The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: March 2002
Printing: June 2003
ISBN: 0-553-58007-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 763

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This is a hard book to review (which is why I'm finally now writing the review after having finished it on the train on Friday).

It's hard to review in part because it's a very interesting and unusual book. It's basically a character and life study, a series of mini-biographies of characters living in an alternate history spanning hundreds of years of time. The characters keep reincarnating in different eras, their fates tangled together, important to each other in each life they share. (In each story, they share the same first initials; for some reason, I had a hard time tying the characters together without paying careful attention to that.) The stories raised a lot of interesting thoughts for me about religion, particularly Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and different ways to organize societies and ways to analyze history.

The problem is that... well... the book is also really boring.

Parts of it require serious wading, and not wading of the excessive description type (like the middle 50% of a Clancy novel) but more wading of the "why do I care" type, and wading of the "lots and lots of things are being referred to that I've never heard of before" type.

The alternate history is based on the question of what the world would be like if the Black Plague killed everyone in Europe, leaving the world to the Chinese and to Islam. The extrapolation is a bit pat, duplicating many of the major events of our world in slightly different locations, and I had a great deal of difficulty with some parts of it (like the brave Native American society that holds out against both the Moslems and the Chinese). However, it certainly does qualify as ambitious.

There is, essentially, very little overall plot, so there isn't a driving factor to keep one moving through the book at a regular pace. The novellas that make up the overall story have plots of their own, but like a collection of themed short stories, they're uneven. There's a small amount of wondering what will happen next, but the meandering nature of the narrative mostly drives it away. And the mini-biographies are different enough in character (although not in style) that while you'll probably find a few that you like a lot, you'll probably also find a few that bore you to tears.

Because of all that, I can't really recommend this book. I will also take a small step towards spoilers to warn that this book does not have a real ending in the normal plot sense, so if you're using that to drag yourself through the story, you'll be disappointed. It's also not particularly SF, apart from the alternate history part. There's a tenative nod to a small bit of fantasy, but for the most part, it's just about people leading interesting lives in different time periods.

That being said, I'm still thinking about some of those time periods and some of those characters, and a few of them I ended up liking quite a bit. So I can't say this book is all bad, and I can even see how some with a different degree of patience could really like it.

I'm glad this didn't win the Hugo — it didn't deserve it. It's unlikely that I'll read it again. But I don't regret reading it (even if it took me far longer than a book normally would have because of the pace).

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2003-09-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21