Monday, May 05, 2008

The Years of Rice and Salt - a review

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Salt and Rice, like his Mars series, is a beautiful, painstaking diorama of history. Where Red Mars and its sequels project the foibles and foment of human history into the future and onto other planets in our solar system, however, Rice and Salt uses a different forum.

Using what is called alternate history, Robinson writes a history of our planet and race without the European nations. Every other review will tell you why, I'll just suffice it to say that around 1400 AD, Europe is removed from history.

It didn't happen in the real world, of course, so you might ask why this is a significant idea. Alternate histories are popular for the sheer imaginative play they allow, of course. The siren song of "what if?" appeals to a lot of people.

More importantly, I think, alternate histories model what certain events might have looked like from another angle. They teach by taking an event out of its natural (and only real) context. For instance, by taking racism and economic power out of context of the United States, a context which most of us in the U.S. take for granted, and looking at it from the vantage of another culture.

In 10 chapters and 658 pages, Robinson describes a world that might have resulted from the disappearance of the European powers. In The Years of Rice and Salt, the world powers are Islam and China, unopposed and unexploited by the west. They discover Yingzhou and Inka (the Americas). Science is invented again by Islam. The American Indians do a better job of preserving themselves from the predations of China and Islam, mostly by capitalizing on their own democratic traditions. The industrial revolution happens in India, which adopts the methods of Amerindian democracy to forge a new intellectual center of freedom for the world. Feminism and psychiatry are born in the crux of Islam and China. And eventually, a hundred year long war is fought between two titanic cultures, but the atomic bomb is prevented from becoming the property of a given culture by groups of scientists working internationally.

Because this is a huge chunk of history to cover (approximately 600 years), each portion of history is treated as a slice of life centered around influential people. Each slice is richly evoked, from the massive sprawling cities of culturally diverse China to the subtle cultural explorations made by Islamic women attempting to overturn years of misogynistic commentaries on what they see as the fundamentally humanistic Koran. Characters denote the tenor of the time, expressing the personalities of entire chunks of culture, as when Bhuri contrast the Isaac Newton-like Kheim's scientific investigations with the Sufi doctrine that God is love, stating that gravity is like love.

"Perhaps love is the force," Bahram offered. "The same attraction as of persons to persons, extended between things in a general way."

"It would explain how one's member rises away from the Earth," Iwang said with a smile.

Bahram laughed, but Khalid said only, "A joke. What I am speaking of could not be less like love. It is as constant as the stars in their places, a physical force."

Do I agree with all Robinson's assumptions about where history might have gone? No, but that doesn't matter. For instance: Islam hasn't generated any real feminist movement by this point in our history. What makes Robinson so sure that they would, simply because they maintained a level of cultural hegemony that the West took from them? However, his assumptions are convincing enough for me to follow them to where they lead.

This is mostly because he treats other cultures sensitively but realistically. Robinson understand that all of the cultures he writes about would have had to struggle from barbarism to civilization through many of the same steps that the West has had to take. His characters seem very authentic, different enough from Western characters to allow for cultural differences, and similar enough to evoke our common humanity. And the voices he takes are persuasive even as it is obvious that he is aware of the limitations of his musings and assumptions. Such as when a scholar, who was once a revolutionary, ponders in the book's last chapter how history as a theory is incapable of describing the real forces that are faced in its unfolding narrative.

"For we see immediately that what we call history has at least two meanings to it: first, simply what happened in the past, which no one can know, as it disappears in time, and then second, all the stories we tell about what happened."

Which is charmingly deferential for a work of fake history that makes efforts to show how history works.

Stylistically, Robinson's novel undergoes a sort of sea change of history. The beginning stories are fluid, pretty narratives that sound like Chinese poetry or Islamic folktales. They slowly metamorphosize into more modern narratives driven by musing and personality growth. They are connected by a series of characters reincarnated (a belief common to many eastern cultures and also, apparently, mystic Islam) together from one historical period to the next. The group is called a Jati, individual spirits being reincarnated with names that begin with the same letter each life. I- is the thinker and experimenter, the soul of reason. K- is a rabble rouser and revolutionary, the group's passion. B- is their heart, always looking for ways to reconcile truths.

This is a literary and mnemonic device that is also commented on by our scholar from the last chapters when he runs across it in his research, in collections of reincarnation narratives. "I like the naming device."

This device is interesting because it is very central to the idea of the book, that we strive forever to achieve the best that life can offer. That life is a series of attempts to make a better world, not a single goal to be attained and maintained by an individual, even an individual nation. Even though Robinson depicts culture rationally, as exploitative and self interested, the context of history reveals this kind of striving in every age, this attempt to reach ideals. It reflects a phrase I encountered reading C.S. Lewis: "In every age, there have been civilized men. And in every age, they are surrounded by barbarians." A beautiful experiment, the main thesis of The Years of Rice and Salt is that humans everywhere, in all ages, work and try to bring Utopia to the world.

There is some humor in here. The complaints that the left is always grumbling about are often put in the context of cultures who are marginalized today grumbling about their oppressive social systems. In a chapter set after the great Islamic/Chinese war, when Islamic feminists are attempting to carve out a role for themselves, a long passage in a cafe describes Islamic beatnicks eulogizing the perfections of a long dead European culture. Similar to the way American leftists long for the perceived civilization of Europe, or of simpler cultures.

Don't start reading this expecting a rockem sockem robot adventure. It's more like a sand painting, vivid and painstakingly detailed and meandering and with a momentum that comes from the interplay of ideas, not from jimmying events into a roller coaster ride. Unlike much science fiction, Robinson doesn't rely on changing technology to set the stage for his story. For Robinson, the technology is inside of people, it is the coping mechanisms they use to create and maintain a society that is usable by themselves and as many other people as they can share it with.

Other reviewers have complained about his tendency towards Utopian thinking, but in interviews he has said that he believes that someone needs to present the possibility that human society is growing and coping with its challenges, and destined to become something better. I do too.

In this book, his characters often say that history needs to reach a point where human beings are worthy of it. That I disagree with. I think the struggle alone shows that they are worth their history, and I think Robinson does a marvelous job of showcasing the possibilities. For a fake history, there sure are a lot of parts that feel very, humanly, real.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. During reposting, it was edited a smidge.

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