The Barnes & Noble Review
Kim Stanley Robinson, author of award-winning novels like the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), Icehenge, and The Wild Shore, has written one of the most ambitious novels in decades in The Years of Rice and Salt, a book that is breathtaking in scope, chillingly timely, and profoundly powerful. Although it's billed as an alternate history of mankind's last 700 years, it is so much more than that. It's about religion, fate, and the human spirit. It's about the meaning of
life. Why are we here? Is there a god? Is the soul eternal? Does it all really matter?
The story begins in the 14th century, as the Black Death is spreading throughout Europe. But instead of killing approximately one-third of
the population, this time the plague destroys almost everyone: 99 percent. Civilization is wiped out, and Europe becomes a forgotten wasteland. There is no Renaissance, no Industrial Revolution, and no colonization of the New World by the British and French. Christianity and Judaism are all but forgotten. Buddhism
and Islam become the world's two major religions.
Bold Bardash is a Mongol horseman who has witnessed the plague firsthand. Utterly alone and barely able to find enough food to keep himself alive, Bold wanders aimlessly until he is captured by Turkish Muslims and eventually sold as a slave to Chinese traders. While sailing back to China in the largest ship Bold has ever seen, he meets a black slave boy named Kyu. During the trip, the boy is made a eunuch, and only Bold comforts the boy as he struggles
to survive the horrific ordeal. Once
in China, the two fatefully work together in a busy restaurant, where Bold learns more about local culture and Kyu plots revenge against the entire Chinese Empire.
After Bold and Kyu experience life to the fullest and eventually die, their souls go back to the bardo, where they await reincarnation. The deeds of their past lives help decide who
(or what) they return as. In each incarnation, the two try to improve themselves and the world around
them, with varying levels of success: Chinese revolutionaries, an elderly widow and a poor monk, a Native American Indian chief and a clan matriarch, a tiger and a pilgrim, a Chinese naval captain and a young island girl from the other side of
The Years of Rice and Salt (a term coined by Chinese women in wealthy households, signifying the busiest times of a women's life: raising children, taking care of elderly family members, managing servants, etc.) is a truly visionary work. Kim Stanley Robinson shows us what could have been, and what could still be. Will humankind ever get it right? Or are we destined to make the same mistakes over and over again? (Paul Goat Allen)
Having revolutionized the novel of planetary exploration with his Nebula- and Hugo-winning Mars trilogy (Red Mars, etc.), Robinson is attempting to do the same to another genre with this highly realistic and credible alternate history. It's the 14th century, and the Black Death has swept through Europe, killing not 30% or 40% of the population but 99%. With Europeans now no more than a historical curiosity, the empires of China and Islam spread rapidly across the world. India, caught between superpowers, struggles to maintain its independence until, fueled by a scientific renaissance, its forces besiege and conquer the great city that in our world would be called Constantinople. The New World is discovered by the Chinese, who rapidly settle the west coast, while an Islamic fleet lands at the mouth of the Mississippi. Eventually, the enlightened Indian nation of Travancore comes to the aid of the beleaguered native people of the New World. New technologies appear as the centuries go by and, as often as not, are applied to military ends. Adding a mystical balance and a human note to this counterfactual history is a small cast of recurring characters who live through each episode of the book as soldiers, slaves, philosophers and kings. Dying, they spend time in the afterlife, only to be reborn into the next era, generally with no knowledge of their past lives. Robinson, who has previously demonstrated his mastery of alternate history in the classic short story "The Lucky Strike" and his Three Californias sequence, has created a novel of ideas of the best sort, filled to overflowing with philosophy, theology and scientific theory. (Mar. 5) Forecast: The restrained jacket art, not at all typical of SF, suggests the publisher is aiming to attract intelligent mainstream readers as well. Certainly the depiction of how a moderate or even a liberal Islamic state might evolve couldn't be more timely. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A warrior with the army of Tamarlane turns his back on a plague-infested village in Eastern Europe, a Chinese widow rediscovers a new purpose in her life, and an alchemist risks his life and his reputation in the name of invention. These are just a few of the vignettes that propel this panoramic tale of soldiers, philosophers, emperors, and slaves caught up in a cycle of reincarnation and evolution. Beginning in an alternate 14th century in which the Black Death has wiped out European civilization and left the burden of human progress to the descendants of Islam and Buddhism, Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy, recycles characters and themes while exploring a world without the cornerstones of "Western" culture. Superb storytelling and imaginative historic speculation make this a standout novel and a priority choice for all sf and general fiction collections. Highly recommended. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Adult/High School-In this alternative version of the history of the modern world, the bubonic plague kills almost all of the Europeans, and the West never recovers. The major world powers are Islam and China, and the major religions are Islam (in various forms) and Buddhism. Many other peoples, including Hindus, Sikhs, Japanese, and Yingzhou (from the New World) also play significant parts. Robinson's story encompasses familiar parallels: the discovery of the Americas, religious strife and cultural breakthroughs, political tyranny and devastating world war, scientific renaissance, technological wonders, and the pursuit of happiness. Though this world is vast and complex, its history is experienced by readers on a human scale, learned through the colorful and vivid tales of individual people. Through the centuries, they live and die in startlingly different ways, yet there is an underlying structure, and the characters remain familiar because they are the same group of souls, reincarnated in different places and times. After death, they meet in the Bardo, where they are judged, and then they are off on other adventures-again struggling to make progress in their "years of rice and salt" on Earth. This is an addictive, surprising, and suspenseful novel about characters and a world whose fate comes to matter considerably to readers.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Hugo winner Robinson (Antarctica, 1998, etc.) follows three characters over seven centuries on an alternate Earth in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions. Her charming though ponderous study in comparative religions opens with wandering Mongol scout Bold Bardash stumbling through an abandoned Athens, where the Black Death has wiped out everyone. Christianity just about dies out, Judaism is a minority cult, and, after many barbarous and pointless struggles between petty warlords, the New World is discovered by the Chinese Navy, and the Renaissance is played out as a conflict between a Middle Eastern Islam and Chinese Buddhism. Robinson explores ten periods in this alternate history with earthy, pragmatic Bardash, impetuous, vengeful Kyu, and quietly intellectual I-Li undergoing many reincarnations: orphaned Indian girl, Sufi mystic, African eunuch, Sultan's wife, Chinese admiral, dourly brilliant alchemist, feminist poet, village midwife, glassblower, theologian, etc. Robinson avoids the battles and calamities that mar most alternate histories, leaving his characters to discuss at sometimes tedious length the esoteric ironies among evolving theological and political ideologies as China assumes unsteady mastery of the globe. Overlong, but blessed with moments of wry and gentle beauty as friends and antagonists rediscover each other under different guises in exotically dangerous locales.
PRAISE FOR The Years of Rice and Salt
"Hugo winner Robinson follows three characters over seven centuries on an alternate Earth in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions...Blessed with moments of wry and gentle beauty as friends and antagonists rediscover each other under different guises in exotically dangerous locales."
PRAISE FOR KIM STANLEY ROBINSON’S Red Mars WINNER OF THE NEBULA AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL
“A tremendous achievement.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“An absorbing novel...a scientifically informed imagination of rare ambition at work.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“Promises to become a classic...This is epic science fiction in the best sense of the term–thoughtful, provoking, and haunting.”
–St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Green Mars WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL
“Dense as a diamond and as sharp; it makes even most good novels seem pale and insignificant by comparison.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“Has the breathtaking scope, plausible science and intellectual daring that made Red Mars a hit.”
–Daily News of Los Angeles
Blue Mars WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL
“If I had to choose one writer whose work will set the standard for science fiction in the future, it would be KIM STANLEY ROBINSON. Blue Mars represents a breakthrough even from his own consistently high level of achievement....Beautifully written...a landmark in the history of the genre.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“A complex and deeply engaging dramatization of humanity’s future...exhilarating.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer