Tuesday, May 22, 2007

the years of rice and salt (part one)

So I'm in the middle of reading The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. The book is a work of alternative historical fiction with an intriguing premise: What if the Black Death had been more total in its impact, rendering the Christian West only a marginal actor in subsequent world history? Chinese and Islamic civilizations become dominant in the world. The Americas are primarily settled by the Japanese (but Native American cultures are able to continue in a stronger form than they do in our world). An ex-alchemist plants the foundation for classical chemistry and physics in Samarqand. And so it goes.

To be honest, I'm a little bit disappointed with the novel at the moment. I love the premise, but the book doesn't really seem to make the most of its setting(s). To provide continuity, the novel follows the souls of a small group of associates (a jati) as they reincarnate through multiple times and places through the centuries. But instead of fleshing out the broad trends and events of this alternate history, the novel focuses on the personal development of these souls across lifetimes. The result (so far) is a story which could just as easily been set in our own past. Hopefully, as the story goes on and as the histories diverge more, Robinson will give the reader a greater sense of how this other world differs from our own.

Wikipedia: The Years of Rice and Salt


Abdul-Halim V. said...

hmm, i should probably just write a part two but i was waiting to finish the book before doing that...

in any case, it turns out that the book *has* been starting to make a turn for the "better" (at least in terms of what i'd been expecting. Some of the recent incarnations of the characters are discussing their own history so it is possible to give some sense of the larger pattern of events. Which actually then starts to raise other questions... for example... what would India look like if it weren't for the British? How would the power struggles between the Muhgals, other Muslims, Sikhs, Afghans, Persians, etc. have played out?

Also an interesting development is how certain characters are discussing the need for some kind of synthesis or harmonization between Islam and the Eastern religions like Buddhism. It makes me think of issues previously discussed in i ching and the tao of islam or on the Zensunnis who eventually became the Fremen in Frank Herbert's Dune series.

Anonymous said...

I went out and bought this today, just cos it sounds so intriguing. I'm going to China in less than a month, and planning to do some writing on the Chinese/Islamic encounter, maybe this'll fire up my imagination a bit.

--Dave, http://parallelsidewalk.wordpress.com