The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Rating: ★★★★

I was sold this book on the premise that it was an alternate history, one in which Europe was completely (rather than mostly) wiped out by the bubonic plague. It sort of is, but it was not what I was expecting from that description.

The problem Robinson faced was that he wanted two apparently incompatible things. He wanted to show the development of the world over many centuries after this change, up to the approach to the modern era, and he wanted also to present this world through a personal, human lens rather than as a historiography. To manage this, he turned to a suitable narrative device from the religious traditions of Asia -- reincarnation. He put together a system that allowed him to jump into snippets of human life across time and space, but with the characters linked by a meta-narrative, the clade of individual souls being born again and again into a world they consider twisted and unfair.

This was mostly fine, but towards the end the meta-narrative impinged on the world plotline, with incarnated characters being able to remember past lives, and use that information to influence events. I found that a bit of a cheat, really, given the otherwise quite compelling alternate history. Robinson does not pull punches with his world -- the world does not escape global warfare, and if anything the religiously-fuelled conflict he details is more terribly destructive than either of the European world wars. Islam and Buddhism are not reduced to stereotypes, nor so fixed as to remain as we remember them. The characters, too, carefully encompass a range of human possibilities, from the intellectual to the brave to the loving to the cruel. Robinson once more strikes me as a rare science-fiction writer who can write properly deep personalities as well as complex idea-driven plots.