With the same unique vision that brought his now classic Mars trilogy to vivid life, bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson boldly imagines an alternate history of the last seven hundred years. In his grandest work yet, the acclaimed storyteller constructs a world vastly different from the one we know. . . .
“A thoughtful, magisterial alternate history from one of science fiction’s most important writers.”—The New York Times Book Review
It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur—the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe’s population was destroyed. But what if the plague had killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been—one that stretches across centuries, sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, and spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation.
Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson navigates a world where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions, while Christianity is merely a historical footnote. Probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power—and even love—in this bold New World.
“Exceptional and engrossing.”—New York Post
“Ambitious . . . ingenious.”—Newsday
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.74(w) x 10.96(h) x 1.25(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Galileo’s Dream. In 2008 he was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment.” He serves on the board of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He lives in Davis, California.
Read an Excerpt
Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land; Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end.
Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitaka through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism from India to China.
Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame. Son of a Tibetan salt trader and a Mongol innkeeper and spirit woman, and thus a traveler from before the day of his birth, up and down and back and forth, over mountains and rivers, across deserts and steppes, crisscrossing always the heartland of the world. At the time of our story he was already old: square face, bent nose, gray plaited hair, four chin whiskers for a beard. He knew this would be Temur's last campaign, and wondered if it would be his too.
One day scouting ahead of the army, a small group of them rode out of dark hills at dusk. Bold was getting skittish at the quiet. Of course it was not truly quiet, forests were always noisy compared to the steppe; there was a big river ahead, spilling its sounds through the wind in the trees; but something was missing. Birdsong perhaps, or some other sound Bold could not quite identify. The horses snickered as the men kneed them on. It did not help that the weather was changing, long mare's tails wisping orange in the highest part of the sky, wind gusting up, air dampa storm rolling in from the west. Under the big sky of the steppe it would have been obvious. Here in the forested hills there was less sky to be seen, and the winds were fluky, but the signs were still there.
They ride by fields that lay rank with unharvested crops.
Barley fallen over itself,
Apple trees with apples dry in the branches,
Or black on the ground.
No cart tracks or hoofprints or footprints
In the dust of the road. Sun sets,
The gibbous moon misshapen overhead.
Owl dips over field. A sudden gust:
How big the world seems in a wind.
Horses are tense, Monkey too.
They came to an empty bridge and crossed it, hooves thwocking the planks. Now they came on some wooden buildings with thatched roofs. But no fires, no lantern light. They moved on. More buildings appeared through the trees, but still no people. The dark land was empty.
Psin urged them on, and more buildings stood on each side of the widening road. They followed a turn out of the hills onto a plain, and before them lay a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind, rubbing branches together over sheeting surfaces of the big black flowing river. The city was empty.
Of course we are reborn many times. We fill our bodies like air in bubbles, and when the bubbles pop we puff away into the bardo, wandering until we are blown into some new life, somewhere back in the world. This knowledge had often been a comfort to Bold as he stumbled exhausted over battlefields in the aftermath, the ground littered with broken bodies like empty coats.
But it was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sutra to himself. "Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O, what an Awakening! All hail!"
The horses stalled on the outskirts of the town. Aside from the cluck and hiss of the river, all was still. The squinted eye of the moon gleamed on dressed stone, there in the middle of all the wooden buildings. A very big stone building, among smaller stone buildings.
Psin ordered them to put clothes over their faces, to avoid touching anything, to stay on their horses, and to keep the horses from touching anything but the ground with their hooves. Slowly they rode through narrow streets, walled by wooden buildings two or three stories high, leaning together as in Chinese cities. The horses were unhappy but did not refuse outright.
They came into a paved central square near the river, and stopped before the great stone building. It was huge. Many of the local people had come to it to die. Their lamasery, no doubt, but roofless, open to the skyunfinished business. As if these people had only come to religion in their last days; but too late; the place was a boneyard. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. Nothing moved, and it occurred to Bold that the pass in the mountains they had ridden through had perhaps been the wrong one, the one to that other west which is the land of the dead. For an instant he remembered something, a brief glimpse of another lifea town much smaller than this one, a village wiped out by some great rush over their heads, sending them all to the bardo together. Hours in a room, waiting for death; this was why he so often felt he recognized the people he met. Their existences were a shared fate.
"Plague," Psin said. "Let's get out of here."
His eyes glinted as he looked at Bold, his face was hard; he looked like one of the stone officers in the imperial tombs.
Bold shuddered. "I wonder why they didn't leave," he said.
"Maybe there was nowhere to go."
Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them. If that was truly what had felled these people. There was no way to be sure.
"Let's get back and tell them," Psin said.
The others nodded, pleased that it was Psin's decision. Temur had told them to scout the Magyar plain and what lay beyond, west for four days' ride. He didn't like it when scouting detachments returned without fulfilling orders, even if they were composed of his oldest qa'uchin. But Psin could face him.
Back through moonlight they rode, camping briefly when the horses got tired. On again at dawn, back through the broad gap in the mountains the earlier scouts had called the Moravian Gate. No smoke from any village or hut they passed. They kicked the horses to their fastest long trot, rode hard all that day.
As they came down the long eastern slope of the range back onto the steppe, an enormous wall of cloud reared up in the western half of the sky.
Like Kali's black blanket pulling over them,
The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land.
Solid black underside fluted and rippled,
Black pigs' tails and fishhooks swirling into the air below.
A portent so bleak the horses bow their heads,
The men can no longer look at each other.
They approached Temur's great encampment, and the black stormcloud covered the rest of the day, causing a darkness like night. Hair rose on the back of Bold's neck. A few huge raindrops splashed down, and thunder rolled out of the west like giant iron cartwheels overhead. They hunkered down in their saddles and kicked the horses on, reluctant to return in such a storm, with such news. Temur would take it as a portent, just as they did. Temur often said that he owed all his success to an asura that visited him and gave him guidance. Bold had witnessed one of these visitations, had seen Temur engage in conversation with an invisible being, and afterward tell people what they were thinking and what would happen to them. A cloud this black could only be a sign. Evil in the west. Something bad had happened back there, something worse even than plague, maybe, and Temur's plan to conquer the Magyars and the Franks would have to be abandoned; he had been beaten to it by the goddess of skulls herself. It was hard to imagine him accepting any such preemption, but there they were, under a storm like none of them had ever seen, and all the Magyars were dead.
Smoke rose from the vast camp's cooking fires, looking like a great sacrifice, the smell familiar and yet distant, as if from a home they had already left forever. Psin looked at the men around him. "Camp here," he ordered. He thought things over. "Bold."
Bold felt the fear shoot through him.
Bold swallowed and nodded. He was not courageous, but he had the stoic manner of the qa'uchin, Temur's oldest warriors. Psin also would know that Bold was aware they had entered a different realm, that everything that happened from this point onward was freakish, something preordained and being lived through inexorably, a karma they could not escape.
Psin also was no doubt remembering a certain incident from their youth, when the two of them had been captured by a tribe of taiga hunters north of the Kama River. Together they had staged a very successful escape, knifing the hunters' headman and running through a bonfire into the night.
The two men rode by the outer sentries and through the camp to the khan's tent. To the west and north lightning bolts crazed the black air. Neither man had seen such a storm in all their lives. The few little hairs on Bold's forearms stood up like pig bristles, and he felt the air crackling with hungry ghosts, pretas crowding in to witness Temur emerge from his tent. He had killed so many.
The two men dismounted and stood there. Guards came out of the tent, drawing aside the flaps of the doorway and standing at attention, ready with drawn bows. Bold's throat was too dry to swallow, and it seemed to him a blue light glowed from within the great yurt of the khan.
Temur appeared high in the air, seated on the litter his carriers had already hefted on their shoulders. He was pale-faced and sweating, the whites of his eyes visible all the way around. He stared down at Psin.
"Why are you back?"
"Khan, a plague has struck the Magyars. They're all dead."
Temur regarded his unloved general. "Why are you back?"
"To tell you, Khan."
Psin's voice was steady, and he met Temur's fierce gaze without fear. But Temur was not pleased. Bold swallowed; nothing here was the same as that time he and Psin had escaped the hunters, there wasn't a single feature of that effort that could be repeated. Only the idea that they could do it remained.
Something inside Temur snapped, Bold saw ithis asura was speaking through him now, and it looked like it was wreaking great harm in him as it did. Not an asura, perhaps, but his nafs, the spirit animal that lived inside him. He rasped, "They cannot get away as easily as that! They will suffer for this, no matter how they try to escape." He waved an arm weakly. "Go back to your detachment."
Then to his guards he said in a calmer voice, "Take these two back and kill them and their men, and their horses. Make a bonfire and burn everything. Then move our camp two days' ride east."
He raised up his hand.
The world burst asunder.
A bolt of lightning had exploded among them. Bold sat deaf on the ground. Looking around stunned, he saw that all the others there had been flattened as well, that the khan's tent was burning, Temur's litter tipped over, his carriers scrambling, the khan himself on one knee, clutching his chest. Some of his men rushed to him. Again lightning blasted down among them.
Blindly Bold picked himself up and fled. He looked over his shoulder through pulsing green afterimages, and saw Temur's black nafs fly out of his mouth into the night. Temur-i-Lang, Iron the Lame, abandoned by asura and nafs both. The emptied body collapsed to the ground, and rain bucketed onto it. Bold ran into the dark to the west. We do not know which way Psin went, or what happened to him; but as for Bold, you can find out in the next chapter.
Through the realm of hungry ghosts
A monkey wanders, lonely as a cloud.
Bold ran or walked west all that night, scrambling through the growing forest in the pouring rain, climbing into the steepest hills he could find, to evade any horsemen who might follow. No one would be too zealous in pursuit of a potential plague carrier, but he could be shot down from a good distance away, and he wanted to disappear from their world as if he had never existed. If it had not been for the uncanny storm he would certainly be dead, already embarked on another existence: now he was anyway. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond . . .
He walked the next day and all the second night. Dawn of the second day found him hurrying back through the Moravian Gate, feeling that no one would dare follow him there. Once onto the Magyar plain he headed south, into trees. In the morning's wet light he found a fallen tree and slipped deep under its exposed roots, to sleep for the rest of the day in hidden dryness.
That night the rain stopped, and on the third morning he emerged ravenous. In short order he found, pulled, and ate meadow onions, then hunted for more substantial food. It was possible that dried meat still hung in the empty villages' storehouses, or grain in their granaries. He might also be able to find a bow and some arrows. He didn't want to go near the dead settlements, but it seemed the best way to find food, and that took precedence over everything else.
That night he slept poorly, his stomach full and gassy with onions. At dawn he made his way south, following the big river. All the villages and settlements were empty. Any people he saw were dead on the ground. It was disturbing, but there was nothing to be done. He too was in some kind of posthumous existence, a very hungry ghost indeed. Living on from one found bite to the next, with no name or fellows, he began to close in on himself, as during the hardest campaigns on the steppes, becoming more and more an animal, his mind shrinking in like the horns of a touched snail. For many watches at a time he thought little but the Heart Sutra. Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Not for nothing had he been named Sun Wu-kong, Awake to Emptiness, in an earlier incarnation. Monkey in the void.
"Why did Europe dominate the last five hundred years of world history?
This is one of those questions no one can really answer, but it is interesting to contemplate anyway, because it brings into play all the possibilities for explaining history: geography, economics, culture, science, genetics, chance.
One way of exploring the question is by way of the counter-factual; if there had been no Europe, what would have happened?
In my novel THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT, I started around the time of Tamerlane's final invasion of Europe, in 1420; his army pushes west and finds Europe entirely depopulated by a last devastating wave of the Black Death. From then on, everything changes. My novel follows world history through the course of the centuries, by tracking the adventures of a group of characters as they are reincarnated into life after life--this is, after all, a Buddhist world.
Would there have been a scientific revolution without Europe? I think so; everywhere people are equally clever, and science comes from people trying to make themselves more comfortable and secure, which is a universal impulse. Without Europe, a scientific and industrial revolution might have started later, because of the absence of the intellectual foundations of the Renaissance; but the metalworkers and the mathematicians and alchemists of India and China were making great progress before Europe conquered them, and so eventually it would have happened, somewhere or other; in my novel, in Samarkand, on the Silk Road, where all the world cultures once met to trade.
After that, technological progress becomes part of the story. Europe is reoccupied by the Moors ofAndalusia; the New World is discovered and colonized by the Chinese from the West, and later by Islamic Europeans from the East. Thus much of the New World's gold goes directly to China (where much of it ended up in our world anyway), and this helps to make China the great world power, along with the Islamic world, and a league of Indian states, and an emerging league of Native American states, based on the Iroquois, who are less devastated in this world than they are in ours, having been invaded mostly west-to-east.
All these developments result in a world that is not dominated by one civilization, but divided among, and contested for, by three or four major civilization groups, constellating around the Chinese and the Islamic states. It occurred to me that this might make the first big world wars even more devastating than they were in our history. Here, European powers fought each other and the world was devastated, even though they shared basic core values and assumptions. What if the first world wars were between cultures radically different, thinking it was a matter of hegemony or annihilation? The results could be very bad.
My book does not focus on this, but rather the possibilities for good—the reasons for hope, which keep springing up no matter what happens. Technological progress and social progress will happen in any possible world history. Thus, in my novel, by the time seven hundred years have passed, great wars have happened, the world is fractured in a number of competing civilizations, populations are growing, the environment is being damaged by a brutal industrial technology, there are dangers and glories everywhere. In all possible worlds, there will come a moment when the superstitious fundamentalisms of old hierarchies make a reactionary stand against a world of scientific progress in which all people are equal. In other words, although much in my book is very different from our world in its particulars, it is fair to say that much is also turns out fundamentally the same!
But then my novel goes on to describe the next seventy years."
From the Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In the 14th Century CE, the Black Death wiped out roughly 1/3 of the world population -- and up to 60% of all people in Western Europe -- and changed world history. But what might have happened to the world had the Plague been more severe? In The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson posits a world in which some 90% or more of the population is dead, Europe is utterly depopulated, and the survivors are concentrated in Eastern Asia. It's an ingenious and startling premise. Seriously, think about it. Christianity and Judaism, gone as practiced religions, and scarcely even mentioned except as footnotes in a history book. No Shakespeare, no Queen Elizabeth, no daVinci, no Van Gogh, no Mozart, Columbus, Magellan, Rembrandt, Dumas, Jefferson, Franklin, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler.... the list of never-to-exist Eurocentric artists, authors, explorers, and other world shapers is virtually endless. Instead, Robinson introduces us to a world gradually explored and settled by Asian peoples. In keeping with a common theme of Eastern religions, he uses the plot device of reincarnation to tell his story. From a primitive village on the steppes of Mongolia to a 100-story highrise in Burma, centuries later, each character returns in the next cycle, to learn more, to grow more, to be reunited with each other time and again, and to gradually learn to recognize each other, at least a little. It's a fabulous premise. I wish I had liked its execution more. Robinson's style is bone-dry and stultifying. Even his romance and battle scenes are presented at an objective distance, lacking all blood and passion. I plodded through this book, one sere paragraph after another, and only finished it out of sheer stubbornness, as in: "By God, I've spent three weeks reading this thing, I'll be damned if I give up on it now.") In the end, what kept me going was drawing parallels between the book's characters and our world's key historical figures. ("Okay, this woman would be Marie Curie in our world," and so forth.) This isn't to say it's badly written. It isn't. It's beautifully written; it had to be to make me stick with it for nearly 700 pages. Deserts are beautiful, too. I'm still awfully glad when I leave the desert and am free to travel somewhere else.
Mr. Robinson has a fairly clear understanding of the religions he is dealing with and the history he is altering by the 'what if' he has used. The european whites/Christians aren't 'evil' just outnumbered having been killed off by the plague which in the book had a 90% kill rate. Origionally only about 30%+/- of the european population died of the plague. Reincarnation within certain familial groups &/or tribes is part of some eastern religous beliefs. I really enjoyed this book for several reasons,one- I like Mr. Robinsons writings two- I lived some of the areas that are included in this book and areas governed by four of the religions in this book. I also have read extensivly books concerning these religions such as the Bible '& Apocrypha', the Koran, Tibetian Book of the Dead, ect. In short, A good book.
This is a compelling 'What If...' novel. Kim Stanley Robinson covers over 700 years of an alternate history dominated by the Chinese and Islam. The novel is made up of a number of short stories at various points in time dating from the Great European Plague to modern times and beyond. Using a simple naming convention, the lives of the characters are somewhat easily connected by the reader from story to story, as they are reincarnated, and we follow their journey through the 'bardo' into future lives on Earth. Kim Stanley Robinson draws the reader into the epoch by using the writing style of the era or culture. The interludes in the bardo are humorous while also thought provoking as the characters attempt to understand their lives just ended and set goals for the ones to come. Indeed Buddhist philosophy and reincarnation feature prominently in these stories, and are a counterbalance in some sense to the extremism of Islamic beliefs, although Robinson goes to lengths to show that pure Islamic tenants are not in tune with the corruptions wrought upon it by the religious zealots. Scientific advances and discoveries progress at a different pace in this alternate history, and references are made to many familiar technologies, but what is not mentioned is also as telling. As a hard science writer I suspect Robinson especially enjoyed brainstorming in this area. Certainly Islamic cultures that dominate Robinson's world are less curious than Western civilizations have been, and this has a profound impact on the path of history, and provides the Chinese with an edge enhanced by their great numbers. Robinson also introduces us to other cultures and people that emerge as primary players in the new world order he creates. We see how Indian and native American cultures evolve and influence the political and scientific balance. Certainly Robinson has his own thoughts about these things, and a liking for utopian societies and Buddhism, yet he is not heavy handed with his views, and allows for the reader to formulate his or her own. All in all, this is an ambitious undertaking and one that is very well done and researched. Those familiar with Robinson's past novels will find much that is familiar, while he tells a story that goes in directions he has not ventured before. Those new to Robinson will hopefully also look to discover more from one of the best writers in Science Fiction today.
It's so awful. It's really, really awful. The author started out with a lot of good ideas, but tried to cram them all into one book. The result: a badly written, unfocused, and often annoying novel. A handful of characters managed to invent every technology and think of every philosophy! Everything is on such a huge scale it's laughable. If this were just an alternative history or if this were just a novel about the reincarnations of soul-mates it could be really good. But his combo of the two is awful. The alternative history is too full of a couple of these characters who keep coming back to perfect the world. The soul-mates are too worried about writing history to develop likable personas.
Maybe this book was beyond me. I could not follow the plot or chararacters. Put it down half way through.
I'm not a reader of sci fi, and knew nothing of Robinson when I came upon a NYT review of this book. My only regret is that it's too lengthy to teach to high school students. The scope of its vision of world history, the depth of its philosophical concerns, and the writer's skill in handling literary elements make this a most absorbing and thought-provoking work. Beautifully written (clever central conceit, lively episodes, serious themes, effective language, if--understandably--weak characterization), and highly accurate insofar as I (an amateur world history buff) can judge, Robinson's novel engages the reader on many levels. It ends with a meditation on the nature of history itself. Rewarding on the narrative plane alone, this book entirely repays one's investment of time and thought. I certainly hope that the publisher will put out a trade paperback edition: Robinson should be a mainstream name.
When I had the time to read this book I really enjoyed it. I originally started to read it because I like the idea of an alternate history with Buddhist civilization. In the beginning of the book the use of reincarnation with the characters really grabbed my attention. However by the middle of the book the story line bogged down and the momentum of the character reincarnation slowed down. I do like this book enough to hang on to it and read it again when I have larger blocks of time to devote to it.
The Years of Rice and Salt is one of my favorite books of all time. Interestingly, I found my way to it by reading Jameson's Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions in a "course" for my dissertation prospectus. I was initially doubtful, for I used to pride myself on "not being a science fiction fan," mainly to criticize my mother's choices of reading during my lengthy (and infamous) career as a bratty know-nothing literary snob and pawn of twentieth century literary canon-builders. But this book sounded so cool! A world in which Europe was all but wiped out by the black plague and the survivors enslaved by the Africans and Chinese?!The Years of Rice and Salt is gloriously long and oh-so wonderful! Interestingly, I was getting into it at the same time that I was really delving into formal Buddhism, and the book is so rewarding in that sense. Regardless of one's Buddhist strand, (or unaffiliation with Buddhism altogether) the idea of the "bardo" - a space beyond this plane of existence where we meet with people in our band of world wanderers (a group or team of spirits that move through existence together)is a beautiful idea. Its also a great way to tie characters together through their various manifestations and do some serious development beyond our unnecessarily limited Western concepts of traditional "personality" and "identity."Case in point: You know when you meet someone and you are SURE you've known them before...the way that they do the things they do, the way they talk, a certain look in the eyes...fantastic. They respond to you in kind. Creepy, right? Nope! At least in this book, it all goes down in the bardo. Sometimes, even long before reading this book, I felt that my mother, significant other, and some other random friends and acquaintances from across the continent (and around the world) are people with whom I am somehow connected, and I doubt it's the drugs. This book uses this idea (masterfully and beautifully) to connect characters together across eras. You may not always be a man, you could also be a woman, a eunuch, a tiger, etc,.Awesome book. It was a fabulous introduction to the one living writer I would do almost anything to meet - I've given up on you Pynchon, and Salinger...adieu - and on whose work I'm about to start writing an article (Three Californias trilogy). Robinson rocks my world!
Upon reading the back cover of the book I picked it up to read. An interesting premise in which most of Europe is wiped out by the black death and the Chinese, Buddhists, Muslims and Native Americans are left to create their own history.The book starts off well enough, you find yourself following a "family" of souls through their various incarnations as history pursues its course. Some of the lives the souls live are quite interesting but I found my interest in the book flagging a little more than halfway through the book.I managed to read the first half of the book in a few days... the last 100 or so pages took me three weeks. I dutifully slogged through to the finish but I just didn't enjoy it. Perhaps I'm just not cerebral enough for all of the philosophizing that goes on.
I guess it's well written. I couldn't get into it. The place names and character names and references were all 'non-Western' so were very difficult to keep track of. The story is 'spiritual' but not in the Judeo-Christian manner so even that was beyond familiarity. That... and the story follows a series of spirits, or perhaps, spirits through a series of 'lifetimes'... so you get a short glimpse at an individual's life, then he dies (or she from time to time) and, I guess, is the spirit in a new form in the next chapter of the book. But, really, I didn't care about any of them, or any of the environments or any of the "history"...It's just too... foreign for me.
I read this a few years, and it took me two attempts.I found the book hard to get into, initially. It was a bit wordy, and I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, but the second time I read it, I persevered, and found it quite rewarding.The basic premise is that in medieval times, the black plaque took 99 out 100 people, rather than 1 out of 10, leaving Asia and the Middle East mostly Affected. The story follows two souls, as they get reincarnated into different bodies as time progresses, and alternates between a Chinese Dominated Asia, and Muslim Dominated Europe.
I couldn't get into it, in spite of the fact that I made it two thirds of the way through. I didn't like Robinson's device for moving forward through history.
This is a book that will take your breathe away. What if instead of the Plague killing 33% of the population in the 14th century, 99% are killed? The entirety of Europe, and all of Christianity, is decimated, leaving Buddhism and Islam as the most influential of the practiced religions. I have to say I loved this book, every step of the way Robinson created a believable, possible history with the same family of souls telling their collective story again and again, each time with a little more progress on their journey. The end was a disappointment to me at first, yet, the more I have time to dwell on it, the more appropriate it is.
One of the the most complex, multi-layered and absorbing novels I¿ve read, which would definitely benefit from multiple rereadings.Set in an alternate history where the Plague wiped out 99 percent of Europe¿s population instead of just one-third ¿ effectively decimating white, Christian culture ¿ the novel follows 700 years of history as Arab, Asian and Native American cultures flourish and the religions of Buddhism and Islam spread throughout the world. One assumption the novel makes is that reincarnation is real, so the same set of characters (a jati, or group of souls linked by fate) come together in life after life and either witness or instigate the great events, scientific discoveries, political movements and philosophical writings of human history.This novel is more than just an entertaining series of adventures, though. It has a lot to say about the human condition, religion, philosophy and history itself. How do cultures rise and fall? What small events can create or destroy empires? The section that tells the story of the earth¿s world war ¿ called the Long War and lasting more than 70 years ¿ is one of the most harrowing depictions of war and its aftermath I have ever read. This is a weighty book, with a lot of big ideas to captivate and absorb the reader through many visits to this alternate ¿ but very realistic ¿ history of humankind.
This is going off my memory of a book I read at least 4 years ago, but something about this book makes it stand out in my mind and makes me suggest it to friends if they're looking for an intelligent read.The whole idea of reincarnation isn't one I subscribe to, so it doesn't exactly make sense that I think this was the perfect vehicle to carry forward Robinson's story, but there you have it! And the starting point, the idea "what if Christianity HADN'T been the dominant force shaping the Western world", is vaguely offense because it implies that everything that's wrong with the world (but not also everything that's right) is due to organized, monotheistic religion.Yet Kim Stanley Robinson - and I'll be so bold as to refer to the author as KSR from now on for brevity's sake - is so non-judgemental and fair-minded, that I couldn't take offense. He doesn't seem to hate the idea of God, as most religious oponents do, just that perhaps human failings made the Church into a tool of error and selfishness, instead of the Church improving people and teaching them about God.This band of souls didn't exactly appeal to me - most of the characters were a bit annoying (to me) in how dense or cruel or self-centred they were. But perhaps this was the point. I loved that at one point, a soul lived as a tiger (am I remembering correctly?), which many readers would consider to be a "better" creature than man, yet KSR never implies or says that just because humans sin, that we are unworthy and lower than animals.I find KSR to be a bit wordy and dry, especially when dealing with politics (the Mars trilogy comes to mind here), but I love how he examines human motivation. And he's so bang-on with his knowledge of history and science, and the speculative possibilites involving these. This book was a more enjoyable read for me, because it wasn't so dry (due to politics) than his earlier books.The plot was intriguing, too. It was almost like a series of steps or plateaus rather than a clear path from point A to point B. Each "life" was a discreet story unto itself, yet it tied into the whole, which was the evolution of this group of linked souls and the examination of how the world might be a completely different place if one event had had different results. This idea reminds me of Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch novel, but KSR tackles the concept in a completely different way.Not my top favourite book of all time, but definitely up there, and definitely my favourite of KSR's novels. A must-read for anyone, no matter their preference of style or genre.
Its not that I don't like Kim Stanley Robinson books... Gold Coast was a good read and entertaining (not as Dystantopian as I'd hoped.. but still really good). With this book... the main characters learn life lessons as they go through many incarnations (re-incarnations) as different people throughout the centuries. Sometimes their lives are quick.. sometimes long. Most of the time they're not entertaining. I'll admit I found myself skimming when it talked of religious principles (nothing against religion.. just not interested in reading a bunch about 'how it works'). I keep all the books I like... this one I didn't even finish (which I usually try to do, even if I don't like it), and immediately got rid of the copy. I'd suggest some of the other works by the author first.
Round and round and round we go, from this life to another through the bardo. I suspect those who believe in reincarnation may enjoy this book more than those who don't, for whom the whole reincarnation thing is just a literary device to allow the author to follow an alternate history down through the centuries using the same characters. Some of my favorite bits were in the bardo with regard to the characters' experience of "Oh no! Not again!". Funny on a simply comic level, but also inviting deeper reflection on the question of just what are the mistakes the characters make in their lives again and again that keep them so stubbornly stuck in the eternal cycle of birth and death. Ultimately they represent us, and their mistakes are ours.
I really enjoyed this novel of an alternate history. All the Europeans are killed by the Plague (or some other disease) leaving the world to the Chinese and Muslims. How is it changed? How is it the same? The book contains about ten episodes, each one concerning a different set of characters at a different place along the timeline. All but the final episode were fascinating to me. The last chapter had too much speculation and philosophy and not enough plot.
The Years of Rice and Salt is a departure for Kim Stanley Robinson. His near-future, hard science fiction writing has won disciples who believe that he has prophesied how it will be. This novel is a reflection of how it might have been. In it Robinson posits a Western Europe that lost 90% of its population in the fourteenth century plague. Rushing to fill the vacuum are the Chinese, the Islamic and the Indian cultures. The novel moves from the fourteenth century to the very early years of the twenty first. At the heart of Robinson¿s story is the concept of reincarnation. The first character we meet is identified as ¿Monkey,¿ who keeps returning to nurture, comfort, urge the other characters toward virtue. The characters, whatever their incarnation of the moment, are a jati of eight souls who are born again and again, die, find themselves in the bardo to discuss their past lives briefly, and then are born yet again. The main characters are those with B names, (Monkey); K¿s, who are charismatic leaders, and whose contributions are crucial; and I¿s, who are the theorists whose ideas the K¿s promulgate. These and the others who are born with them change sexes, nationalities, and religions - all those things that we use to define ourselves - from incarnation to incarnation. For a person whose general interest lies in the author¿s ability to create memorable characters and create a memorable sense of place, this shift from incarnation to incarnation becomes somewhat frustrating. I prefer a novel¿s leisurely development to a short story¿s, and these are somewhat like a selection of loosely linked short stories. The K character often complains on return to the bardo that they are not making progress at all. However, this is a book that has to be long enough to involve the reader in a seemingly endless series of returns. On the one hand, the idea of a personality¿s not disappearing forever is reassuring. On the other hand, an eternity of making the same mistakes begins to feel like the tortures of Hell. When the characters decide not to drink the drug of forgetfulness, I began to read with more enthusiasm. In the last incarnations, even though they involve The Long War, they finally seem to begin to ¿get it.¿ They realize, for instance, that societies that are good to women are societies that do not fail. They realize that there were no winners in the war, that the whole world has to work together, that people with plenty are inextricably bound to people that are starving. These are all lessons for our times that Mr. Robinson is able to convey without preaching. (I wrote this review several years ago for a now-defunct website.)
I really wanted to like this book. I tried very hard to like this book. I made it through several of the lifetimes before I finally just gave up on it and couldn't go any further.
A book about our place in the world and the eternal question of how to live well, disguised as a novel. It's a long read, best savoured slowly over a stretch of time. It's too easy to become impatient and rush through to the "good bits" of action and excitement, and miss the thought-provoking substance.It is less a fantasy or science fiction work than a tribute to our potential as a species, seen through an Eastern lens that is not often considered in Robinson's English-speaking target audience.
This novel wasn't what I thought it would be, but that's a compliment in my book. I thought it would be a sort of medieval version of The Stand, with hoary images of Black Death ravaged cities all over Europe. Instead Robinson uses the big "What If" gimmick (what if the Black Death was 99% fatal all over Europe, causing white Christian European civilization to become a mere historical footnote) as a jumping board to write a wholly different narrative. It is rare to read a novel with such insight into Asian and Middle Eastern thought and culture that is written by a Westerner. Robinson's' characters are well thought out and interesting, throughout their various reincarnations. Yes, a hand full of characters live many lives in this book. That is one of Robinson's weaknesses as an author; he loves his characters almost too much, and he is loth to part with them after their natural life span has run out. In his Mars trilogy books he created a genetic treatment to solve this problem. In "The Years of Rice and Salt" he merges Islamic, Hindu, and Tibetan Buddhist thought to create a narrative of lifetimes intertwining in the underworld. The effect is quite intriguing, but like his previous works I sometimes got tired of the characters. In "Salt" they at least change genders, nationalities, cultures, and outlook so there is much more character development than with his dusty Mars troupe. While he shows great insight into Asian and Islamic cultures, I feel his grasp on the Native American characters was a bit more flimsy. They seemed a little too idealized. It is hard to imagine what would have become of the fate of the indigenous had Columbus never existed, perhaps as an American, Robinson has a hard time facing this particular Dharma.
First read this when originally published and have just finished rereading it; happy to find it's even better than I remembered. There is simply no writer, that I've read, who balances scale -- individual to society, a single lifetime to a millenium of history, observation of a single event to a whole science, the simplest feeling to a religion or philosophy -- as Kim Stanley Robinson. If Mr. Robinson will ultimately be remembered for his Mars trilogy, that's not such a bad thing; however, I think a case could be made for The Years of Rice and Salt being more important, for dealing with so many themes around history and human progress, so concisely, so beautifully. This book is such an engaging plea to look at history, to look at our lives, as something to learn from, something to use to make the world better, more just, more compassionate ... it's a shame I don't know the right way to say 'everyone should read this' without sounding preachy. I guess the sentiment is preachy, and it'd be arrogant of me to think I know what's best for anyone; but, I can't help but think if people challenged themselves to imagine a better world, and then strove for it, we might take baby steps towards getting there.
Ultimately Disappointing: I have to admit that I was disappointed by "The Years of Rice and Salt." Ironically, much of my disappointment was due to the book's failure to follow through on its excellent premise and beginning chapters. The book follows (through a long series of incarnations) a small cast of characters struggling to create a just and peaceful world. The angry and aggressive K____, the more spiritual tagalong B_____, the studious and intellectual I_____ and some others reappear throughout the book, each exhibiting the same fundamental character, with differences of culture and situation flavoring their actions."The Years of Rice and Salt" is technically an alternate history in which disease wipes out all of Europe and most of Christendom in the late middle ages. Unlike writers such as Turtledove, Robinson doesn't feel compelled to relate everything that happens, but focuses only on certain incarnations of the main characters. This is refreshing, but sometimes makes it difficult to figure out what happened in the world and when (since he uses mainly the lunar Islamic calendar). In the end, this world is remarkably similar to our own, which is somewhat implausible but not fatally so.Problems begin to appear roughly halfway through the book, however, at which point the plot stalls and seems to lose focus. The characters' quest for justice in buried beneath the details of their lives and geopolitical developments. In one incarnation, K_____ joins an underground organization conspiring to free Japan from Chinese rule. Nothing else happens during that incarnation - he simply joins the organization. In another, all three characters fight in a devastating World War and talk about how it all went wrong. While I can appreciate the Robinson's apparent desire to illustrate the difficulty and contradictions inherent in changing the world by force, I wish he could have done so without halting plot development. The several hundred pages in which little progress is made (in the plot or the world) eventually became downright tedious, despite decent writing throughout.And so ultimately I was disappointed by "The Years of Rice and Salt," which got off to a wonderful start but then seemed to fall apart. Although the last couple of chapters tried to get the story back on track, it was too little, too late. I was also left cold by the ending: there wasn't one; the cycle of reincarnations just continued. If this book seems interesting, I encourage you to read it, but suggest you consider checking it out from the library.
A Typical Post-9/11 Book I was looking for a cool alternate history novel about the world through the eyes of Asia and what I got was instead a "Americo-Centric" view of Asia and too much philosophizing by the author against everything Muslim. Literally, you will spend pages upon pages reading his personal views. The author's choice of winners and losers exactly align with American geopolitics. 1. India- Best relation with America and comes out on top. No mention of how they overcame Caste, misogyny, and a lazy portrayal of them inventing European technology exactly how we imagine it today instead of a reimagining of technology in the eyes of a different civilization. 2. Native Americans- By far the least well thought out faction. Where a relative few Europeans decimate them in real life, the author includes a mediocre anime-esque store that breaks suspension of disbelief where a samurai ends up uniting every single native American tribe. Immune to disease they fend of Asian invaders who apparently can't do by the thousands what Europeans did by the hundreds. 3. China- Third place, still a winner, but ends up with political instability mirroring US disapproval of the Chinese government 4. Muslims: Fractured and disunified unlike every other faction. Backward technologically. Women hating. Oh and mysogynist with a healthy dose of the author going to great lengths beating this dead horse. It gets to the point where they are painted as so primitive and incompetent, one is left wondering how there's any conflict at all here. I don't care about politics, I wanted a good believable story and all I got was a lazy story, political messages and an unimaginative portrayal of Eastern civilizations along with page upon page of the author's personal views.