau atkal) garlaicīgas un klišejiskas pārdomas par to, kā būtu, ja būtu. Ja eiropieši būtu iznīkuši mēra laikā un Eirāzijā paliktu tikai islams un ķīniešu impērija. Izlasot šo blāķi ir skaidrs, ka nekas jau nemainītos. Būtu citas valstis, šeit dzīvotu citi cilvēki, bet kopumā visa vēsture būtu daudzmaz līdzīga. Izgudrojumi tie paši un tādā pašā izskatā, tikai lielu daļu būtu izgudrojis un atklājis viens cilvēks, nevis tie nejaušību un eksperimentu rezultātā rastos vairākās pasaules vietās, būtu pasaules karš (ok, lai būtu dažādība, izstiepsim to uz 67 gadiem). Galvenais neaizmirst reinkarnāciju. Katrā no 10 grāmatām (var saukt tās par daļām vai nodaļām) darbojas vieni un tie paši pārdzimušie varoņi, kuri nodaļas un parasti arī savas dzīves beigās gudri spriedelē par pārdzimšanu un attīstību, bet kādi bija savā dabā, tādi arī paliek, varbūt pat vēl stulbāki savās darbībās, tāpēc šī bardo līnija šķiet vislielākais mīnuss, kas vienkārši garlaicīgo romānu padara par diezgan dumju draņķību, jo samiksēt nejaucamas un atšķirīgas idejas un žanri tomēr ir jāprot.
Profile Image for Allen Roberts.
81 reviews5 followers
May 28, 2023
The Years of Rice and Salt begins with the premise: what if the Black Plague had wiped out 99% of the European population (instead of the 60% it actually did)? Given this assumption, this book tells the story of a very different unfolding history of the world—with European Christian civilization basically ceasing to exist, leaving China, the Islamic nations, and India the major powers.

The development of science, technology, and knowledge evolved differently in this alternate history, along with the discovery (and colonialism) of the New World, and of course, the politics and actions of the world powers. And that’s the story that is told here in very interesting ways. And you’d better believe there are conflicts aplenty… I don’t want to give too much away!

The book is laid out as individual dramatic and touching stories of various people from different times and places in the world that together paint a picture of the whole of history. There is also a running theme of the afterlife and reincarnation, which provides a fascinating connection between the stories within. In the last chapter, the characters in the story speak profoundly about the philosophy of history, obviously quite important to the conception of this epic work—and also gives the author the chance to comment on the state of our own world.

What an amazing concept for a book, and it is executed most impressively. The amount of thought and research Kim Stanley Robinson had to have put into this is truly staggering. This is the second KSR book I’ve read this year (the first being the magnificent Galileo’s Dream) and both have simply blown me away... he has very quickly become a personal fave, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. 5 stars.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews345 followers
January 23, 2018
The most impressive Robinson I've read since, since.... well, ever, I guess. This is AltHist played with the net up, and the writing and characterization are just about as good as it gets. The opening episode -- just after the point of deivergence, when the Black Death exterminated humanity in Europe -- is nightmarish, chilling.

I recommend The Years of Rice and Salt to your attention, with the caveat that it has the usual KSR strengths and weaknesses, and so will alternately thrill and annoy you. At least some of the annoyances will make you think. This is a very good piece of work by an author who knows where he's headed, and just how to get there.
Profile Image for Майя Ставитская.
1,447 reviews141 followers
May 2, 2020
Я сотни раз прорастал травой по берегам стремительных рек. Сотни тысяч лет я рождался и жил во всех телах, что есть на Земле
Джалаладдин Руми

Кима Стенли Робинсона буду читать еще, после "Авроры" было ясно. Сильнее всего хотелось "Годы риса и соли", на русском, кажется, нет еще. Но такой интересный посыл, смотрите: в реальности романа чума (а скорее сочетание чумы, сибирской язвы и голода, вызванного неурожаем) уничтожила на тридцать процентов населения Европы, а девяносто девять, странным образом не затронув густонаселенных Индии и Китая. То есть, были единичные случаи заражений, но эпидемию удавалось локализовать совершенно драконовскими мерами. И основной переносчик, европейская серая крыса, в том биоценозе отсутствовала. Впрочем, не возьмусь утверждать, но как-то так. Европа опустела, христианства нет, остались ислам и буддизм, между ними будет разворачиваться постоянное соперничество. Города, спустя столетия, заполняются , обживаются и перестраиваются по новым канонам.

Но главное здесь другое. Роман построен как череда реинкарнаций родственных душ, проходящих через время и пространство, воплощаясь в людей (и не только) в разное время, в разных местах. Смысл даже не во множественности рождений, но в том, что мы путешествуем группами. С самыми значимыми в нашей жизни людьми уже бывали тесно связаны в прежних воплощениях, и еще будем. Такое себе вечное возвращение. Это начнется известием, принесенным разведчиками Тимура, что городок, лежащий на пути армии, пуст - все вымерли. Приказом хана убить и сжечь их вместе с лошадьми и молнией, которая поразит правителя в самый момент, когда командир отряда должен проститься с жизнью.

Деморализованная армия распадается и откатывается в степь. А Болд скитается по опустошенным заразой землям, избегая входить в города, находит и приманивает конька, после им придется пожертвовать, когда нападут волки. В последней стадии истощения выходит к реке, подобран работорговцами и после продан на китайскую галеру, где встречает чернокожего раба Ку. Мальчишку кастрируют, Болд выхаживает его, по прибытии в Китай их продают владелице харчевни и настает сытая жизнь. Но Ку, одержимый ненавистью к китайцам, грабит и убивает хозяйку, поджигает ресторанчик (а там все вокруг бамбуковое) и старший товарищ поневоле вынужден сопровождать юного злодея. Этим не заканчивается, потом Ку, решительно ничего не боящийся, становится евнухом императорского гарема, а Болда пристраивает на конюшню. И снова убивает, поджигает, на сей раз дворцовое помещение. И чудом выходит сухим из воды.

Они встретятся в Бардо, где Ку перенесет тысячи лет адских мук, а потом снова воплотятся. На сей раз в индийскую девушку Кокилу из касты торговцев Вайшью, которая, мстя за смерть подруги, отравит мужа и свекровь, да так и будет схвачена с руками, выпачканными синим соком ядовитого растения, и казнена, как ведьма и отравительница. Чтобы воплотиться в тигрицу, которая спасет брахмана от повстанцев, после будет убита, а юноша, тоже вынужденный спасаться, прибьет ся к паломникам в Мекку, примет ислам, станет суфием, прежде любимым великим Акбаром, после, когда тот станет склоняться к буддизму - опальным. Казни избежит, но будет сослан устраивать медресе в Бараку (это в теперешней Франции), где в просвещенной султане Калиме узнает свою тигрицу по сросшимся на переносице птичкой бровям. Просвещенная овдовевшая правительница, с помощью Бахрама, создаст идеальное государство на территории одного отдельно взятого города. Она трактует Коран с точки зрения раннего феминизма. Но вскоре братья мужа нападут на город. С горсткой верных Бахрам и Калима переселятся севернее, и там устраивают город, который сумеют защитить - оплот исламского феминизма.

Весь роман такая череда перетекающих друг в друга историй. Будут японские мореплаватели, открывшие случайно путь в Северную, а затем и Южную Америку. И тогда же на американский континент проникнет европейская оспа, от которой у местных нет естественного иммунитета. Будет история арабского алхимика, который станет великим ученым, проведет опыты с вакуумом, измерения скорости звука, но под угрозой семье, взятой султаном в заложники, вынужден разрабатывать оружие, в том числе отравляющие газы. И история родовитой китайской вдовы, которая приютит монаха с сыном, роющихся в куче отбросов, внезапно под влиянием этой встречи начав прозревать предыдущие воплощения. А после, когда несчастного монаха обвинят в шпионаже и запытают до смерти, выйдет за мусульманского ученого и они вместе станут искать путей совмещения ислама с буддизмом. Она будет писательницей, и свет просвещения станет распространяться потихоньку. Но потом случится восстание, которое жестоко подавят, новый неурожай, наводнение, война.

Там будет история японского деда Мазая, Япония давно под владычеством Китая, который протянул руки в Европу - Фиранджа и Северную Америку, правда, там противостоит Лига Племен Ходенесуни. И вот парень, японский раб лавочника китайц��, посланный хозяйкой за шелковичными червями, спрятанными на чердаке в залитом наводнением районе, дрейфует на своей лодчонке, то и дело прибиваясь к островкам, откуда на палубу немедленно устремляется всякая скачущая и ползучая тварь: от змей и пауков до лисиц. Он спасает молодую китаянку с ребенком, после они попадают на карантин - в районе наводнения ожидаемо свирепствует холера. А потом он вступит в ряды сопротивления и спасенная китаянка не донесет станет помогать.

В этой книге столько всего интересного, и когда ближе к концу над теорией инкарнаций станут потешаться - а что бы вы хотели, просвещенный XIX век, ниспровержение устоев, будет ужасно обидно - вы чего, есть это, есть, вся же книга о том! И такой неожиданный безнадежный обнадеживающий, грустный, прекрасный финал, описывающий примерно наше время. Дивный роман. Если переведут, обязательно перечитаю.
Конечно, мы плохие. Конечно, все идет не так. Но зачем жить только этим? Для чего притворяться, что лишь об этом история? Of course we are bad; of course things go wrong. But why dwell on it? Why pretend this is the whole story?
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