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October 26, 2003

The Years of Rice and Salt

From my Point of View

ksr-yoras.jpgAfter the masterpiece Kim Stanley Robinson did with the Mars Trilogy, I expected his next work to be another awesome journey to a foreign world. So when I found his newest book, The Years of Rice and Salt, on sale I started reading it with great expectations from the description given on the back cover. Imagine a world where all the european civilizations were completely wiped out by the big plauge raging in the 14th century. Imagine a history where the armies of the east find Europe as an empty land with only scattered ruins to tell that it had ever been inhabited. The book gives us the alternate story of the next 700 years in a world where the Muslim hordes and the Chinese Empire remain as the major powers to determine the course of history.

Unfortunatly, from here it only goes downward. The book is written as seen through the eyes of three souls, reincarnated again and again over the centuries in many different people from all parts of the world. This however give you a series of independent stories that each by itself is very well written, but combined they make a confusing book that dwells too much on the personal lives and religious questions of the characters instead of on the alternate history on the world as a whole, which is what you expect from the back-cover.

** Potential Spoilers **
Also I found it very peculiar that many of the western inventions throughout history were invented at roughly the same time in this parallell universe without any particular reason for this happening. The inventions that occur include both guns, electricity, telephones, trains, cars and the idea of splitting the atom, something I find this highly unlikely considering that many of the inventions only happened because of the sociopolitical situation they were developed in. We get no explanation to how or why most of these things get invented, the technologies just suddenly appear in use. This is especially noteable just before and during the Long War, another happening that doesn't fit naturally into the story but had to be there to explain the sudden change into industrializm that apparently had to happen (since it happened in our past..).

On the same level it also was annoying that he tried to fix the flaws we have made throughout history. For instance wasn't the American Indian society destroyed by the chinese or the muslims, but managed to create their own society and resist the foreigners through helpful advice from a japanese man suddenly appearing amongst them. Also the muslims several times through history took up the problem of womens-rights, something they have not done successfully in our world. To my knowledge it is not the Europeans in our universe that have prevented them from doing this, they simply have not come that far on their own, so I see no logical reason for them to do in the parallell universe either. Several actions througout the story differ from what really happened without beeing the result of the vanished Europeans. The book is littered with these illlogical happenings, while at the same time beeing boggeled down in landscape descriptions and the religious and existential ramblings of the main characters, neither of which I find to be of any importance in an alternate history book. The alternate history part of this book is merely a backdrop for KSR's utopic visions of buddishm winning over the world and everyone understanding that we must live in peace and protect nature if we are to survive and be happy.
** Spoiler End **

Due to all of this I find that while the concept of this book was very promising, the execution of it by Kim Stanley Robinson was a longwinded series of apparantly unrelated stories without any hint of painting a believable alternate reality with the amazing potential of humanity which he so vividly described in the Mars Trilogy. The history we got promised is simply not there. Instead we get a ill-informed lecture in buddishm and islam portraying the political views of KSR. If this is what I wanted I would take a religion class instead...

My judgement: 3 points out of 10.

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