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The Years Of Rice And Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
HarperCollins paperback £7.99
review by Steve Sneyd
This is one of those unusual books that grips and irritates at one and the same time, an itch you can't help scratching. It snapshots an alternative world that diverged from our history with the 14th century's Black Death, which, in our reality killed about a third of Europe. In Robinson's universe, it wiped out Europe entirely, leaving the future to Islam and China until, after their apocalyptic final confrontation, world power goes to the Hodenosaunee, an enormous expansion of the Iroquois confederacy that takes in all the tribes of the Americas, becomes a sea-power, and eventually begins enforcing democracy everywhere (odd how Americans come out on top after all, even if they're red ones - Big Chief Sitting Bush? ... I'm not, incidentally, being a spoiler in saying this, since the interest lies more in the detail of how all this happens than the overall frame).
The story is told in a series of episodes, from the initial event-line right up to this other Earth's near present. Those episodes vary considerably in length, and eventfulness. To take the non-stop action extreme, in the very first episode a warrior flees from Temur's horde into the heart of plague-emptied Europe. Reaching the Mediterranean, he is at once enslaved, shipped to Africa, sold to the commander of a Chinese fleet along with a young black eunuch, and, after a horde more adventures, gets himself fatally embroiled in a conspiracy at the new Imperial court of Beijing.
At the other extreme, another episode is basically a series of speeches lightly laced with ceremonies, as a wandering Japanese exile, becoming an Iroquois chief, persuades their sachem council to start defending themselves against Chinese and Islamic settlers. Time and again, these episodes, each focused on some tip-over point of political, social, or technological change, leave the reader wanting to know what happened next, but frustrated when a Shakespeare-style wipeout of characters occurs at the end.
The book continues, however, to grip powerfully. Partly this stems from the general plausibility of developments in the alternative history. There's the fascination of getting to know both divergences from, and parallels with, our own reality, along with the contemporary relevance as Islam reawakens and China swells with growing power. And many of the situations have real drama, as much when they explore at individual level key confrontations of ideas, or discoveries that imply major transformation, as when they involve world-spanning journeys or set piece 'clash of civilisations' conflicts.
Characters are drawn economically, but often memorably (if not always involvingly) - a particularly striking example being the Central Asian astronomer, one hand already lost to the ruthless local Khan's 'justice', winning the right to continue using his revolutionary telescope by naming the new-found moons of Jupiter after the ruler's favourite wives, neatly illuminating alike the Khan's foolish vanity and the innovator's determined cunning.
Settings, too, are vivid, descriptions often taking the unusual form of list poems of Chinese simplicity and clarity inset in the text. And, stemming from the story rather than, in general, appearing as intrusive data dumps, much intriguing information is conveyed.
To give just one example, which I found notably enlightening, an analysis of the mystical Sufi sect of Islam brings out how, as with that religion more generally, abstract ideas tend to dominate, because the Koran is in a language, classical Arabic, which very few Muslims any longer speak as a first language. Therefore its words do not have anchorage in the everyday reality of ordinary believers, who are left dependent on priestly interpretation to give meaning to their sacred text. (Although Robinson doesn't mention this, there is a clear parallel with the situation of lay Christians when the Bible was only available in Latin.)
Many pluses, then, for this book - so why was I irritated so much of the time? Partly, there is the tendency to lecture, to push the author's agendas as to the best form of government, or the need for enhanced roles for women, sometimes to a level of naivety. Partly, it is the resort to postmodernist author-addresses-reader tricks of the 'I don't want to tell you what happens next, but I have to, so you'll find out in the next chapter' type. Partly, as mentioned, it's the way episodes end in mid-air, the next then usually starting far away and well along in time, as if chapters were missing.
But what I found most irritating, ultimately, is the device that Robinson uses to attempt to overcome that very gappiness, and bridge the leaps through time and space for the reader. That is, between episodes, to have scenes set in the Bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist non-earthly realm where souls go for judgement, punishment, and assignment to their next reincarnation. Robinson explains that all his main characters, ostensible 'goodies' and 'baddies' alike, belong to a single jati, a group of souls bound together throughout an eternity of reincarnations.
So, after the wipeout that ends each episode, they meet up again in the Bardo, each time with a little more awareness and resulting rebelliousness against their helpless fates. Then off they go again back to Earth, ready to unknowingly - since it is only in the Bardo that they can develop understanding of the jati bonds that bind them - encounter each other once more in new guises and roles. As well as providing inter-episode linkage (and, incidentally, setting the reader the puzzle, for those who want to attempt it, which I didn't, of trying to guess which new characters reincarnate which previous ones), this device seems to be intended by the author to give the book a wider thematic unity. That is, it appears intended to persuade the reader to draw a parallel between the book's optimistic thesis of overall development towards human betterment, despite all the setbacks, and individual soul growth towards wisdom .To me, as with other recent SF novels where a mystical element is introduced (whether in an attempt to compete with the popularity of fantasy, or to reflect the way quantum physics and new cosmology are in a sense feeding mysticism back into science in the way the old alchemists did, or both), these Bardo scenes, as well as being annoyingly agenda making, seem to add false rather than real significance. They seemed an imposed bolt-on that interrupted and destabilised the reading experience rather than enhancing it or adding a meaningful further dimension.
Here, then, is a book you'll find hard to put down before the end, but do have some old crockery handy, to smash when the irritation level gets too much!
The Years Of Rice And Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
HarperCollins paperback £7.99
review by Simeon Shoul
In the year 1405, Bold Bardash, a scout in the army of Tamerlaine, last of the great Mongol conquerors, penetrates Hungary to spy out the land for his master's coming onslaught. To his consternation, Bold finds the land utterly devastated by plague. Not simply reduced, but completely emptied of human life. Europe, in its entirety, has been depopulated and Western, Latin, Christian civilisation becomes nothing more than a historical curiosity for all the ages that follow. In ten fascinating episodes, Robinson leads us from that late medieval moment down the centuries to a modern world that struggles with the same elements of overpopulation, pollution, political and moral failure that we do. Dipping in and out of Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Amerindian cultures, he turns over and over a provocative series of questions; how may people best live together? What is morality? What is progress? What is the true nature of these great non-Western cultures and traditions?
By using Hindu-Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, Robinson neatly ties together each episode. Bold Bardash dies and returns to life as Bihari, a village girl in India. His companion, Kyu, comes back as Kokila, another girl in the same village. Tied to each other through successive rebirths, these two characters and a half dozen others form a small, tight interweaving complex, a tangle of lives and relationships running through and around and over each other again and again and again as they strive to achieve an elusive perfection, or at least, as they frequently complain in brief afterlife interludes, at least some small degree of improvement in the world!
Robinson is one of the most socially and politically responsible writers, not simply in the science fiction genre, but in any genre. He stares at the great dilemmas of our times, reflecting them and refracting them through his stories, turning them over and over to examine them first from one angle, then from another, seeking by this repetitive, recursive method to arrive at some truth or solution greater than the sum of its narrative parts. There's a breadth of vision here hard to find in other writers' works, a painstaking attention to detail, coupled to a capacity to examine cultures in their longest, most sweeping developments, spread over centuries.
Robinson is not simply a great writer; he is also a great educator. The Years Of Rice And Salt is an enormously timely book. Reading it affords insights into realms of foreign culture that too many people in our age simply won't sit still to be taught in any other fashion. Giving his readers a real taste of some of the divisions and complexities of modern Islam is the best sort of service any writer could perform at this moment, and this is only one of the cultures Robinson chooses to explore in narratives that are dramatic, comic, and sometimes tragic. There are, perhaps, only three flaws that can be alleged. Firstly, that Robinson is, overall, perhaps too naive in his belief in the eventual, gradual, inevitable development of some real solution to the world's problems. Then again, as his stories get closer and closer to the modern era, they begin to get slower and slower, and more and more burdened with philosophy and socio-scientific musings. As the characters acquire more sophisticated tools of reason, they can't resist reasoning with them, at great length! Lastly, if one is familiar with Robinson's early work, one will see that he is no longer thinking new thoughts. The magnificent Mars trilogy deployed a great many of the same themes as The Years Of Rice And Salt, as did Antarctica. No question, these are messages that can bear repeating again and again and again, but this is vintage Robinson, and though deeply satisfying, devoid of surprises. Provocative, elegant, demanding, immensely informative and very necessary - that is Kim Stanley Robinson's work in a nutshell.
tZ This Is The Year One: Kim Stanley Robinson interviewed by Duncan Lawie
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