Multilayered, full of Ideas, revealing more and more with multiple readings, it's a book that will be assigned in classes and read and enjoyed by science fiction fans for years. Spanning nearly seven hundred years, this alternate history is a prolonged meditation on social change, the impact of science on society, and religion's place in modern life. It's about books and why we read them, tales and how we learn.
But it's also about monkeys.
More specifically, Monkey, the mischievous force that leads us to wisdom by the path of humor and mischief.
Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt begins with the extermination of Europe in the Middle Ages. Bold Bardash, a soldier in the service of Temur the Lame (Tamerlane), discovers that the Magyar Plain (Hungary) that he's scouting has been entirely depopulated by the plague. As we discover later in the book, all of Firanja's (Europe's) cultures and civilizations have been exterminated by the (bubonic) plague, with only a few survivors left in the Keltic (Scottish) isles. This clears the way for a prolonged exploration of Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu culture. As you can see by all the parenthesized expressions, the book approaches the text from a non-Western point of view, which means non-standard expressions abound.
Robinson is not the first to wreak the destruction of Europe through a deadlier black plague -- Robert Silverberg did it in The Gate of Worlds, and so did L. Neil Smith in The Crystal Empire -- but the resulting book is unique. Properly speaking, The Years of Rice and Salt isn't one book, it's ten. Ten different sets of characters interact and explore the world during ten different historical periods, allowing Robinson to showcase his alternate history from different angles and through various epochs of historical development. To link the stories, Robinson adopts a technique from ancient Buddhist writings: in each timeline, characters share the same soul -- they are reincarnations. Robinson helps us by giving these characters names with the same first letter -- thus Bold the warrior becomes Bihari the village woman and Bistami the Islamic scholar, all friendly, affable characters with a positive outlook on life. The other primary characters are K, who manifests as Kya, a tigress, and Kuo the socialist, a furious social rebel who rails against injustice and helps promulgate revolt against the established order; and I, whose first incarnation declares that "I want to know everything!", and who becomes people like Iwang, this timeline's Isaac Newton, a detached scientist who makes tremendous theoretical leaps and advances. The stories take us all over the world, with backdrops like the conquests of Akbar the great, the exploits of the Ming and Manchu dynasties, the discovery of America, and a World War.
Robinson's book powerfully recalls several recent books theorizing about culture, notably The Clash of Civilizations, Nonzero, and Guns, Germs, and Steel. In the wake of September 11, Robinson's focus on the ideological drives that cause world religions to bump into one another, on their "essences" and essential disagreements is timely and thought-provoking. Ultimately, he seems to be most interested in the thesis of Nonzero, which is that mutually beneficial interactions among humans inevitably create worldwide uplift; that Adam Smith's invisible hand will not only lift us all, but inevitably slap some sense into oppressive societies. Interested readers will also find informed explorations of the Arab historian Ibn-Khaldun, and, in thinly-veiled prose, discussions of Karl Marx, the "Great Man theory" and "whig theory" of history, anarchist ideas of a post-scarcity economy, and Northrop Frye's theories of genre.
I'm making it sound like this is just a novel about ideas. It's not. There's travel and revolution and romance and war. The character B, who serves as the primary viewpoint character, is not a theorizer but a doer, someone who gets involved in all sorts of exciting activities. K is a fiery rebel, who, in between rants about inequality, does things like found cities and try to overthrow the government of China. The I character, however, whom I've nicknamed the Infodump character, seems to exist primarily to spout theory, whether it be the history of science or long explanations of religion. In some parts of the narrative, when I and K take center stage, they can engage in long-winded theoretical explanations which slow the pace of the novel.
And yet the title of the book comes from one of these slower passages. The years of rice and salt are the burdensome times of a Chinese woman's life, after she has been married and had her children, when she spends her time supporting her family through backbreaking labor. Book six, "Widow Kang," features long passages in the day-to-day life of two people who engage in long philosophical arguments. While they are caught up in a time of revolt, they live an exemplary life of letters: she edits feminist anthologies and he attempts to improve relations between religions. This is what humanity needs in order to progress, this is what novelists should cover, somehow, Robinson suggests. As the I character, Ibrahim, says:
What has mattered are the moments of exposure in every life, where habit is no longer enough, and choices have to be made. That's when everyone becomes the great man, for a moment; and the choices made in these moments, which come all too frequently, then combine to form history. In that sense I come down on the side of the masses.
Even during the slower parts, there are all sorts of games you can play with the text. Work out the meaning of all the strange words Robinson throws into the text, giving common scientific terms like electricity roots in the Chinese language, for instance. Try to follow some of the appearances of minor characters (like the loyal servant P or the mentor figure Z). Explore the metaphor of the red egg -- first given to B by Tamerlane, then at the very end of the work, given to B once again by a small child. Upon rereading, savor the ironic statements characters make, foreshadowing their future incarnations. Puzzle out the true identity of the "Master of Henly." Or, follow the twists and turns of the narrative style as it changes throughout the work.
This last point is worth developing, since I think it goes beyond a mere textual game. Even the narrative conventions of the novel take seriously the idea that European influences have been expunged. Take, for example, the reincarnation structure that seems to underlie the text. This is not a way that we expect to read a book, and yet it might not seem nearly as strange to a Tibetan. The ten novels that make up this book are structurally and stylistically different, each reflecting the historical period that produced it. Each book is illustrated by a map, which becomes more and more modern-looking as time passes, and each book has its own style of denoting chapters. More importantly, the first few books incorporate miracles and implausible coincidences which gradually disappear from the later books.
Thus, the first book, "Awake to Emptiness," invokes the Chinese historical epic Journeys to the West (its first words are "Another journey west") and borrows some of its conventions: the text breaks into poetry at random intervals, and chapters feature cryptic titles like "After dismal events, a piece of the Buddha appears; Then the treasure fleet asks Tianfei to calm their fears." Gods manifest themselves, ghosts speak with the living, and miracles are commonly accepted. Later books include marginal glosses, authorial asides, and other stylistic changes, no doubt reflecting the evolution of print culture in Robinson's alternate world. Supernatural elements intrude less and less, and by the time Robinson reaches his World War book, the text has become one long exhausting scream of anguish, unbroken by chapter heads and full of ironic humor. The last book looks and feels like a contemporary American novel. Not only does the fictional world develop within the pages, it also develops on the pages themselves. By the final book, the text calls into question the entire reincarnation theme, suggesting that it's perhaps just the textual tool of an author, used to organize the narrative.
At heart, this is a playful work. The final book, "The First Years," contains an extended meditation on the appeal of alternate history, a description of the techniques Robinson used to construct the work, and a list of books that Robinson found entertaining and useful -- all within the framework of the fictional narrative! A tour de force like this jolts the reader out of a simple relationship with the text into a more studied conception: what exactly are we getting out of this anyway?
Robinson's alternate history is a parallel history. It ends in 2002, with society having attained basically the same state of culture and technology that we have today. Just as in our world, in Robinson's world democracy is pushed by a culture from America (the Iroquois), there's communist revolt in China, a World War in the 20th century, and a city in France which is the intellectual and cultural capital of Europe. Some of these structural similarities can be explained by Robinson's own neo-Marxist beliefs, which support the inevitable progression from serfdom to capitalism to socialism. But the parallels are too striking for this to be the only reason. While his book is an alternate history, it, more than most alternate histories, recognizes that it's really about us. It's all a playful game, symbolized by the recurring metaphor of the monkey.
The emblem of the New World in the book is the snow monkey, transplanted from Japan, often seen scrambling madly about. B is the Monkey, as the first book tells us: "Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitaka through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China." In this book, the B character leads us, the Westerners, through this spiritual and philosophical dialogue, by monkey-like antics which make a dense book, full of ideas, into an engaging read.
Fred Bush is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.