The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1729

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.

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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 next life. Bold claims that “We always meet in the bardo. We will cross paths for as long as the six worlds turn in this cycle of the cosmos. We are part of a karmic jati,” a subcaste or lineage in Hinduism. Bold and Kyo are born again, reincarnated in “The Haj in the Heart” as Kokila and Bihari, two young girls in India who, like their predecessors and their successors, find themselves back in the bardo after their deaths, to be reincarnated again as Kya, a tiger, and Bistami, who becomes an adherent of the Islamic sect of Sufism at the Indian court of Akbar the Great (d. 1605). Bistami journeys to Mecca and eventually to Al-Andalus (Spain), where he serves the sultan, and finally to Firanja, an alternative France, with the liberal Sultana Katima, reincarnated from the tiger Kya. The bardo, with the wheel of reincarnation, follows, again and again.

In The Years of Rice and Salt, it is not Christopher Columbus who “discovers” the Western Hemisphere for Christian Europe. Rather, in “Ocean Continents,” China’s Admiral Kheim, sailing to Nippon (Japan) drifts off course to the east, arriving in a new land, possibly history’s San Francisco Bay. As in real history, a pox kills most of the local population, but Butterfly, a young native, accompanies the Chinese ships south along the coast to an Inca-like civilization, where Butterfly and Kheim are taken high into the mountains to be sacrificed to the gods—as did history’s Incas. They escape the natives, but not the bardo. In another section, “Warp and Weft,” Busho, a fugitive Japanese samurai, inspires the natives in the vicinity of the Great Lakes region called Hodenosaunee to resist both Muslims from the east and Chinese from the west by using guns and other foreign weapons. The scientific revolution is not a product of the West but occurs at least partially in east-central Asia when a Muslim alchemist, Khalid, his son-in-law Bahram, and Iwang, a Tibetan Buddhist, argue for a heliocentric universe, attempt to measure both the speed of sound and of light, and develop a telescope, discovering, as did history’s Galileo, the moons of Jupiter. However, the plague strikes and the jati is again in the bardo, questioning what these eternal reincarnations meant. Was humankind merely the playthings of the gods, or could humanity free itself or at least progress by its own efforts?

In yet another turn of the wheel, Widow Kang, educated in the Confucian classics, is a skilled poet in Qing China (1700’s). Her second marriage is to a Muslim scholar, Ibrahim, who, seeing their commonalities, attempts to reconcile Islam and Buddhism, but fails as differences between the various segments of the Muslim population and the Han Chinese leads to communal violence. A possible solution to the various religious- cultural-political-military conflicts occurs in the 1800’s when an Indian navy seizes Konstantiniyye (Constantinople) from the Ottoman Turks. Ismail, the sultan’s doctor, had long been in communication with Bhakta, abbess of a hospital in Travancore in southern India, ruled by Kerala, an enlightened Hindu ruler. Kerala’s aim is to overthrow the Muslim Mughal dynasty which has long ruled much of India, but “The Age of Great Progress” ends with the “War of the Asuras,” or devils, in which Qing China, allied with the Travancore League, fights a long war against Dar al-Islam, which controls most of Eurasia, Africa, and the southern part of the Western Hemisphere.

In what is an obvious parallel to the wars of history’s twentieth century, particularly to the trench warfare of World War I, the war of the Asuras goes on for decades, exemplified by the tribulations of three Chinese officers, Kuo, Bai, and Iwa, stationed in east-central Asia. In the aftermath of the war—won by the Chinese-Travancore alliance—the novel returns to Firanja, where Budur, a young Muslim woman, flees from her conservative home to follow her aunt Idelba, who is secretly exploring the possibility of splitting “alactin,” or the atom. Budur becomes a student of Kirana, a liberated Muslim woman, who is critical of an Islam dominated by conservative males and who argues that the women of the Hodenosaunee (the northern Western Hemisphere) have the greatest freedom and influence. Still, the jati again finds itself in the bardo, where its members continue to discuss the possibility of progress, even if it takes a thousand lifetimes.

The wheel finally turns to modern China—“Always China”—inspired by a pseudocommunist ideology even though Karl Marx never existed. Bao is a follower of Kung, head of a work unit cell in Beijing who is assassinated in the aftermath of a successful revolution by the League of All Peoples against China’s military rulers. Bao enjoys a long diplomatic career, eventually journeying to Fangzhang, or San Francisco, the home of his daughter. He finally settles in a college town in the great central valley (the San Joaquin Valley), probably a reference to Davis, California, where the author resides at the University of California campus. After many rewarding years as a teacher, a new student comes to Bao. Her name is Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

Robinson’s novels invariably combine an adventurous and very readable narrative with philosophical subthemes. The Years of Rice and Salt ends with an implicit question, the question that the members of the jati debated in the bardo for many eons. Can individuals escape from the wheel of eternal reincarnation through their own efforts? Is there truly free will or is humanity—history—merely following a preordained or predestined script or path? Even if there is no exit from the wheel, must not the individual at least attempt to act as if free? In several monologues and dialogues, Robinson’s characters discuss the nature of history and the forces, religious and otherwise, which shape it, assuming it has a recognizable shape. As one character notes, “[N]o one knows why things happen. . . . Anything could follow from anything. Even real history tells us nothing at all,” arguing that it was the present which could shape the future whatever the impact of the past. Interestingly, in broad outline, Robinson’s alternate history, with its annihilation of the West, portrays the novel’s present as broadly similar to today’s real world. Different paths and alternative roads have seemingly led to the same destination.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (June 1-15, 2002): 777.

Library Journal 127 (February 15, 2002): 180.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 28, 2002): 20.

Publishers Weekly 249 (January 7, 2002): 51.

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