Review: The Years of Rice and Salt

While I was in India, I read a book recommended by one good friend (belsum) and bought for me by another (Michelle). It's The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
The premise is that of an alternate history: how would the world have developed if 99% of Europe (and Christianity) had been wiped out by The Plague of the 14th century? Islam and China/Confucism and Hinduism and Buddhism become the active forces in the world. The story is told well, through the narrative device of reincarnating characters (identifiable by their consistent personality types and by the use of the same beginning letter for their names). This way we can have a thread through the changing timelines and history.
It was one of those strange coincidences that had me reading a book about Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism at the same time that I was in India, where all three religions live side by side. The two experiences (reading and observing) enriched each other.
I admit that had I not been immersed in that culture (and had a fortuitous day off) I might not have made it through the book completely. As I said, it is very well done, but it is extremely dense with information. I was not always certain how the events compared with real life history (one would have to be a world history buff to trace all the correlations through half the world's history). The characters were entertaining enough, though a wee bit two-dimensional in the effort to keep them consistent.
Aside from the historical aspect, one of the most interesting (for me) parts is how the writer occasionally inserts himself in the story. In the middle, when the writing must have been wearing on Robinson, there is a dialog that is essentially him talking about how he felt about the characters and how the story was progressing. Amusingly, the next "chapter" is a brief changeup of some of the roles, almost to show he could do it. The last chapters are mainly about his theories about history and the structure of storytelling. I think if he had pulled this out as an addendum, he might have avoided some of the criticism that the book lacked a strong finish. This was a criticism I agreed with, actually. I think a book based on history is hard to "end" satisfactorily, considering history does not end (or rather, it will when the Universe implodes). One comment I saw somewhere pointed out that Robinson's skill in writing science-fiction could have been used here to push the boat of history on beyond our current time. That would have been better, I think.
However, all in all, it was a good book. Dense, but good. If you enjoy history, comparative religions (ahem, Brenda), and/or exploring other cultures, I highly recommend it. If you're looking for light entertainment, look elsewhere.


Unknown said...

I have rather been stuffed with comparative religions and tend to head for the esoteric, which simply highlights how they are all the same (basically). Alternate history is always fun. I can't promise anything, however. Maybe I'll borrow your book!

belsum said...

Wow. I got shivers at the idea of reading that book while actually in India. I'm glad you (mostly) enjoyed it. Have you read his Mars books?

Anne C. said...

No, I haven't. Are they good?

Random Michelle K said...

My husband loves his Mars series, if that's any recommendation.

Anne C. said...

Well, once I get to meet Michael, it will mean more, but it certainly is a recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I read "Rice and Salt" too... and have read the "Mars" books, although it was many years ago.

Rice and Salt was hard for me because of the shifting perspective and intrusion of the narrator - and because the non-linearity of the story left me struggling for context every time it jumped.

I actually thought when I bought it that it DID extend into the future - that would have been an interesting book!

I wasn't a huge fan of the Mars books either - again, content-dense, great technological basis, but the characters weren't strongly developed nor sympathetic. I tend to prefer character driven SF to idea-driven SF.

Reading "Rice and Salt" while in India, though, would be fun!

belsum said...

I have the trilogy at home which I'd be happy to lend to you if you're interested.

Anne C. said...

Thanks for the offer, bel. I'll definitely keep it mind as a possibility.