Have you read this book?
Kim Stanley Robinson enjoys an enviable reputation in the speculative fiction community. He is perhaps best known for his Mars books: Red Mars (Nebula winner), Green Mars (Hugo winner) and Blue Mars (Hugo winner), although he has written numerous other novels, novelettes and short stories as well, beginning as far back as 1976. Surprising then that I have read so little of his work, with Antarctica being the only other novel of his that I’ve read. The Years of Rice and Salt, the subject of this review, was on the final ballot for a 2003 Hugo Award (Sawyers Hominids won).
When it comes to craft, Robinson certainly knows his stuff. His settings are more real than the street outside your window and his level of craft is among the highest you’ll find. There are some wonderfully written passages here that are worthy of more than one read. The research he must have done for Years of Rice and Salt is astounding. Is it accurate? Dunno… But it sure sounds accurate and in fiction that’s the most important consideration.
Years of Rice and Salt starts with the supposition that the Black Plague killed more than 99 percent of Europeans, leaving the world open to exploration and exploitation by the civilizations of the Middle East and Asia (Africa is mentioned, but mostly, it seems, as an afterthought). It’s certainly an ambitious book, spanning more than 700 years of history in the telling, history seen through the eyes of different characters. The thread Robinson uses to tie it all up is reincarnation, for although the characters throughout the story change, the are really the same; they are reincarnated souls, part of a jati, a sibling like group of souls who come back to Earth again and again. A tough assignment to pull off.
I make no claims to sophistication as a reader. I mainly read for entertainment. If you can educate me the process, or engage a brain cell or three, all well and good. Those books that I enjoy the most are those that follow the fairly traditional pattern of character, conflict, resolution, what most people refer as plot. I want to get to know the characters I’m reading about. I want to like them or hate them. I want share in their struggles and accomplishments. I need to care about the people the author has created, and in order to care, I need to be able to relate to them.
Despite the reincarnation trick, Robinson’s handful of main characters ends up being literally dozens of characters, with no single recognizable, relatable one that spans the arc from beginning to end. Their souls do, but not as consistent, recognizable characters that I was able to become attached to. They can’t remember previous lives, so in each incarnation are different. I wasn’t able to say “Oh, that’s Joe, or that’s Jane.” They weren’t familiar to me as they moved through the story. They weren’t dealing with a single conflict or series of escalating conflicts stemming from the one before. No continuity. No plot. And since I didn’t know them, I didn’t care about them and had no interest in them, and, ultimately, no interest in the book. I admit with some chagrin that I didn’t finish it, despite being within 60 pages of the end. I just didn’t care and that’s about the most damaging indictment I can give.
There are no doubt a great many people who will disagree with me. There’s no denying the craft of the book — it’s beautifully written and contains exquisite detail. Upon occasion it offers some interesting insight into the human condition. Yet were I to title it, I would go with “A History of the World Sans European Influence”. If such a detailed historical extrapolation interests you, you’re a fan of history, and you like to read things that read like history, I suspect this one will be your Mecca. If you, like me, prefer a more traditional, character-driven well-plotted tale of personal struggle, look elsewhere.