Centuries of Rice and Salt

I usually only write reviews of non-fiction books that I read but a novel I read recently was different enough from typical fiction that I thought I'd make an exception.

The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is an alternate history novel. It starts with a world in which Europe was almost entirely wiped out by the black plague and then imagines how things develop from there. Most of the story takes place in Asia, which is mostly divided between the Islamic world and China. As in real history, the former spends most of the time split into a bunch of different polities (not necessarily hostile, just not having effective centralized power) while the latter spends most of the time as a unified empire (with varying degrees of acceptance of that unity in the provinces). As people start to resettle Europe and make contact with the Americas, some of the story takes place in those continents as well.

The story has a huge scope not only in the geography it covers, but also in the time that it spans (as I've alluded to in the title of this post). This means that telling the story takes much more than the lifetime of any single character. Maintaining narrative continuity over so long of a timeline is a challenge for authors. Thinking about this challenge was actually what prompted writing this review. In Isaac Asimov's Foundation, for example, episodes separated by decades are linked by the device of psychohistory: pre-recorded hologram messages from Hari Seldon are played back at the determined times where he shares his advice on the challenges the characters are currently facing based on the forecasts made by his grand model of history. Another novel I'm currently reading, A Canticle for Leibowitz has a wandering Jew character who shows up in sections of the book that are centuries apart. The device that The Years of Rice and Salt uses to connect episodes separated by generations is reincarnation. As Wikipedia notes, the reincarnated characters have names that start with the same letter. They also have some broad similarities in personality (but not to the extent that they're the same character just with a new name) and occasionally have a sense of deja vu (usually when meeting the reincarnation of an old friend). In my opinion, this plot device succeeded in making the novel cohesive when it could otherwise feel like a series of unrelated stories set in the same fictional world. However, knowing in advance that the characters were going to get reincarnated (after the pattern was established in the first couple of sections) made it hard to care what happened to any of them.

The strength of The Years of Rice and Salt is the worldbuilding. It was especially interesting to see how real developments like the discovery of the New World and the scientific revolution happened. My favourite section was Book Four. It is set in Samarqand on the Silk Road. In Robinson's alternate history it is there that the scientific revolution begins. An alchemist and his friend decide to start testing everything instead of trusting the authority of old books. Seeing so many advances compressed into the output of a single lab (although men like Galileo, Huygens, and Newton would not have been too far behind these fictional proto-scientists in their research productivity) helps one appreciate just how ground-breaking the scientific revolution was in the real world. I liked this depiction of the incremental nature of the scientific revolution (or the industrial revolution—I can't remember which section I saved this quote from):

Every time the old artisans were able to make their molds and tools more exactly, it allowed them to set their tolerances finer still, and thus as they progressed, anything from the intricacies of clockwork to the massive strength of waterwheels or cannon barrels could be improved.

By Book 9, the second-last section, technology has advanced to a similar level to the twentieth century. Global communication and wide-spread literacy allow Robinson to summarize and review previous events without breaking the fourth wall. For example, books written by characters in previous sections of the novel (in various countries and languages) are referenced and discussed by characters in this section. There is even a boulevard named after a character in Book 2 in the main city in this section. A scientific conference has the official languages of Persian, Chinese, Tamil, Arabic, and Algonquin, reminding readers where the powerful states have developed in this alternate history. Little touches like this, along with the plot device of reincarnation, help to tie the book together.

Overall, this was an interesting book, especially due to the worldbuilding and ideas it raises: good alternate histories make you think about what would have been different and what would have been the same (e.g. a world without Europe is not a world without war or colonialism) under different circumstances. But if you want a novel where you feel invested in the characters, this is not the one.

Mostly unrelated to the main part of this post (although it does come at things from a historical perspective), a political essay I read this week was thought-provoking enough to share. It asks the question whether national unity is always a good thing or whether it overlaps enough with nationalism to be dangerous. Here's a brief excerpt:

But note how the argument here is instrumental or utilitarian, not aesthetic, psychological, or philosophical. We need to unify to get X done. In other words, unity is a tool, a means to an end, not a good in itself. Fire is a tool that can be used for good or evil. Unity is the political equivalent of fire — a source of power. ...
So here’s the thing: That means unity is only as good or bad as the goal you want to attain with it. No one likes a good heist movie more than I do. The gang gets together to rob a bank or casino, and they pull it off by sticking together. But all reasonable people understand that in the real world, that’s an immoral goal (hypotheticals about ripping off bad guys — gotta love Kelly’s Heroes! — notwithstanding).