I was recently one of a party of three who wended our way to London to see Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) read from their own, and each other’s, work and to answer questions thoughtfully and entertainingly at the British Library. At the time, each of us was in the middle of a different one of KSR’s novels. One of us was reading his latest, 2312; one (arguably) his most famous, Red Mars; and I was reading The Years of Rice and Salt. One of my companions is a friend of KSR and I was introduced to him after the talk. When I told him what I was reading he confided that ‘that one was a lot of fun to write’. Which was nice.
I’ve previously read Galileo’s Dream and The Memory of Whiteness. I enjoyed both, though The Memory of Whiteness, which is built around a musician touring the solar system, was a little rougher around the edges. Galileo’s Dream was a more sophisticated novel; in it, alien visits are woven into the known facts of Galileo’s life and the book excels in its powerful and entertaining characterisation. I’m pleased to be able to say that I enjoyed The Years of Rice and Salt as much as or more than I did the other two. It’s well written and is more interesting and ambitious in scope.
The book is set in an alternative universe where the black plague wiped out a far greater proportion of Europe’s population than it did in our own. Subsequently, the muslim world expands throughout Europe, and the New World is discovered and colonised, not by white Europeans, but by muslims and Chinese. Rather than a single story, the book is essentially ten short stories each of which is set some time after the one before. In this way, the book spans 600 years, from about 1400 to about 2000. It depicts the peaceful and non-peaceful meetings of civilisations, and the burgeonings of science and culture that take place across that time.
In a lovely nod to Eastern philosophy, the main characters in each of these stories are reincarnations of just a few interlinked souls, destined to encounter each other again and again on the wheel of samsara. Although the lives they are born into vary wildly from incarnation to incarnation, we can recognise them through their fundamental personality characteristics and the fact that their names start with the same letter each time (e.g., ‘K’ is strident and driven, ‘B’ is thoughtful and spiritual, and ‘I’ is an intellectual). I was pleased to see, during one of the later sections, one of the characters discussing the use of this very format and naming convention by historical buddhist writers. These linked souls only recognise each within the bardo — a Tibetan buddhist between-place filled with trippy gods and demons. By accentuating these fundamental personality traits, the protagonists become as much archetypes as they are characters. Their presence provides a wonderful sense of continuity to the novel and they are consistently likable, interesting, and engaging from one century to the next.
KSR touches on lots of themes, but the one that stood out for me was the development of science (not surprising given that the man is a master of hard sci-fi). The same laws and technologies are there to be discovered, but here they are discovered and named by different people in different cultures, and, as a result, the names they end up with are not necessarily the same (e.g., qi instead of electricity). This idea of the fundamental inevitability of science was also explored in Neal Stephenson’s alternate universe yarn Anathem, where Pythagoras’ theorem is instead called Adrakhones’ theorem.
The world that KSR eventually arrives at after centuries of gradual deviation from our own is a very interesting one. There are numerous countries and states, but the four main poles of power are China, the fractious muslim world, a progressive league of Indian states (birthplace of the industrial revolution), and another league in North America made up of Native Americans (who successfully resisted the colonial powers of this world). Given just ten glimpses of this world, spread out over hundreds of years, it was inevitable that we wouldn’t get to see as much as we might like of these societies. In particular, I was sad not to see more detail on the North American league.
To conclude: this was a hugely ambitious and equally interesting novel. It’s sedate rather than thrilling, but the characters are likable and the ideas froth and ferment like the Dahai Ocean on a stormy day. Highly recommended.