You may have noticed it has been a while since I have talked about what I am reading. There is a very good reason for this. The reason is that I have been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which is 763 small-print pages long, and as I may have mentioned before I am a very slow reader. It took me more than a month to get through this book, which is why I put off reading it until after I’d reached my book-reading goal for the year (40 books – booyah!).
And oh man, you guys, it was worth the wait. This is a really great book. And also a really ambitious and complicated book, sometimes to the point of being inscrutable. It’s the kind of book that makes me go “oh my god I am never going to be a real writer” because holy shit look at that. Kim Stanley Robinson, you guys. What the hell. How.
First things first: what’s it about? Well, in short, it’s an alternate history with a heavy focus on reincarnation. I remember when I was reading Foucault’s Pendulum (which I still haven’t finished, oops, sorry Umberto Eco but even in translation your prose is just staggeringly dense), my main observation was that it was basically just the Da Vinci Code except for smart people, and the Years of Rice and Salt gives me a similar impression. It’s Cloud Atlas for people who are actually interested in sociology and history and psychology and economics and all those other important human elements that Cloud Atlas completely ignores.
The story follows a number of specific souls as they are reincarnated through lives. You can follow each specific soul through their various incarnations throughout the years by the first letter of their names–B, K, I, S, and P, with a few others who pop in and out a bit, too. Every time the souls meet in the bardo (the limbo between lives where souls are judged and sentenced up or down the reincarnation ladder), they reflect on their lives and the system they are cycled through, and how they might be affecting human history. You can watch the personalities of the souls shift from life to life, and their relationships to one another grow and change as they struggle forward toward enlightenment.
However, Years of Rice and Salt is also an alternate history, with a plague acting as the main inciting incident in re-directing history. In this universe, the black plague wiped out almost all of Europe instead of only a third of it, which effectively ends Christianity and gives Hinduism and Islam free reign to expand into world powers. Watching the interactions between different religious views and various Eastern concepts of nationalism and individualism throughout this alternate timeline is endlessly fascinating, especially when the protagonist souls spend a lifetime fighting for one country, and then are reincarnated into another country in their next life and end up fighting against their own innovations. Countless different, often marginalized (in Western literature anyway) cultures get explored in great depth, in a way that gave me the sense that I could read the book a hundred times and still not understand everything (related: I fully intend to read it again someday).
Because that’s the thing about Kim Stanley Robinson. The dude can research. I mean, this is the guy who wrote Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars, which is arguably one of the best hard scifi series out there simply by virtue of the level of detail put into the technology and world, so you already know that you’re going to get intricacies beyond the ability of most writers. But the Years of Rice and Salt is on a level all its own. It includes detailed discussions of a number of different philosophies and religions, science, economics, history, feminism, nationalism–and all without ever losing sight of the characters who are discussing all these things. Usually I can’t stand novels that read like essays, but Robinson is able to blend all these different academic topics into the ongoing narrative so seamlessly that I found myself just as excited when the characters were arguing over the finer points of Islamic and Buddhist philosophy as I was when they were trying to stab each other.
And as to that enormous page count–every page is earned. This is an epic tale on a level that I’ve never seen successfully done before, except perhaps in Asimov’s Foundation series, and that one is a bit of a disjointed narrative. The Years of Rice and Salt spans almost two thousand years, taking the story from what we would call 0 BC all the way up until present day, without shirking a single era in between. Individual lives are never more than a few dozen years apart, and each one is full of intricately researched detail ranging from architecture and technology to popular conceptions of leadership. Seriously, it is a marvel of dogged research more than anything else.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws. For one thing, there are exactly two narratives in the whole book that feature more than one lady character, and one of them is the shortest section in the book and features the two ladies getting married, pregnant, and then dead. So that’s fun. But the second one, toward the end of the book, is pretty great–I just wish there were more where that came from. It’s also somewhat challenging to keep track of where in the world each narrative is taking place, because all the continents and countries have different names due to the alternate history situation (especially the Americas and Europe), and aesthetic details are not going to be helpful to the average reader. Each section opens with a map, so that helps, but it can still get confusing when you’re in the middle of it and trying to make sense of what’s going on. There’s also some weirdness with changes in narrative style, which sometimes works and sometimes gets really conspicuous and distracting, but for the most part it was fine.
TL,DR: the Years of Rice and Salt is a really excellent and well-researched book, and if you want something to curl up with for a good long while, you should give it a try. Though if this blog post was too long for you to read and you actually did just skip down to the TL,DR, then good luck getting through this doorstopper.
“Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble….” –the Years of Rice and Salt opening line