Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the premier exponents of hard science fiction. The books of his Mars trilogy–Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996)—were awarded the genre’s highest recognition, the individual volumes receiving the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for the best novels of the year. His Antarctica (1998) was also widely praised. Robinson’s major works have focused upon the near future, and his novels stay within the bounds of current scientific technologies.
In The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson departs from his interest in the near future with its scientific probabilities and instead writes an alternative history of the distant past, when the Black Death or bubonic plague ravished Europe in the 1300’s. Historians posit that perhaps 40 percent of the population of Europe succumbed in that event, perhaps the single greatest disaster to befall Western civilization. Robinson relates an even worse scenario, one that literally destroys the entire population of Christendom. In his alternative history, it is not the West which becomes the world’s dominant civilization by the twentieth century but the civilizations of Islam, India, and China, and the native societies of the Western Hemisphere.
Spanning the period from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries (although with the demise of Christianity the modern calendar does not exist and other dating systems are referred to in the novel, notably that of Islam, whose calendar begins with the hegira, or Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina in 622 c.e.), The Years of Rice and Salt necessarily has a extensive cast of characters from the several major eras explored in the novel. It is episodic, both because of the long time frame encompassed but also because the novel’s events occur all over the globe. With the disappearance of the Christian West and its historical future—the age of European exploration and the European-led scientific and industrial revolutions, to mention just the most obvious—history is much changed. Instead of a Western civilization long influenced by Christian beliefs and practices, other religions and cultures take primacy. In The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson exhibits a deep knowledge of and wide familiarity with the history and cultures of Islam, China, and India, including their religions and beliefs.
Divided into ten parts, or books, the first, “Awake to Emptiness,” establishes the pattern. Bold, a Mongol warrior of Tamerlane (d. 1405), encounters a plague-destroyed city in eastern Europe. After reporting back to the Khan, Bold flees west again into the Magyar plain, encountering only a single individual in the weeks which follow. Eventually falling into the hands of Turkish Muslims, he is sold in Alexandria as a slave and taken to East Africa, where he is purchased by Chinese in the fleet of the historical Admiral Zeng He (d. c. 1430’s). Another slave, a young African named Kyu, is castrated, a not- uncommon historical practice in both China and the Islamic world. In China, Bold and Kyu are sold to a restaurant proprietor, but they escape, encountering the retired Zeng He, who gives them an introduction to the emperor’s court in Beijing, where the eunuch Kyu serves the empress and the imperial concubines and Bold takes a position in the royal stables. At the death of the old emperor, the ever-ambitious Kyu is murdered, as is Bold. Like other parts of Robinson’s long novel, the story of Bold and Kyu is an exciting and somewhat picaresque adventure firmly rooted in verifiable history.
However, as the characters’ earthly stories end, they exit the human world and enter into the world of the bardo, where they await judgment according to their karma, or the deeds of their past life. Those deeds will determine their next incarnation—as a human again, or possibly as an animal or even an insect. In the bardo, Kyu, Bold, and other characters retain memories of their pasts until reincarnated in the...
(The entire section is 1,729 words.)