Robinson, Kim Stanley
AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:
2 out of 5
The Years Of Rice And Salt
When the Black Death wipes out almost all of Europe's people in the 14th Century, it is the Eastern civilisations of Islam, China and India that rise dominate the globe. This book follows the stories of a handful of souls who are reincarnated time and again into significant periods of the ensuing centuries, always struggling towards a better life and a better world.
There are two things you have to do before deciding if you're going to read this book. The first is to understand that whilst this book falls into the category of alternate history, that's not really what the novel is about. The idea of European civilisation being totally wiped from the Earth in the medieval period is the background and setting for the book, but it's not what the narrative is concerned with. The narrative instead follows a number of souls through various incarnations and lives, telling each of their stories as vignettes almost like an anthology of short stories. So, if you're looking for a book that's about the absence of Europe from history, this is not it.
The second thing you have to do is ask yourself whether you read fiction to stimulate your intellect or to enjoy the story. Obviously, ideally a book does both, but this is not that book and so you need to decide what drives you to read fiction. Because this book is hugely intellectually stimulating, forcing us to examine history, religion, science and philosophy through a lens that blocks out European civilisation after the Middle Ages. What happens to Islam in the absence of Christianity? Who dominates the Americas if not England, Spain and France? Would Marxism arise without Marx and the world he lived in? If the European-focused World Wars never happened, what would take their place? All of these questions and many more get addressed across this huge, meandering text.
Unfortunately, for all that intelligent exploration, this is not a novel to enjoy for the narrative. Although we follow only a handful of souls through maybe ten time periods across seven centuries, their characters are always different. Sure, each incarnation of each soul has certain familiar qualities and the same first letter of their name to help you recognise them, but those elements just serve to highlight that these are not the same characters. For me two main things draw me through a novel; engaging characters and/or a solid plot. This book isn't tied together on the larger scale by either of those factors and, honestly, the 660+ pages of this book were a real slog to get through.
If asked if I feel my mind has been enriched by reading this book, then I would absolutely say 'yes'. However, if asked if I enjoyed it or if I would recommend it to anyone else, then it would be an unequivocal 'no'.
2 out of 5