Bantam, 2002, 658 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10920-0
The rarest novels are those that ultimately make you doubt that they were, in fact, written by a single human. The Years of Rice and Salt is a bit like that; a story so big, so ambitious and so convincing it’s hard to imagine one single person coming up with all of this stuff. It’s not a terribly entertaining novel, but it’s a very impressive one.
It starts with a a very big bang: In the fourteenth century of the Christian Calendar, an Arab expedition in Europe finds the continent empty of human life. The Black Plague has passed, and instead of killing one in three, it has felled more than 99% of the population. In one stoke, Christianity has become a historical curiosity, leaving the planet to other civilizations.
It’s an ambitious conceit, and Robinson finds a way to tell us what happens for the next centuries without necessarily abandoning his protagonists. Through reincarnation, our two main characters, K. (Kyu, Katima, Kheim, Khalid, etc.) and B. (Bold, Bistami, Butterfly, Bahram, etc.) witness the gradual evolution of this new world, so totally unlike ours. Though they seldom remember their previous incarnations, K and B keep the same personalities: K is aggressive, adventurous and driven whereas B is cautious, quiet and fatalistic. Other minor characters (from A. to Z, one could say) also pop up here and there again and again; a character guide might be necessary to keep up with all their incarnations.
But through the story of K and B, Robinson also tells the story of civilization, each advance propelled by Ks, but shored up and integrated by Bs. The alternate universe in The Years of Rice and Salt isn’t necessarily better or worse than ours, being peopled with humans just as ours is. But the sweep of this imagined history is awe-inspiring. From alternate technological developments to a decades-long World War to a very different “North America”, Robinson delivers such a staggering achievement that readers might blink once or twice before the magnitude of the effort.
The recognition of such ambition does a lot to compensate for some of the weaker parts of the book. Not every section is equally compelling, and so it is that such sections as “The Alchemist” (a beautifully-written segment about the alternate birth of modern science thanks to a charlatan turned scientist) and “Nsara” (Feminism triumphant) are far more interesting than the rest of the book. Robinson really gets cooking whenever he can marry sweeping historical currents to personal struggles. Alas, whole sections of the book seem perfunctory at best. We’ll read them in order to get to the next part.
There is a similarity between this novel and Robinson’s own Mars Trilogy, mostly in terms of political argumentation (which is not as vigorous here, mind you) and historical sweep. In terms of writing, however, The Years of Rice and Salt is uneven, sometimes deliberately so: Parts of the books are written in different styles, with occasional digressions by the narrator, side notes, poetry excerpts and other superficial differences.
Students and scholars will probably analyze this novel to death over the next few years; sympathies and best wishes on those working on their essays! Certainly, this novel contains enough material to keep everyone busy: the mix of religious, political, scientific and historical material is provocative. Even Robinson’s closing argument on the ever-progressing nature of the human race just happened to mesh with this reviewer’s musings. At a time (in this particular universe) where Islam and Christianity are looking for ways to understand each other, this can only help.
Stuffed with interesting ideas and one of the most ambitious premises in a while, The Years of Rice and Salt might not be as immediately compelling as Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but it certainly contains enough material to reward patient readers. Subsequent reads might even help unlock some of the book’s deeper themes. It’s such a big book that it’s hard to believe that one author could write it at all. Even if that writer happens to be Kim Stanley Robinson.