The Years of Rice and Salt

Over the weekend I finished reading The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Fantastic book, albeit one that defied my expectations, and I thought I’d write a short review.

I picked this book up because I loved the concept: an alternate history novel that explores the question, what if the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out 99% of Europe? The world becomes dominated by Islam and Buddhism, the Chinese discover America, Christianity is a footnote in history.

It’s divided into ten Books (basically chapters), each of which covers a later time and place as the alternate history unfolds. The breadth and scope of this project is surprising and mind-boggling; Robinson has gone to an obsessive level of thought and detail in constructing this history, and it’s entirely believable. The amount of research must have been enormous.

It surprised me on several levels; the main one was the storytelling technique Robinson used in tying each story in the ten Books together to provide a sense of continuity while keeping each distinct. I won’t go into detail here—the Amazon reviews do, and I think that spoils it a bit—and while I had my doubts, it ultimately works.

This isn’t science fiction in the die-hard sense, though (insomuch as alternate history tends to get classified as science fiction because nobody really knows how else to classify it). It’s much more a meditation on sociology, religion, history, politics, etc., on a world-wide scale. Very different than what I thought it would be. Yet very good. I totally recommend it.