Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Years of Rice and Salt

Alternate history has become so popular in recent years that even serious historians have tackled it in books such as Virtual History and What If? Historians generally take the point of view of examining how the changes in historical fact might have affected the “real” world.

Writers of f&sf tend to attack alternate history in two different varieties. Some stories are not much different than the nonfiction type, being sfnal examinations of the worlds generated by the changes. Pavane is probably the prototype of this type of story. In other cases, the historical change is primarily an excuse to tell a rousing story which could not have taken place in our real world. Harry Turtledove’s various series in which the South won the Civil War are the examples here.

Kim Stanley Robinson has always been interested in historical change, but usually in the near-future. His Mars trilogy is an examination of exactly how a possible future colonization of Mars might occur. His very-loose California trilogy are examinations of possible near-futures which might occur under different economic circumstances. Based on these examples, it is not surprising that when Robinson chose to tackle a novel-length alternate history it would be of the Pavane type.

Robinson’s premise in The Years of Rice and Salt is that instead of the Black Plague killing 30% of the population of Europe, what might have happened had it killed 99%? Or even 100%? Considering how less than two centuries after the Black Plague the Renaissance arose in Italy, setting the stage for European domination of the second half of the millennium, Robinson’s premise certainly bodes a different history for the entire world, a history best described by his original title for the novel–A World Without Europe.

Just as Pavane, The Years of Rice and Salt is not a novel per se, but a mosaic of ten novellas, each one examining a different aspect of the world without Europe. Several are basically travelogues describing portions of the new world, while others show how key moments in “our” history might have occurred in his new history. Not all the novellas are equally successful, but that is to be expected in a project of this type.

The first story, “Awake to Emptiness” sets the tone for the book, but unfortunately it is one of the weakest of the stories. Based stylistically on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, it introduces two characters who reoccur throughout the book as spirits inhabiting specific characters during the following centuries. I never understood why Robinson chose this technique, and frankly it seemed unnecessary to the novel as a whole. And since the first novella served primarily to examine the personalities of those two characters, rather than specifically show the devastation caused by the Black Plague, the entire novella seemed pointless.

Fortunately, it was followed by a series of much stronger stories, each of which examined a different aspect of the alternate world some years after the point of change. “The Haj in the Heart” showed how the Islamic Empire, which had been thwarted in “real” history when the Moors were driven from Spain in 1492, grew and spread. “Ocean Continents” was the discovery of America, this time by Chinese explorers crossing the Pacific Ocean.

“The Alchemist” told of the development of modern science by alchemists. While this was the most interesting reading as storytelling per se, it required a major suspension of disbelief in its presumption that two scientists, one of them a fake alchemist, were together responsible for numerous scientific discoveries themselves. If you can accept that, the novella’s depiction of the medieval scientific process, and how science must at times compromise itself with military purposes, was fascinating reading.

“Warp and Weft” was a short look at how Chinese relations with American Indians might compare with European relations with them in the real world. The story had a basic flaw in that the protagonist seemingly understood how the Europeans in “our” world mistreated and ultimately destroyed the Indians, for no explainable reason as to why he knew that or what purpose it served in the story.

Another outstanding long novella was “Widow Kang” which examined relationships between Buddhist Chinese and Muslims, including much discussion of afterlife and reincarnation. This was much more philosophical than the other stories, and it also raised the connecting material involving the recurring spirits from what had seemed like mere gimmick to a level of importance in the stories for the first time (although I still felt it was unnecessary).

“The Age of Great Progress” and “War of the Asuras” were both concerned with political dealings among the Chinese, Indian and Moslem empires. They were interesting, but war and politics are not my favorite reading areas, so these novellas were not as appealing to me as the previous two were.

“Nsara” was perhaps the finest novella in the book, being a story of hope. Following the 90-year war of the previous section, the world was basically subdivided into four political regions, three of them totalitarian–Islam, China, and India–and Yingzhou, the Native American nation. “Nsara” was the story of the birth of the modern world, telling several simultaneous stories. It told how nuclear physics was born to the great fear of the physicists studying it lest the military governments use it to complete the destruction of the world begun by the widespread destruction caused during the 90-year war. It also told how individual freedom arose, slowly and cautiously against totalitarianism, leading to a climactic scene in which the populace of one nation arose against a military coup d’etat, filling the streets by the hundreds of thousands in a nonviolent refusal to accept a military government. I was not sure which way Robinson was going, whether a bloodless overthrow as ended the Soviet Union, or a government massacre as happened at Tiananmen square. I was ready for either ending, but was surprised by what actually happened.

The concluding story, “The First Years,” is an extended meditation on history and historiography. It is actually a fitting conclusion for a book which attempts to revise the entire history of the past 700 years, and I found it fascinating considering that historiography is a subject I have dealt with a lot in recent years in editing the book Nanking 1937: Healing and Memory, which was itself concerned with both history and historiography. This 50 page story was little more than one long expository lump, but since I read partly for learning, and partly for pleasure, I found this lump both fascinating and thought-provoking, a fitting conclusion for a very thoughtful book.

The Years of Rice and Salt will not appeal to everyone. Readers who enjoy historical process should find it fascinating, while those who prefer structured stories might find parts of it tedious.


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