The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)
‘A vanguard of the Mongol horde rides west across the steppes into an eerily silent world. People lie dead in villages and in the streets of towns. The Black Death has struck Europe. there are virtually no survivors.
Into this empty land pour merchants, warlords and refugees, and from that day forward history is shaped by the East instead of the West. Japanese ships cross the Pacific ocean and Chinese ships cross the Atlantic to colonise the New World, while a scientific revolution is begun in Samarkand. And the destinies of a cast of unforgettable characters weave a bright new pattern through seven hundred years of history as it never was, but might have been.’
Blurb from the 2003 HarperCollins paperback edition
Robinson takes as his basic premise that of Christopher Evans’ ‘Aztec Century’. There, the plague devastated Europe to the extent that social progress was halted, allowing the Aztec civilisation to progress, explore and develop technologically. In Robinson’s alternate world the plague rampaged through Europe in the 14th Century and wiped out virtually the entire population. Thus, when the Mongols began exploring from the East, they discovered an empty land.
This history, divided into exquisitely written episodes set sometimes hundreds of years apart and in different parts of the world, is a romantic, joyous and uplifting work. Often the tales told are set on the borders between cultures, religions, classes, even between sexes, and profound debates are conducted, often to no great effect, although the point Robinson seems to make is that any examination of the nature of life no matter how trivial has a cumulative effect on the society of the world.
There are some interesting social developments in America where the Native Americans, inspired by an adopted Japanese, form a league of Tribes which resists any incursions by Chinese or Japanese invaders.
Christianity has all but disappeared, and Europe and Asia are composed of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
In his Mars trilogy Robinson managed to create a continuity of narrative over about three hundred years by the device of the longevity serum which kept his main characters alive from the first landing on Mars through its terraforming to its independence and beyond.
Here, as a linking thread through the centuries he employs the unconventional device of reincarnation. Souls travel in groups, we are told, and are often reborn in the same area or reconnect in life. The souls here are recognised in the narrative by their initials since they return with names beginning with K, B and I. In the intermissions between chapters they return to ‘the Bardo’ able, as they were not in the flesh, to recall their past lives. It’s an effective device, as it’s a metaphor for the evolution of the soul of society as a whole.
The souls cross the boundaries of gender and race, and even at one point, of species, as when the K soul, having murdered in her last life, is reborn as a tiger.
It’s a beautiful and poetic novel, and shows once more Robinson’s versatility and flare for sheer style and characterisation, ending, as always with KSR books it seems, with hope for the future of humanity.