The Years of Rice and Salt
|The Years of Rice and Salt|
Cover of UK hardcover edition
|Author(s)||Kim Stanley Robinson|
|Genre(s)||Alternate history novel|
|Publisher||Bantam Books (US)
|Publication date||March 2002|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.54 21|
|LC Classification||PS3568.O2893 Y43 2002|
The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history novel written by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson and published in 2002. The novel explores how subsequent world history may have been different if the Black Death plague had killed 99% of Europe's population, instead of a third. Divided into ten parts, the story spans hundreds of years, from the army of the Muslim conqueror Timur to the 21st century, with Europe being re-populated by Muslim pioneers, the indigenous peoples of the Americas forming a league to resist Chinese and Muslim invaders, and a 67 year long world war being fought primarily between Muslim states and the Chinese and their allies. While the ten parts take place in different times and places, they are connected by a group of characters that are reincarnated into each time but are identified to the reader by the first letter of their name being consistent in each life.
The novel explores themes of history, religion, and social movements. The historical narrative is guided more by social history than political or military history. Critics found the book to be rich in detail, realistic, and thoughtful. Robinson had previously published several other science fiction novels and short stories which had won him several Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards. The Years of Rice and Salt won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2003. In the same year it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a Hugo Award, and a British Science Fiction Award.
At the time of publication, in 2002, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson was 49 years old and living in Davis, California. He had conceived of the premise for The Years of Rice and Salt in the 1970s while thinking about what alternate history scenario would result in "the biggest change that would still work in terms of comparison to our history". He subsequently developed an interest in China and in Buddhism which he would study for this project. Robinson's only other alternate history story prior to this project was the short story "The Lucky Strike" (1984),[a] where the Enola Gay crashes in a training exercise and the secondary crew must complete the Hiroshima bombing. Robinson also wrote an essay titled "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" (1991),[b] comparing different theories of history and laws of science, such as the covering law model, to explain how alternate histories can be arrived at, using "The Lucky Strike" as an example.[c] He explored the idea of non-Western influences creating a new culture while working on his Mars trilogy, which involved a heavy Muslim influence in a Martian colony. The Mars trilogy gave Robinson a reputation for quality of writing and a richness of detail comparable to James Michener, as well as winning him a Nebula Award for Red Mars (1993) and two Hugo and Locus Awards for Green Mars (1994) and Blue Mars (1996). Robinson followed the Mars trilogy with the novel Antarctica (1997), which won an Alex Award, and two short story collections, The Martians (1999) and Vinland the Dream (2001), before publishing The Years of Rice and Salt.
Plot summary 
The story is divided into ten parts. Book One, "Awake to Emptiness", begins with Bold and Psin, scouts in Timur's army, discovering a Magyar village where all the inhabitants have died from a plague. Timur turns his army around and orders the scouting party executed to avoid the plague but Bold escapes and wanders through the dead villages. Upon reaching the sea he is captured by Muslim slave-traders and sold into Zheng He's Chinese treasure fleet. Bold befriends a young African slave, named Kyu, whom he cares for after the Chinese castrate him. In China, they eventually find work at the Beijing palace of Zhu Gaozhi, heir to the Yongle Emperor, where Kyu incites violence between the eunuchs and the administrative officials. Book Two, "The Haj in the Heart", begins in Mughal India where a Hindu girl named Kokila poisons her husband's father and brother after discovering their plot to defraud the village. She is executed for her crime, but is reborn as a tiger that befriends a man named Bistami who goes on to become a judge for Akbar. Bistami spends one year in Mecca before joining a caravan led by Sultan Mawji and his wife, Katima, who found a new city in Al-Andalus. In Book Three, "Ocean Continents", the Wanli Emperor launches an invasion against Japan but the fleet is swept out to sea and they accidentally discover the New World. The sailors make contact with the indigenous population but quickly leave once Admiral Kheim discovers they infected the indigenous people with disease. They take a small girl named Butterfly and sail south where they meet another civilization rich in gold. Book Four, "The Alchemist", takes place in Samarkand where a disgraced alchemist named Kalid, with the help of his friends I-wang and Braham, creates scientific experiments that help describe various aspects of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and weaponry. Book Five, "Warp and Weft", describes how a former samurai, fleeing the Chinese to the New World, recruits and organizes the remaining tribes to form a defensive alliance, which would become the Hodenosaunee League, against the Chinese.
Book Six, "Widow Kang", follows the life of Kang Tongbi during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. She takes in a poor Buddhist monk, Bao Ssu, and his son whom she finds scavenging, but the monk is implicated in a series of queue cuttings and is driven away. Later, Kang meets a Muslim scholar named Ibrahim ibn Hasam and together they remember their past lives. They move to western China, where they undertake work to reconcile Islamic and Confucianism beliefs. Book Seven, "The Age of Great Progress", begins during the fall of the City of Konstantiniyye to an Indian army. A Muslim doctor named Ismail is captured and sent to Travancore where their ruler, the Kerala of Travancore, pursues Indian unification and scientific advancement. Later, during the Xianfeng Emperor's reign, major flooding forces the evacuation of Chinese colonial towns in Gold Mountain. A displaced Japanese slave, Kiyoaki, and a pregnant Chinese refugee, Peng-ti, join a secret Japanese freedom movement with the aid of Ismail. Book Eight, "War of the Asuras", follows Chinese officers, Kuo, Bai and Iwa, during the Long War as the company moves south through Tibet to support their Indian allies against Muslim adversaries. Book Nine, "Nsara", follows the life of a Muslim woman named Budur and her aunt Idelba in Firanja. Budur enrolls in university where she studies history and archaeology and becomes close with a history teacher and feminist, Kirana. Idelba studies nuclear physics but dies of radiation poisoning. Budur helps organize an international organization of scientists to prevent the use of nuclear power as a weapon. Book Ten, "The First Years", follows Bao Xinhua who moves to the west coast of Yingzou after witnessing the assassination of his friend, and revolutionary, Kung Jianguo. He marries and raises two children before accepting a diplomatic post in Bangladesh. In his later years he moves back to Fangzhang to teach history and the philosophy of history.
Style, themes and genre 
The novel is divided into ten chapters which each act as a short story, linked by the use of a group of people who appear in each story. After spending time in bardo, the group (or jāti) are reincarnated into different times and places. While characters in each story are unique, they share some characteristics with their previous incarnations and are linked, for convenience, by the first letter of their name. The characters whose names begin with the letter K are "combative, imprudent and prone to getting himself (or herself) killed" and "striking blows against injustice that typically lead to more suffering". The B characters are "more comfortable in the world, meliorist and optimistic" and "survivors, nurturing friends and family through bad times and patiently waiting for something better". The I characters are "the ones who care, who follow the other two, and may be necessary if their works are to flourish, but who tend to the domestic and always find the world worth loving." The style of writing also changes every chapter to reflect the style of writing associated with the culture being depicted. For example, the first chapter is written similarly to Monkey's Journey to the West and a later chapter incorporates postmodernism. Also, later chapters take on metafictional elements, with characters discussing the nature of history, whether it is cyclical or linear, whether they believe in reincarnation, and feelings that some people are intrinsically linked.
Robinson incorporated utopian themes in his previous works but reviewers were divided on whether The Years of Rice and Salt qualified as a utopian story. Those that did call the world described in the story as utopian cited the story's illustration of progress. However, those that wrote The Years of Rice and Salt was not a utopian story say that the world history presented is not necessarily better or worse than the real history, just different. Robinson calls himself a "utopian novelist" in that he claims "all science fiction has a utopian element, in that it tends to say that what we do now matters and will have consequences". Several other themes were identified by reviewers. Robinson had previously used the theme of memory (or identity) and incorporates it into this story with characters who are reincarnated versions of previous characters and who only recognize each other while in the bardo, but sometimes feel a connection between themselves while on earth. The reviewer in The Globe and Mail identified feminism and "struggles over the nature of Islam" as recurring themes.
Alternate history 
The Years of Rice and Salt belongs to the alternate history sub-genre of speculative fiction. The novel starts at the point of divergence with Timur turning his army away from Europe where the Black Death killed 99% of Europe's population, instead of a third. Robinson explores world history from that point in 1405 AD (783 AH) to about 2045 AD (1423 AH) with Mughal Emperor Akbar being the last character with a real-world counterpart. Robinson's take on alternate history is that because it "is set in the same lawful universe as ours, its science must be the same [and] because its people have the same basic human needs, their societies resemble ours." Therefore, despite the difference in who specifically is there, "the great majority of humanity [is] doing their work, and that work would tend to forge along at a certain pace as people tried to solve the problems of making themselves more comfortable in this world." While most alternate histories use the Great Man theory of history, focusing on leaders, wars, and big events, Robinson writes more about social history, similar to the Annales School of history theory and Marxist historiography, focusing on the lives of ordinary people living in their time and place. This is reflected in the title of the novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, which refers to the everyday chores of raising a family, often performed by women, despite the politics and wars of men. Reviewers noted this allows for the "history [to be] experienced by readers on a human scale" and "an implicit but thorough rebuke to the kind of war-gaming determinism that most alternate histories embody." The novel has characters that explore subjects like philosophy, theology, history, and scientific theory.
Publication and reception 
Released in March 2002, the book was published in North America by Bantam Books and in the United Kingdom by HarperCollins. The paperback was released in 2003 along with a Spanish translation. In the subsequent years, other translated versions were published, in French, Polish, Chinese, and Hungarian. It won the 2003 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was nominated for the Hugo Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the British Science Fiction Award.
The novel was well received by critics who variously called it "thoughtful", "realistic", and "rich". In Publishers Weekly, the reviewers called it a "highly realistic and credible alternate history", and in the School Library Journal, Christine Menefee called it "an addictive, surprising, and suspenseful novel". The Library Journal "highly recommended" it, saying that its "superb storytelling and imaginative historic speculation make [it] a priority choice for all SF and general fiction collections". The critic at Kirkus Reviews found it "overlong, but blessed with moments of wry and gentle beauty". Likewise, Roz Kaveney stated that "if there is a weakness in Robinson's work, it is perhaps this; his characters are so intelligent that they never shut up". For The Globe and Mail, Sol Chrom lauded the epic scope, calling it a "magnificent achievement", and for The Belfast News Letter, the reviewer called the novel "extraordinary, ambitious, poetic and powerful". Science fiction critic Paul Kincaid concluded that it is "a huge, complex and highly enjoyable book".
See also 
- "The Lucky Strike" was first published in Universe #14 (ISBN 0-385-19134-0) and was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula Award
- "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" was first published in Author's Choice #20 (OCLC 23764754)
- Both "The Lucky Strike" and "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" were published together in the 2009 booklet The Lucky Strike by PM Press (ISBN 9781604860856) as part of their Outspoken Authors series.
- Bisson, Terry (2009). "A Real Joy to be Had: Outspoken Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson". The Lucky Strike. Outspoken Authors. Oakland, California: PM Press. pp. 77–107. ISBN 9781604860856.
- Szeman, Imre; Maria Whiteman (July 2004). "Future Politics: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson". Science Fiction Studies 31 (2): 177–188.
- Zaleski, Jeff; Peter Canon (January 7, 2002). "The Years of Rice and Salt". Publishers Weekly 249 (1): 51.
- Evans, Clay (February 24, 2002). "New worlds - Two giant new 'alternative histories' vividly explore Islam ascendant". Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado). p. DD6.
- Evans, Clay (June 13, 2004). "Real, but not real fun: - Robinson's new global-warming trilogy gets off to a slow star". Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado). p. E5.
- Hopper, Jim (March 10, 2002). "Grand opportunity to go reelin' in the 'Years'". The San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, California). p. BOOKS-7.
- Mabe, Chauncy (March 31, 2002). "Trio's Lives Intertwine — Again and Again". South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Florida). p. 10D.
- Feeley, Gregory (April 7, 2002). "Past Forward". The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.).
- Jonas, Gerald (April 28, 2002). "Science Fiction". The New York Times Book Review (New York). p. 20.
- Barbour, Douglas (March 17, 2002). "Islam and Buddhism clash in believable alternate history". Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta). p. D11.
- Wilson, Andrew (June 15, 2002). "Worlds of wonder". The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland). p. 10.
- Robinson, Kim Stanley (April 14, 2002). Profile: Kim Stanley Robinson's Book "The Years Of Rice And Salt". Interview with Neda Ulaby. Weekend Edition Sunday. National Public Radio.
- Powers, John (June 2002). "The West Coast of Utopia: Kim Stanley Robinson and the science fiction of hope". The American Prospect: 45.
- Pierleoni, Allen (July 14, 2004). "Warming Up —- Kim Stanley Robinson's latest is the first in a sci-fi trilogy about a catastrophic ice age". The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California). p. E1.
- Cleaver, Fred (March 24, 2002). "Intrigue envelops Russian poet, student Marvelous language fills "The Translator'.". The Denver Post (Denver, Colorado). p. EE-02.
- Chrom, Sol (June 15, 2002). "World without West". The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario). p. D30.
- Menefee, Christine (August 2002). "The Years of Rice and Salt". School Library Journal 48 (8): 222.
- Fisher, George (October 2002). "The Years of Rice and Salt". New Internationalist (350): 31.
- Shaw, Elizabeth (July 14, 2002). "Salt' insight into alternate history". The Flint Journal (Flint, Michigan). p. F03.
- Kaveney, Roz (March 5, 2002). "Tuesday Book: After the Black Death, 700 Years of New Life". The Independent (London, England). p. 5.
- Cassada, Jackie (February 15, 2002). "The Years of Rice and Salt". Library Journal 127 (3): 180.
- "The Years of Rice and Salt". Kirkus Reviews 70 (1): 23. January 2002.
- Abernethy, Daphne (March 11, 2002). "Book review: History as it might have been". The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland).
- Kincaid, Paul (March 25, 2002). "Big Death". New Scientist 173 (2335): 50.
- Marden, William (June 23, 2002). "Welcome to Strange, Alternate Worlds". Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida). p. F9.
- Evans, Clay (December 8, 2002). "Boulder County writers (plus a few others) will please bibliophiles on your gift list". Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado). p. DD6.
- "Science fiction paper". Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa). July 6, 2003.
- Salm, Arthur (July 4, 2004). "Robinson explores what-if of the future". The San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, California). p. F-3.
- Abbott, Carl (Spring 2003). "Falling into History: The Imagined Wests of Kim Stanley Robinson in the "Three Californias" and Mars Trilogies". The Western Historical Quarterly (Western History Association) 34 (1): 27–47.
- The Years Of Rice And Salt at KimStanleyRobinson.info
- Retrospective review by Jo Walton
- Timeline of the events in The Years of Rice and Salt's world
- Reincarnation list of the main characters in The Years of Rice and Salt
- "The Years of Rice and Salt". Worlds Without End.