Duncan Lawie writes: "Kim Stanley Robinson started reading science fiction at the start of the 1970s, as New Wave was breaking over the genre, and began writing it not long after. He soon established a reputation for literate science fiction, confirmed by the 'Orange County Trilogy' written during the 1980s. Perhaps more usefully re-named Three Californias, this thematic trilogy offers alternative visions of America's future. In the 1990s, he came to dominate science fiction through his massive, and massively detailed, Mars trilogy, tracing the colonisation and terraforming of our neighbouring planet. In turn, his output has been dominated by the success of this work and the continued working out of the ideas contained within it. For a new decade, there is a new kind of work by KSR." Duncan goes on to review an example of this new work below.
The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history, opening at the dawn of what should have been the 14th Christian century. Instead, the Black Death has wiped out the population of Europe, leaving the future open to the trans-Asian cultures of the Old World. Robinson has applied his usual detailed research and rich, convincing narrative to the production of this book, giving the world he creates a lived in and liveable depth. Through this, he has successfully avoided many of the pitfalls of alternate history, growing his work from a common root but not dependent on our branch of history for its survival. This book could have been a rather tedious meditation on the absence of da Vinci, Shakespeare, Hitler and a million others. Instead, it is defined by the presence of Arabic and Chinese civilisations, expanding across the planet and finding $other cultures.
The Years of Rice and Salt covers a period of seven centuries and, in the end, the technology that these rather different occupants of the planet discover seems remarkably similar to what our contemporary world has found. In this, KSR seems to have had a failure of imagination -- he does not, or dares not, find the world too different a place. Perhaps the book would have been tedious to read, or impossible to write, if the world had collapsed into an eternal mediaeval culture. Perhaps a pure golden age ushered in by the avoidance of "Western rapacity" would have produced a story without sufficient conflict or complexity. Perhaps, in the final analysis, human nature is human nature regardless of the cultures which seek to shape it. Of course, this leads to the essential problem of alternate history, something which the book discusses directly - "we don't know if history is sensitive, and for want of a nail a civilisation was lost, or if our mightiest acts are as petals on a flood, or something in between, or both at once."
As the tapestry of its internal history is so convincing, and so little reliant on our own, it can be hard to see what the book actually has to do with us. The characters spend a lot of time in discussion throughout the book's length but as the world reaches into the modern age, it reaches also into self-awareness and the protagonists increasingly become historians and philosophers. Towards the end, the book almost dissolves into the deconstruction of it's own content. This approach seems to be an attempt by the author to give himself an opportunity to comment more directly upon our world. In the final section, the story regains the impetus as a new global culture starts to pull together. This section is written in the future from our perspective and the narrative is more comfortable as Robinson abandons alternate history for the stronger stuff of true science fiction.
In terms of technique, Robinson manages both interesting and admirable approaches, experimenting and further developing his craft as a writer. He maintains a set of central characters across the whole period in question by making use of the idea of reincarnation. This fits nicely with the idea that this is an "Eastern" book rather than a "Western" one whilst avoiding the complications of a generational saga or of writing about totally new characters in each section. It provides the reader with a thread to follow through the ten tales, tying them together in small ways as well as large and allows commentary on the progress of the book and of society. Additionally, each of the ten 'books' which make up this large novel is written in a different style, reflecting the characteristics of the period in which it is set. Even the map which introduces each section is drawn differently.
This new book is vintage KSR - so rich in detail that the experience of his milieu becomes personal. Clearly, a master builder of worlds is at work, thoroughly working his research into the foundations. It also has the fingerprints of ethical and ecological concern, encouraging us to do our best, be of good will and to maintain an upward slope for ourselves, our kind and our world. Robinson's fans will enjoy The Years of Rice and Salt. Other readers may fare better by skipping to the final chapter.
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