The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
In The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson uses the Black Plague to remove the Europeans, leaving the Old World to the Chinese, Islam, and the many cultural groups that end up in India. The Chinese discover the Americas, their diseases spread through the Native American populations, and their armies plunder the Incans. The novel begins with the Plague, but its vignettes move from one period of history to the next until it reaches the end of the 20th century.
How do you write a novel about one set of characters that spans centuries? Robinson uses reincarnation to cast a set of souls in various times and places as he follows his alternate history. The characters can always be told by the first letter of their names. Bold, a soldier, eventually becomes Butterfly, a young girl, etc.; Kyu, who is enslaved and castrated, eventually becomes Kang, a Chinese widow, etc.; I-Li becomes Ibrahim, etc. Bold and his reincarnations, despite what his initial name might suggest, tends to adapt to the world around him. He is often devoted to Sufism and history. I-Li tends to be curious about science and math. Kyu’s lives are devoted to many things, ranging from science to theology to feminism, but he and his reincarnations tend to be at the forefront of any idea or movement that can move society against injustice and inequality. These souls find each other in each of their lives because they are part of the same jati; consequently, they and the rest of their group rise and fall together as they are returned to life. They meet each other in the bardo at the end of their lives, often berating one another for acting in ways that hold the rest back.
Reincarnation is a useful narrative device for this project, but it also lends a thematic weight to what might otherwise seem only a narrative “what if?” experiment. When the jati meets in the bardo, they struggle to figure out how to act correctly. It’s all well and good to try to increase love in the world, as Bold and his reincarnations often suggest, but how should we respond to the injustices created by those that seek power and domination (as the characters whose names begin with “S” often do)? And keep in mind that Bold and his companions cannot avoid those that lust for power as their jati includes such people.
I found these scenes in the bardo compelling and often tragically moving. Even when they do good, the jati is still returned to the world from the bardo. There are moments in the novel when the characters are able to see beyond their lives and they realize that they are connected to one another. In these moments, I could feel my conception of self being pushed outside of myself and I began to rethink my life.
The Years of Rice and Salt is epic in scope, and because its chapters follow distinct lives, though not different souls, readers will find many themes here. However, one imperative expressed repeatedly in the novel is an urge towards compassionate action and a warning against xenophobia, exceptionalism, and prejudice. It’s worth noting that the characters change sex from one story to the next, and they are reborn into multiple cultures and religions. In other words, many of our world’s barriers become unconvincing when viewed through this system, and all things seem worthy of compassion.
As the novel makes its way through the centuries, I was often struck by the ways it mirrors our own history — and the ways it doesn’t. The Indians create the modern world and the North American Native Americans create the earliest democratic systems to survive into the modern world. Modern technologies sadly still lead to a global war, and this one lasts much longer than World War One. It ultimately kills a billion people, leaving behind a lost generation and an economic depression. Nuclear physics, however, does not lead to an atomic bomb, in part because Robinson’s scientists form a global agreement not to create weapons for their power-mad governments.
Still, the novel follows our history often enough that it seems frustratingly difficult to transcend the mores and norms that one is born into. So it may be worth reading The Years of Rice and Salt, published in 2002, as a response to American foreign policy after 9-11. Governments and leaders in this novel often compel their subjects to go to war, and the scientists that want to create drainage systems that will prevent the spread of disease are ordered to just make better cannons. What should people do in such moments if they, like Bold, feel that “violence redoubles violence” and want instead to spread love in the world? What makes this novel an especially interesting response to American foreign policy is that Robinson has removed America as we know it from the world and mostly explores the question from the perspective of Muslims and Chinese characters.
While I found The Years of Rice and Salt often fascinating, it’s not a thriller. The novel devotes many of its pages, especially as it nears its resolution, to lectures on history and philosophy — and there is also a great deal of dialogue between intellectuals about history, philosophy, and religion. While I’d defend Robinson against charges that these extended lectures are lazy storytelling or too heavy-handed, I will admit that I read perhaps a dozen shorter novels before I finally finished this one. The Years of Rice and Salt is a heavy book filled with heavy reading.
So what. The Years of Rice and Salt pushed me outside of myself more than once, and I have no doubt that it will stay with me for years to come. While I suspect that few who take me up on this recommendation will finish the novel, I still recommend it.
Ryan, it took you so long to finish this book that I assumed you weren’t enjoying it. Interesting!
I struggled with it