Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is a storehouse of thought. It is a dense, informed, impassioned and huge novel by an author who is a comprehensive and insatiable thinker. At times it seems much too short, stuffed as it is with ideas about everything: politics, ecology, science, religion, history. At other times it tests the reader's patience, as the author's ceaseless desire to impart knowledge and information can become burdensome. It begins in the Middle Ages and guides the reader through 700 or so years of an imagined history, until it reaches a time more or less equivalent to now.
In the last of the novel's ten sections, Zhu, an aged philosopher teaching a seminar, muses on different approaches to the writing of history. His thoughts provide one of the keys to reading The Years of Rice and Salt:
Zhu explained that he hoped to describe and discuss the various theories of history that had been proposed through the centuries, and then to analyze those theories, not only by testing them in the description of actual events ... but also for how the theories themselves are structured, and what sort of futures they implied, "this being their chief use to us. I take it that what matters in a history is what there is in it we can put to use."
Robinson's novel does something very similar. In other words, it is not just a book which invents a history: it is a book about history and how it is fashioned.
The premise is simple and inspired. In the Middle Ages, the plague did not kill one-third of the population of Europe; rather, it eradicated almost all of the continent's inhabitants. Robinson builds an alternate history of the world which unfolds inexorably and complexly from this premise. It is, naturally, a history which in many ways is profoundly different from the one we know: Christianity is neither a religious nor political force; English does not become the dominant language; China and Islam are the great colonial empires; the Enlightenment, or something very like it, is centered in the equivalent of India rather than Europe; North America is occupied by three main cultural groups: Chinese, Aboriginal, and Islamic.
In other respects, the world Robinson posits is not unlike our own. The Tokugawa Shogunate assumes rulership of Japan at a time parallel to the beginning of our 17th century. There is a period of terrible global warfare spanning six decades during the period equivalent to the end of our 19th century and the first half of the 20th: in effect, our two world wars are conflated into one long, brutal conflict. Scientific developments proceed at a similar pace, and by the time of this other world's version of the 20th century, the potential to create an atomic bomb exists. The ongoing interplay between real history and Robinson's invented history is one of the novel's many fascinations.
Each of The Years of Rice and Salt's 10 sections takes place in a different time and place, but they are linked by an ingenious narrative device: the principle characters are always reincarnations of the same souls. These individuals are members of the same jati, a group of souls whose destinies are bound together. In each life, they gravitate toward each other, impelled by mystic forces of attraction. After each life, they reunite in a kind of Buddhist limbo called the bardo and remember their past lives. They are then cast into the next life, after being karmically judged by unsympathetic gods; born anew, they forget their past selves until their next death, except for the occasional moment of déjà vu or rare transcendent experience, when they briefly escape the boundaries of their mortal selves.
In each incarnation, the three principle souls, the protagonists of the novel, can be identified by the first letters of their names, which never change. From one section to another, they may be male or female, old or young, even in one case an animal, but their personalities remain true: B____ (Bold, Bistami, Butterfly, etc.) is modest, spiritually-inclined, gentle but resilient; K____ (Kyu, Katima, Kheim, etc.) is a leader, a revolutionary, an agent of change; I____ (I-Li, Ibn Ezra, I-Chin, etc.) is a scholar and thinker, endlessly curious about the world.
In a sense, these three souls represent faith, action, and thought; together, they can move the world. Their experiences in China, the Travancore League (India), the Middle East, Firanja (Europe), and Yingzhou (North America) provide us with an overview of the many cultures and historical phases of this world both like and unlike our own. We walk a long way with them down the corridor of time. By the end we look back, amazed, at how far we have come.
The first section ("Awake to Emptiness") takes a Mongol called Bold on a circular journey from central Asia through plague-stricken Europe to Africa, where he is enslaved and sold to Chinese merchants. Bold and an African boy called Kyu eventually find themselves working together in the restaurant of Master Shen and his wife I-Li. The last section ("The First Years") tells us of the life of a diplomat, Bao Xinhua: his childhood in China with the insurgent Kung Jianguo; his marriage to a fellow diplomat in Fangzhang (San Francisco); his middle years studying in the vast Burmese metropolis of Pyinkayaing under the philosopher Zhu Isao; his later years back in Fangzhang, where he teaches and tends his garden.
Both of these sections, and all of the intervening ones, could be expanded into separate novels. They are rich in ideas and details and humanity. They are also imbued with a sense of life's transient nature. Throughout, the characters strive to make the world a better place, and fall short of their goals; some die for their ideals. But over time, we see that their actions make a difference in small or large ways and contribute to the improvement of the lot of humanity. Even if it depicts a flawed, imperfect world, the impulse of the novel is utopian.
One could also say that the novel is utopian -- or at least hugely optimistic -- in the task it sets itself. It is difficult, if not impossible, to recapitulate 700 years in 650 pages. Accordingly, The Years of Rice and Salt is sometimes an arduous read. Robinson works hard to give substance to his world, to make it seem more complete than most fictional realities. Sometimes, it is laborious to work along with him. The early sections can be slow going, with their painstaking attention to detail and methodical buildup. But the cumulative power of the novel is immense. Whatever impatience I felt in the first couple of hundred pages was more than compensated for by the exhilaration I felt when I began to understand its scope, its imaginative brio, its willingness to take risks.
The effort required by The Years of Rice and Salt pays off in spades in the final three or four sections, which are utterly alive. They convey, as few novels do, a sense of people inhabiting, experiencing and urgently trying to make sense of the world. To borrow the words of one of its protagonists, the novel works toward "a kind of understanding of human reality that place[s] the greatest value on compassion, created by enlightened understanding, created by study of what [is] there in the world." Robinson approaches this task with an almost religious intensity and devotion. But if there is a religious impulse behind the novel, it is Buddhist in nature: from its epigraph onward, The Years of Rice and Salt is suffused with Buddhist thought and is based on reverence for the material world rather than a higher power.
To better study "what [is] there in the world," Robinson has created a unique kind of fiction, one that erases the line between fiction and the world. This mode of writing will be familiar to readers of his previous works, the Mars series and Antarctica. Robinson combines compelling idea- and character-driven stories with lengthy digressions on science, philosophy, history and myriad other subjects. These digressions come in forms more often associated with non-fiction: lectures and monologues, excerpts from nonexistent academic or philosophical texts, protracted conversations and debates, dry factual summaries which take up several paragraphs or pages.
Sometimes, Robinson's tangents feel like dull but informative assigned reading and it is not difficult to understand why some readers grow impatient or bored with his work. More often, for me at least, reading them is like sitting in on a lecture by an unusually engaging professor or witnessing a heated debate about ideas of great relevance to our lives.
These interruptions to the story ultimately serve to reinforce the story. They help generate a sense that what happens in the novel matters -- that the characters feel as strongly about their lives as we do about our own. Most fiction aspires to this, but rarely do I come across novels that succeed in this task as fully as Robinson does here. The Years of Rice and Salt engages the world directly and intensely. In so doing, it invites the reader to do the same. There is little more I would ask of a book. | April 2002