Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Kim Stanley Robinson focused on science-fiction for much of his career, but he nevertheless dabbled in other genres, one of them being alternate history with his novel The Years of Rice and Salt. Taking us to the fourteenth century, the novel explores what might have happened to humanity had the black plague claimed ninety-nine percent of the European population.
Table of contents
Kim Stanley Robinson Imagines a Deadlier Plague
As far as our modern knowledge of physics leaves us to believe, time is a one-way-street for us. Though there are infinite ways in which our history might have developed, in the end it followed a single path, one we will likely never be able to change. However, it doesn’t stop us from musing about the different paths we might have taken, something Kim Stanley Robinson does quite intently in The Years of Rice and Salt.
The premise for the novel is rather simple: the black plague which swept across Europe during the fourteenth century destroyed a third of its population. Robinson asks the simple question: what would have happened if ninety-nine percent of the European population had been wiped out instead? How would the world and its history have evolved then?
As our vehicle to explore this new reality, we follow a group of individuals, referred to as “jati” in Hindu. They all progress together through time and history from the days of Mohammad until the present day via their reincarnations, while retaining virtually no memories from their past lives.
Every time the group is reborn, they appear in different locations around the world, belonging to different nationalities, being of different genders, and so on and so forth. The only characteristic they conserve are the first letters of their names. Some of the might not even come back as humans.
Every day we wake up into a new world, each sleep causes yet another reincarnation.― Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt
Through their eyes, we cross seven hundred years of alternate history as imagined by Robinson, one where Christianity has turned into nothing more than a historical footnote to pave the way for Islam and Buddhism as the primary religions. Though it inevitably mirrors our own history at certain points, the longer progresses in time, the more it becomes apparent just how much our path hinges on details.
The Immense Ambition of The Years of Rice and Salt
Strictly-speaking, making up some kind of alternate history universe isn’t all too difficult, especially if you have a good idea for what your diverging factor will be. What is, on the other hand, extremely difficult, is creating an alternate history which follows a logical and believable development, taking into account all the different factors which tend to influence it.
In The Years of Rice and Salt, I believe Robinson has very much managed the latter with remarkable finesse, and this over a period of seven hundred years chronicling a major branching development in human history.
In other words, Robinson doesn’t simply use the premise of the black plague’s lethality to drive history in a direction he wants to see it go in. Instead, he uses it as the launching point for an investigation into how the event could have realistically affected the rest of the planet, one which still very much follows the logical laws of our universe.
Religion could not be faked or used for worldly purposes.― Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt
As you might have imagined, this is a novel loaded with meditations and commentaries on all sorts of subjects, including the spread of religion, the development of our spirituality, how loci of power can shift, the drive behind human discovery, our interpretation of suffering, and I think I’ve barely scratched the surface with these.
This is without question the type of book which lends itself well to repeat readings, being so rich in information only the most mentally-powerful among us could hope to absorb it all in one go. At the same time, it doesn’t delve too far into subjects like concrete science and mathematics, keeping everything on a level most readers can understand without specialized knowledge.
The Encyclopedic Nature of Discovery
As I mentioned it at the beginning, we explore the world through a group of individuals who keep on reincarnating and different points in time and the planet, allowing us to see how all parts of the world would have reacted to an alternate history without Christianity.
The book is neatly split into ten segments, all clearly-defined and greatly simplifying our seven-hundred-year journey in time. This journey takes us through China, India, the discovery of the Americas, a somewhat different Renaissance of sorts, the spread of Buddhism and Islam, and Robinson takes the opportunity to impart on us as much of his encyclopedic knowledge as he possibly can.
All the great moments of history have taken place inside people’s heads.― Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt
I don’t think anyone can possibly dispute the author’s wealth of knowledge on all the subjects he explores in this book, and he always finds ways to insert it in small and easy-to-absorb chunks which only complement the movement of the plot. There might be a strong encyclopedic character to this book, but it’s well-merged into the bigger picture.
Additionally, this knowledge only takes us so far in an alternate reality, where it must at some point give way to discovery, which it does increasingly often as we move from one chapter to the next. Discovery can happen in various ways, including philosophical musings or parallels drawn with our history, but they always revolve around the central idea of trying to identify how much of an impact Europe and Christianity have had on our world.
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I have to say, I was quite impressed by Robinson‘s ability to rationally trace the challenges people would have to face in this new world in comparison with ours, leading us this much closer to the all-important discovery: how profoundly is our present shaped by our collective past?
The Final Verdict
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the most ambitious alternate history books I’ve had the pleasure of reading, completely fulfilling its goals of discovering a different branch of human development without the presence of Europe and Christianity.
It’s a truly unique book (and I’m not saying this lightly) which kept me glued with both its premise and delivery, with an author capable of making virtually any subject captivating. If you’re looking for the best of what this genre has to offer, then I strongly suggest you give this book a chance.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is an American writer who primarily specializes in science-fiction, having published nineteen novels so far, as well as numerous short stories.
His best-known work is the Mars trilogy; Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. Among the many honours and awards he was granted are the 1994 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, as well as the 1991 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel for Pacific Edge.