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The Years of Rice and Salt Review: The Reborn Flowers of Hope

Updated on March 22, 2019

If there is one thing which a book written by Kim Stanley Robinson most certainly does not lack, it is that of ambition. As a veteran of a similarly breathtaking work of his, the Mars trilogy (and perhaps it is unfair to make reference so often to this work as i write down my thoughts upon the work that he has produced here, but it forms an invaluable reference point which enables comparison and contrast), encapsulated by the changing colors of Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, The Years of Rice and Salt is a book which similarly boggles the imagination for the sheer size and scale of the vaste expanse of human history and the world which it travels, across continent after continent, from people ranging in all sections of society, and throughout the better part of a millennia of history which similarly stuns in the extent of its divergence and changes as compared to our own, turning us into the privileged spectators of an unfolding epic saga which stretches throughout the ages.

To recount briefly what occurred to spark this divergence between our world and the history which Robinson has created for us, the point of divergence locates itself in the 14th century, where instead of the Black Plague felling around a third of the European population, almost its entirety is wiped out, destroyed, rendered nothing and exterminated, leaving where once grew the great stone forests of European cathedrals, instead the mason carapaces, booming in their emptiness, inhabited at most by the occasional wanderer in this strange and empty land. With the destruction of Europe, what was left behind across the world were other civilizations that continued to grow and develop, Islam, India with its offspring of Buddhism and Hinduism, China, and one day too the distant lands of the New World. The task and the quest which Robertson has laid forth for himself is to follow the development of these civilizations and the ideas that they produce throughout time, through a mixture of various characters.

These characters themselves form the fascinating and critical element of the work, married as they are to the device of reincarnation - that the characters that we see throughout, in their pairs of kindred souls, are born anew throughout the ages, so that as one generation dies, from the void sprouts forth another generation of flowers to grow towards the sun, before they too one day are to wilt and fall underneath its harsh gaze. A certain additional degree of elegance is married to the serried ranks of these figures that arise from the milieu of history, in the same soul shares the same name - perhaps at the end, it will be to the reader to go back and to examine once more the pages which his hands had traversed with such fulgurante speed, to see which of the chains of people stretches to which throughout the ages, as the tangled vines of the past connect and spring together to knit a rope across the tide of years. Punctured among these are the scenes of reincarnation, which add a layer of depth and tragedy to the event, to deal with these uncaring gods that dictate the course of human existence, these demons and devil hegemons, which control all and in their callous brutality and evil create the horrors that mark the human condition. It underscores too, deeper examinations to human history and the human experience, which form a shifting tapestry across the book's course, one which turns it into more than simply an alternate world, but an examination of an alternate existence, and into a look into our own life and destiny.

Even simply things bear witness to the dedication, detail, and craft which went into writing this work. In a world where the language of the Greeks furnishes not the wellspring of scientific terminology, hence emerges instead the term qi for electricity. Instead of telegraph, wiregraph, instead of airplane, flier. Taels and li instead of pounds/kilograms and kilometers/miles. These are small changes. Perhaps they might even be dismissed as petty changes. But to me, they speak to the thoroughness and the dedication, the energy, sweat, labor, which went into the creation of this book, to the completeness of its research and ideas, so that even in its portrayal to the author it speaks with the assuredness that what it writes is indeed the result of the altered historical processes which have changed so dramatically this land where one of the world's great civilizations had been felled low by the plague which swept across its once fertile lands, destroying the root, the branch, and the salts, of its once formidable intellectual tradition and heritage. Robinson is no stranger to a wide range of intellectual theories and principles, and when he gets the possibility to introduce into his novels the intellectuals with whom he feels so at ease, this can be clearly shown in ranges of scientific conferences and in writings and lectures. Perhaps sometimes these personnages are simply mouthpieces for his own ideas to come forth - be it the Four Great Inequalities or his concerns about agricultural civilization or ecological damage - but the ideas which are presented are ones which are thoughtful, elegant, and intriguing. So too is the great deal of thought which went into his examination of the efforts, perhaps feeble and doomed to fail as the later chapters were to note, of the abortive projects for the reconciliation of Chinese and Muslim civilizations. Indeed, if there is one chapter which I am to declare as my favorite, that of Widow Kang and Ibrahim is without doubt my preferred, marked by a deep understanding of Chinese civilization, an intriguing change in writing style and portrayal, and a simple, elegant, touching, universal, story, which in its hope and in its dreams speaks, if not to the success of its own project, to Robinson's own perspective and dreams. For this examination alone of ideas, thoughts, principles, of this alternate world, the book deserves its moniker of great.

What is the defining outlook of Robinson? What emotion drives his pen to such a magnus opum? There are many words which one could draw upon to throw forth as tribute before this question, so many of great validity and accuracy. A deeply embedded sense of hope for equality, embedded specifically in a continuing and constant theme in all of the novels which the author has written which I have so far read, particularly encapsulated by the strong advocacy for the equality and the rights of women. Curiosity, to see what a world so dramatically different could have been - and indeed, curiosity is a necessary mortar to tie together the sculpture which he has erected, for how else could one dare to undertake such a project? Ambition to portray it, for as my text upon his work declares, the writing of Kim Stanley Robinson has never lacked for ambition. But fundamentally I think that these all gather around and proffer themselves unto the central pillar of his work: a deep-seated optimism. This optimism is one which is channeled and portrayed by his own interests and his own hopes, particularly in ecological, egalitarian - above all else the role of women and the need for their equality in society - and pacifist terms. Thus even as he writes about the horrors of the Long War (which, in its almost racialist, civilizational, context, is one which is a shocking one to stem from a writer like Robinson), with its billion dead and the planet driven to smoking crates where the living envy the dead from the burning shells of their wrecked cities, he can still devote reels of his writing to the hope for recovery, that the human condition will enable from a fertile soil, fertilized and enriched by the ashes of the past and of all of its misery and destruction, that a better and brighter future can emerge which will provide for the end of war, an end to conflict, an end to inequality, an end to all of these scourges which have since the dawn of human history, or at the very least since man since placed upon the virgin soil the plow with which he transformed the once eden-like society into the agricultural world marked by all of its sins and catastrophe. I have my doubts about this dream which motivates his pen to write this long story, but the spirit which propels it is one which I cannot but admire.

And it also hides in its heart the distortion which this brings, for Robinson's book is one which enables him to create a tapestry of his own hopes. Some of these are petty and small, and appear to the reader only as they are filtered through his other works into the reader's eyes, such as the insignificant technological minutiae which inhabits the pages, be it the flying airships which replace aircraft and ships to ferry people and passengers around the world, or the delight in the height of skyscrapers and the adaptability of the human spirit to the threat of the rising tides engendered by our own ecological folly. But others are more important and impactful, revolving around the characters, who if they certainly vary from one to another, with different minds, different thoughts, different actions and beliefs, revolve around the pillars of progress, the hope for human equality, and the fulfillment of the ideals which Robinson wishes to portray. Of course, the same element is present in the other work of which I have read which is authored by himself, the Mars Trilogy, but in this book it becomes more clear and present: when one deals with literally reincarnations of the same characters, time and time again, one is hammered with what are in essence the same fundamental values, but repeated throughout the ages. In time, it can become almost cloying, and the characters never become quite as powerful, as fully fledged, as truly real, as those present in his Mars Trilogy. It can lead to its own odd share of historical counterfactuals, not so much incorrect or bad as simply strange: when in the cafés of a defeated power, the Muslim nations of Western Europe, it is women who proclaim that the reason for the defeat of their nations, in the time honored fashion, was due to an internal enemy which planted the knife in the backs of its soldiers who were once upon the front line - this being the lack of emancipation and freedom for the fairer sex in the lands which followed the word of the Prophet. From what can clearly be seen as an allusion to the mutterings and theories which inspired the rise of revanchisme and fascism, it makes for an odd, peculiar, strange, reversal.

This is is not the only doubt which I enjoin about the world which he has created. Certainly, one cannot pretend that it is Elysium reborn: we see entirely too much of its struggles and woes, from the land where once trod the Franks, where after the Long War poverty, hunger, and despair, grips the land, or China, where grey blocks of an authoritarian military dictatorship harbor a poor and tired people, still bruised and battered by the horror of war. But the world which has emerged is one which in its broad strokes, is one similar to our own for its degree of technological sophistication and advancement. To me, it seems like a conjuring trick, to wipe out one of the world's greatest civilizations for its technological contributions, the heartland of technological development and advancement for much of the last half millennia, and to simply wave into the air as if by magic a world which is equally advanced, equally sophisticated, unhindered by the loss of this great fount of innovation and development, even as other civilizations move into the empty expanses. Certainly, Robinson also posits the survival of others, such as the Native Americans, whom form for him form a great hope for humanity, unhindered by the many woes which the civilizations of the old world have brought upon themselves. This too I enjoin some doubts, but regardless of whether it is so, even in the novel, the technological contributions of the Native Americans do not match what the Europeans brought. It is by deus ex machina that Robinson can call into effect an industrial revolution, from Samarkand where a team of brilliant scientists manage to, like Athena brought forth from the brow of zeus, bring forth all of the miracles of the industrial revolution in such a vanishingly short period of time, or in India, where the Kerala, a "great man" if there is any such figure to have existed in history, stirs from the Indian milieu the great developments of modern science. The ending character of the novel, Bao Xinhua, himself denies the influence of the great man on history, preferring instead the idea of the changes and the developments of history which are occasioned by the masses themselves rather than single individuals, but what greater example and presentation of the Great Man could be presented than a singular figure who brings forth the industrial revolution from an environment where previously almost nothing of it existed?

For me, the world which Robinson envisions is one which advances itself too far in its scientific and technological richness, which the European civilization for better or for worse can claim much of the credit for its instillment over the last half a millennia. The alternate world which exists could certainly have been one of equal complexity, richness, and diversity, but it is one which to me seems likely to have been more profoundly different than Robinson portrays. This presents itself as my great reserve about the story which Robinson brings to life: alternate small quibbles join it, about the length and the feasibility of the Long War for one, but this central pillar is my great objection.

Perhaps so too, the book suffers in comparison to the magisterial work of the Mars trilogy, without quite the same ability for Robinson to let loose with the elegance of his pen to portray the world and its scenery, its illustration, its life, with all of the vivid details with which he painted the red planet. Certainly, the book can boast its share of elegance, and so too some brilliant and moving scenes - intersped with rich poetry in particular, complementing and enriching the evolving text - and some of them are ones which can bring both joy and horror to the human soul, be it in the peaceful and quiet sunny lands of the end, where an old revolutionary and teacher lives out his golden years, or in the most atrocious and jolting of wars, one marked by not only a feeling of the physical sense of atrocity and pain, but also by its psychological catastrophe, but it lacks some of the flair, the drama, the expansiveness and the ambition which the fourth planet from the sun received.

The book which results from all of these myriad aspects is one which is not a perfect one in my opinion, even though it it is one which gripped my interest and sent me hurtling through some six hundred of its pages in barely a day, it carries with it its share of unfortunate blemishes and shortcomings. But despite this, the sheer ambition of the work, the impressive nature of its characterization, the fascinating examination into alternate ideas, the poignant scenes which traverse it throughout, the depth and brilliance of many of its characters and their struggles, the imagination, the hope, the dreams, the originality, combine to make it into a book which nevertheless certainly deserves the title of great. Alternate history which is more than simply petty and small changes, but which instead changes around the great sweep and expanse of history, in a convincing and touchingly real story.

4 stars for The Years of Rice and Salt

© 2019 Ryan Thomas


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