Friday, August 9, 2013

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Gripping at first, but fails to sustain interest
In his 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt, award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson presents an alternate world history in which 99% of Europeans are killed by the Black Death, leaving Asian civilizations, primarily the Muslims and Chinese, to become the dominant forces in world history. Despite being marketed as a sci-fi novel, the book will appeal mostly to history buffs and those interested in Eastern cultures.

The structure of the book resembles that of a typical James Michener historical novel. Because the chronological scope spans centuries, it is divided into ten parts, each being a separate slice of history presenting a whole new cast of characters. Whereas in a Michener novel the heroes of one section would be the descendants of the characters in the preceding chapter, in Robinson’s book the thread that connects the characters of one story to another is not heredity but reincarnation. In between each historical stage we are given brief glimpses into the bardo, a spirit world where souls await judgment between incarnations. Unfortunately, at times this reincarnation story overpowers the historical narrative. Also, when reading a 750-page novel, oftentimes the only thing that keeps a reader going through such a sustained effort is a deep involvement with the book’s characters. Here, however, it soon becomes clear that every 75 to 100 pages the characters you’ve come to know will meet their demise, rendering such intimate engagement with them impossible.

Nevertheless, the novel is quite gripping for about the first 500 pages. Although this alternate history is by no means a conventional science fiction novel, it does fit into the sci-fi category for the very fact that many of its main characters are scientists, and it therefore deals extensively with the history of science. The most fascinating part of the book involves an Arab alchemist and a Tibetan mathematician who, in a world without Galileo and Newton, set out to uncover the primary laws of physics. Other sections of the book follow the lives, studies, and works of an anatomist, a nuclear physicist, and a budding archaeologist. Another excellent chapter features a former Samurai who wanders the New World, uniting the indigenous population and encouraging them to rise up against their Old World oppressors. Philosophers and historians also feature heavily in the book, with mixed results. While Robinson’s knowledge of Eastern religions and philosophy is admirable, the book regrettably features far too many long and tedious dialogues on interpretations of the Quran, Islamic law, or historiographic theory. Such talky digressions really kill the forward momentum of the historical narrative. The final third of the book leaves the reader just wanting to get it all over with. The penultimate chapter, entitled “Nsara” is the longest and dullest in the book, ambling along aimlessly before coasting to an unsatisfying resolution. Though the final chapter is not quite as boring, the book still manages to end not with a bang but with a whimper.

There is a monumentality to The Years of Rice and Salt that one can’t help but admire. Robinson’s detailed research and sweeping vision are worthy of praise. Such erudition and imagination, however, don’t necessarily make for an enjoyable read. Ultimately, the Asia-centric world that Robinson creates is not different enough from the world in which we live to sustain the reader’s fascination. Science fiction fans won’t be sufficiently marveled by its innovations, and history buffs will be left feeling they would have been better off devoting their time to reading yet another novel about the history of the real world.

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