The Years of Rice and Salt
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Bantam Doubleday Dell
768 pages, 2002
Buy it online
See Book Reviews on January Magazine.
Fourteen miles west of California's parking lot-covered capital, Sacramento, you'll find a 70-acre neighborhood of single-family homes and co-op apartments called Village Homes. Each structure in the quiet, tree-lined Davis, California suburb features solar water heating, natural cooling systems and a natural drainage system that also irrigates eight cooperatively cultivated orchards and a vineyard. Energy consumption is one-third to one-half that of other neighborhoods in Davis.
Bound together through the "warp and weft" of committees, boards and potlucks, its residents govern Village Homes with a cheerful semblance of democracy. Science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson has served on its elected board of directors, volunteered on the community's horticultural committee and architectural review board, and written for its newsletter. "I moved into Village Homes in 1991," says Robinson, "and it strangely echoed what I had already written in my utopian novel Pacific Edge, so that I felt I was coming home in a way Its strong sense of community, focus on children, volunteer committee work and agricultural work, and lives led outdoors doing a fair bit of vegetable gardening, [has] been the biggest single influence on my thinking in this last decade."
Along with Ursula K. Le Guin, the 50-year-old Kim Stanley Robinson is one of America's greatest living utopian thinkers and novelists. His "Three Californias" trilogy, which includes Pacific Edge, extrapolates three possible futures for California: one catastrophic, another dystopian, the third utopian. His acclaimed Mars novels, all of which won either Hugo and Nebula awards, are probably the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with a post-capitalist vision since Le Guin's 1974 novel, The Dispossessed.
Science fiction, says Robinson, is "about the histories that we cannot know -- future, alternative, deep past. These are all historical fictions. So every time you write one you sketch out a kind of theory of how history happens." His most recent novel, The Years of Rice and Salt , describes an alternate history that begins when 99 per cent of the population of Europe is wiped out in the 14th century by the Black Plague, instead of the one third that died in our timeline.
In the 700 years that follow, a world dominated by China and Islam steadily evolves into a precarious, ambiguous utopia shaped by the values of Sufism and Buddhism. The same characters brought back through reincarnation connect each historical period, meeting between lives in the Bardo, the Buddhist realm of the dead. In life they change the world through a combination of geographic exploration, scientific discovery, and political rebellion.
Robinson's characters are often scientists or students of nature who are drawn into conflict with systems of profit and exploitation, joining social movements that, in Robinson's future and alternative histories, actually succeed in fundamentally changing society along ecological, egalitarian, and democratic lines. "I do consider my books to be a political work," says Robinson, "It seems to me that the more stories out there that encourage these kinds of actions, then the better off people would be."
In the 1980s, when Robinson published his first novels, science fiction was dominated by cyberpunk, a genre movement shaped by information technology and free market hegemony. In the worlds described by cyberpunk, the future "wasn't going to change and so all you could do was just try to make your way as in some noir film, get your own and not worry about the world at large," a sensibility reflected throughout the culture and politics of the period. This had to be opposed, says Robinson: "There's got to be a utopian strand, there's gotta be positive stories. You can criticize over and over again, but it also helps to have some vision of what should happen."
Despite pressure to glorify the capitalist dystopia in which we live, utopias do manage to thrive in our society, from Star Trek's multicultural, quasi-socialist Federation to computer games like Sim City to dozens of science fiction novels published each year. "All these ways of trying to imagine some post-capitalist world are useful," says Robinson, "even though -- or precisely because -- they are wish fulfillment and escapist in some senses. It means there are wishes still in existence for a better and more just world, and it means people want to escape, like prisoners, the current reality. All to the good!"
Robinson is routinely chastised in both science fiction and mainstream venues for embracing this political, utopian sensibility. In an otherwise positive review, Salon.com editor Laura Miller criticizes the closing chapters of The Years of Rice and Salt as "unduly Pollyanna-ish," when "Robinson's utopian inclinations wrest the novel away from his storytelling ones." Some reader reviews on Amazon.com betray obvious discomfort with political and philosophical debates that permeate Robinson's novels, calling them "preachy" and even "sentimental."
These criticisms may have validity, but Robinson doesn't take them lying down. "The idea that [utopias] would be 'boring' to live in and are boring to read about [are] disguised political attacks on behalf of the status quo," he says. "These days [utopian stories] are all about the struggle of getting to a juster society, and then keeping it there, or fending off counter-attacks, or making further progress. Utopia, in other words, is just a name for a positive dynamic in history; history will never stop happening; and so to call for utopia is to call for an increase in justice in the world, and a different economic system that is based on justice and ecological sustainability. This is exactly the subject matter on which science fiction is by definition focused -- science fiction being a matter of imagining fictional histories for the future, some better, some worse, all different -- all therefore challenging the current power system and its attempt to portray itself as inevitable and eternal."
Throughout The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson's reincarnated characters struggle to reconcile their faiths with science and human freedom, a dialectic that Robinson clearly believes is essential to achieve the utopian synthesis. Robinson writes movingly about how Buddhism elevates and expands scientific investigation even as it guides his characters in their moral and political choices. It is not merely a literary device for Robinson. For 30 years, he says, "I have been reading about [Buddhism] and thinking about it and shaping a good deal of my behavior because of things I have learned in it.
"There is a kind of California Buddhism that is not much different from being an empiricist ... It comes down to regarding this world as sacred and ordinary living as a form of worship. Chopping wood and carrying water; washing dishes and cleaning the house; it's good to think of these things as forms of worship. Then, as behavior moves outside the home to social interaction, making history and so on, the same attitudes can apply -- compassion, right action, these are also Buddhist suggestions."
The Years of Rice and Salt also portrays Islam as a pluralistic and deeply conflicted religious tradition. Some of the book's Buddhist characters voice harsh criticisms of Islam, with one describing Muslims as "ignorant fanatical disciples of a cruel desert cult." Robinson does not stop at such one-dimensional images, however, delving deeply into Islamic history and belief to draw forth its liberatory potential. Throughout the novel, Sufism -- a sect emphasizing the mystical and transcendent side of Islam -- provides a counterweight to Islam's oppressive hierarchies, as well as a bridge between Islam and Buddhism. In time, the Sufism of The Years of Rice and Salt merges with other traditions to form a new progressive Islam.
In the novel's second section, a Sultan and his wife, Katima, lead a "caravan of fools" into Plague-emptied Europe. There they found a utopian settlement defined by Sufi teachings and Katima's dissident feminist Islam. "God wants relations in marriage between husband and wife to be between equals," she says, "What the husband can be the wife can be also!" Naturally, their experiment is crushed by military invasion.
Centuries and lives later, Katima is reincarnated as Kirana, a feminist Islamic scholar. Islam, she again teaches, was founded with the concepts of justice and equality before God. "But then came the caliphs, the sultans, the divisions, the wars, the clerics and their hadith... they seized on every scrap of misogyny scattered in Muhammad's basically feminist work, and stitched them into the shroud in which they wrapped the Quran, as being too radical to enact."
This time, she succeeds in leading an uprising against militaristic fundamentalism. History, says Kirana, "exists for us now as a project to be enacted... It makes us a thread in a tapestry that has unrolled for centuries before us, and will unroll for centuries after us. We're midway through the loom, that's the present, and what we do casts the thread in a particular direction... When we begin to try to make a picture pleasing to us and to those who come after, then perhaps you can say that we have seized history." Empowered by governments guided by the values of Buddhism and progressive Islam, an international network of physicists organizes to share knowledge of nuclear power, subjecting it to international regulation. By doing so, the scientists curtail its environmental impact and forestall an arms race.
Written well before the so-called "war on terrorism," The Years of Rice and Salt presciently has much to teach a post-9/11 America: about Islam and history, but also about the ethics that might allow us to survive the contradictions created by our technology. "I suppose I would like my book to give some different angles on the world," says Robinson, "make readers re-think some of their assumptions about world history, Europe and the rest of the world. I would hope that it would de-occidentalize them, what we would call 'disorientation,' so that they had to reconsider what they thought they knew about history. As for the current war on terrorism, the more context the better; and the more we know about Islam, the better."
After crossing many centuries, continents and lives, the novel quietly concludes in a small university town called Putatoi on the west coast of the Yingzhou continent -- in what our timeline calls Davis, California. There a traumatized widower and former revolutionary named Bao learns to live alone in a community that Robinson describes as "a kind of alternative Village Homes." Bao tends garden, baby-sits neighborhood children, and teaches the history of the revolution he helped to make. As Bao achieves balance in his life, so does the rest of the world. When the book ends, Robinson's alternative history continues. Like the real Village Homes, the fictional utopia built by his characters must be defended, renewed and spread.
There's entertainment and even comfort in The Years of Rice and Salt, but like the rest of Robinson's work, this is not a story that flatters its readers or offers them an easy escape from reality. Robinson's novels ask each of us to challenge exploitation and injustice, question what we believe and the way we live, and have the courage to create. Utopia -- that "positive dynamic in history" -- begins in such stories. "Everybody is addicted to stories," says Robinson, "and all of religion is just a version of stories, and so stories become more important than just entertainment, because we model so much behavior. Life imitating art is as common as can be." | July 2002
Jeremy Smith, former publisher of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice, is the director of membership services at the Independent Press Association.