The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson

TheYearsofRiceandSaltHappy and angry. Happily angry. Everything, all at once. That’s life, boy. You just keep getting fuller, until you burst and Allah takes you and casts your soul into another life later on. And so everything just keeps getting fuller. [290]

Two souls, Happy and Angry. The Monkey and the Lion. Their fates intertwined, they reincarnate to new lands, always to rediscover one another, always to redefine their relationship, and, most importantly, to drive history forward.

At its most basic: a constructivist reimagining of the history of the world, this time without the White people. Its plot structure: a story about the pursuit of enlightenment and self-actualization for a jati trapped together by their fates. A literal revision of history, if fate could take the pink end of a pencil and erase European history since the Black Plague: the wars, the genocides, the subjugations, the oppression, the hegemony, the privilege, the “When is International White Man’s Day?”

None of those things go away entirely. Robinson won’t play those games. As evidenced by his stunning Mars trilogy, Robinson writes utopian realism, not utopian fantasy, and The Years of Rice and Salt proves consistent with its implementation of progressive characters with progressive ideas, but with flaws, backfires, and struggles. But history happens differently, better, with the sensibilities of non-White cultures shaping its progress. True to form, the story adopts a non-Western structure, a meandering tale with a pageant of characters who parade through history in various manifestations, even in death.

Robinson also plays with symbolism. Scenes in the bardo, a sort of pre-reincarnation limbo, as well as other recurring metaphors, such as a literal Easter egg, divulge much about Robinson’s theory of history and civilization. The Happy character is adaptation. The Angry character is rage against the hands that write history. They both resent and sometimes rebel against the bardo gods and goddesses, who represent ideas of fate, dharma, caste, “The Great Man” premise and all its trappings. The Angry character smashes up the bardo in one scene, only to be condemned to the life of a tigress in the next tale.

By alternating each tale with scenes of reality and limbo, Robinson begs the question: Who impacts history? His characters certainly try. With each life, the idea of fate is forgotten… until the next bardo scene. Their powerlessness is reinforced. More Anger. “Forget about him, forget about the gods. Let’s concentrate on doing it ourselves. We can make our own world.” [352].

 

TheYearsofRiceandSalt1Things that are different in this world: Europe (Firanja) becomes an exile for liberal Islamic thinkers, where feminist and revisionist thought is championed. The New World explored by the Chinese, and the Inka die out from the violent contact. Northern Native Americans (Hodenosaunee) barely survive the cultural collision, but unite as a collaborative league, and become an important mediator in the delicate balance of power that exists between Dar al-Islam and the Chinese empire. We meet the Marx, the Wollstonecraft, the Einstein of this timeline; they exercise more fire and caution this time around.

Always timely, Robinson wrote the majority of the book prior to, and published just six months after the bombing of the World Trade Center, yet it feels GWOT-inspired. Although Robinson’s Buddhist preferences are clear within the narrative, he takes pains to remind us of the non-dogmatic nature of Islam, as “Islam was an intellectual discipline…” [257] and “Allah appears to like mathematics…” [276], among many moments when Islamic scientists temper extremist thought and technological advancement.

With the history of the world on the cutting board, some omissions are glaring. Still subjugated and enslaved, no part of Africa rises as an effective contributing world power. With many Jewish people wiped out in the plague, the surviving numbers are barely mentioned and have no influence in this world. Some revisions seem odd. Through his characters, Robinson posits some curious theories, including a theory that the abstract structure of Arabic languages nurtures extremist thought, due to a lack of empathic perspective.

Additionally problematic, the continuity of characters from life to life is often difficult to recognize. (There is a code, but I didn’t recognize it until the novel was nearly over.) Characters’ stories often end abruptly, and without resolution. Each narrative feels unresolved. But that’s the way history goes.

 

Why read on? Why pick up their books from the far wall where it has been thrown away in disgust and pain, and read on? Why submit to such cruelty, such bad karma, such bad plotting?

The reason is simple: these things happened. [349]

TheYearsofRiceandSalt3Another case of a liberal science fiction writer hanging his socialist beliefs on the framework of a narrative. Another case of a tale that exists only for the sake of the ideas it contains. Another case of a white author appropriating the stories of nonwhite cultures to atone for his own white guilt.

Yes, this book will bother people. But it’s done respectfully, skeptically, thoroughly, and earnestly. And the realism that Robinson provides gives the feeling that this is history as it should have happened.

Perhaps we are the timeline gone wrong.

To be human is easy, to live a human life is hard; to desire to be human a second time is even harder. If you want release from the wheel, persevere. [390]

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My 100th book review! And a fitting selection as Kim Stanley Robinson is the most reviewed, and one of the most favored authors at From Couch to Moon!

Here is a list of my favorite novels that I’ve reviewed so far!

 

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30 thoughts on “The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. May your next 100 book reviews be as entertaining, insightful, and thought-provoking as this one. Congrats!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wildbilbo says:

    Ooh, this sounds great. On the list.

    And isn’t International Men’s Day November 19?

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      And I thought it was every day for the history of the world ;-P

      I actually had no idea about Nov 19th. That’s what I get for bailing on Twitter. I don’t know things anymore.

      I hope you enjoy Rice & Salt! It really is my most favorite book and Robinson is one of my top three favorite authors!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Steph says:

    Congratulations on your 100th!!!

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  4. Widdershins says:

    100,eh? Keep ’em coming, I say! 😀

    O Wondrous Serendipity … I finished reading this book the day before yesterday!

    I wanted there to be one last conversation in Bardo at the end. One that tied up all the threads, but KSR being KSR, thwarted my desires! 🙂

    What was the code? It was clear sometimes who was who but I ended up guessing a couple of times.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      How cool that you just read this!

      I most enjoyed the ending just before the bardo. When the guys in China were trying to engineer social change. It really inspired me!

      The first initials of the names of each “soul character” repeat in each era. We start with Bold and Kyu, and they are always “B” and “K” after that. Apparently the other supporting character names follow the same pattern, too.

      I most wanted to know who was the woman who owned the restaurant that Bold and Kyu first worked at in China. At one point, she exclaims, “I just want to know everything!” and I just loved her for that, but I was never able to find her again.

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  5. Jesse says:

    Which were your favorites of the ten stories? I really liked “The Alchemist”, “Widow Kang”, and “The Haj in the Heart”, and did have a sly smile on my face reading of the samurai amongst the Native Americans…

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  6. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I also loved “The Haj in the Heart” and “Widow Kang,” and “Nsara” is a favorite, too.

    I always complain when characters just sit around talking, but it didn’t bother me here, and that’s the central idea in the stories we both mentioned. KSR manages to bring to life these dialectical moments, and they are captivating. I saw one reviewer call these sections “infodumps” and I couldn’t disagree more. I was captivated by the characters’ discussions about major scientific and philosophical problems. I mean, trying to resolve the Arab/Chinese conflict by seeking parallels between the central tenets of Islam and Confucianism? That’s not an infodump! It’s a fascinating discussion!

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    • Jesse says:

      Of course I can’t find it now, but I once saw an interview with Robinson in which he argues for the ‘info dump’ as a legitimate literary technique, one which is in particular a part of the mode of science fiction. He drew a comparison with the mode of dramatizing every. little. plot. event., remarking the latter is an expedient means of keeping reader attention, but a technique which has little lasting impact, in fact, cheapening the product. (The is my blunt paraphrase; Robinson puts it more eloquently.)

      Looking at mainstream genre, most of which dramatizes a lot to get those ‘likes’ and 5 stars, I can’t help but agree. When I think back to the Mars trilogy, there are ideas that stick clearly in my mind years after having read the books, and not all are the so-called dramatic moments. Comparing this to a book I read just last year, my whipping boy Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, I remember only a great deal of senseless violence (that perpetual dramatization), and that’s all. There are no ideas that dug deeper into my brain and took root.

      For me it comes down to reader mode: active versus passive, the former trying to find ideas embedded in the text, the latter oblivious in their quest for eye-kicks, likeable characters, and satisfying plot.

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I have the same experience with the Mars trilogy, their version of the Continental Congress being one of those [very long] moments that many reviews picked on, but which I remember very well.

        If you ever locate that interview again, I would love to read it.

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  7. Congratulations on the 100!

    I’ve been waiting for you to finish this, I read this ages ago, when it first came out in paperback. If you’d asked me, I’d have said it was pre 9/11, so interesting to note that it wasn’t.

    I loved the Mars trilogy and Antarctica (I saw a KSR reading of it way-back-when) and I remember being desperate for this to come out in pb. I can’t remember much about it now, except I hated it! I haven’t read a KSR since. I can’t really remember why I took against it. Probably it was a bit too disjointed for me, or perhaps, dare I say it, too deep!

    Your write up is enticing though. It reminds me of all the reasons I wanted to read it. I’m tempted to try it again, but I’m not gonna!

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks! I think a few people have been waiting for me to finish this one, lol. It is long, and not something to speed read.

      I doubt it was too deep for you, but I’m surprised that you could tolerate the Mars trilogy and not this one. They both share similar elements: archetypal characters, looonnng sections devoted to “figuring something out,” dramatic realism that’s not very dramatic.

      It is disjointed, though, whereas the Mars narrative just builds and builds to, well, a completely terraformed planet, and the characters stick around for the entire 300 years.

      So maybe it’s the continuity that hooked you with Mars, and the disjointedness of Rice and Salt that didn’t work for you. I loved both stories. KSR just has a way if capturing my imagination. So freakin’ excited for Aurora this summer!

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  8. Randolph says:

    (in passing) Robinson is a small-c communist (not a member of any party AFAIK) and might object to the description as “liberal.” I have heard that he lives in the commune which was the model for Precipice in Shockwave Rider. To me the book was a kind of commie-porn; a history in which Marx’s theories are valid and applied for the betterment of humanity. I’m pretty sure that each section of the book is written in a different non-Western literary form. I question whether one particular jati (family of souls) would be quite so influential in history. It allows for a very long-term arc of political agency by a small group. That’s an artistic simplification at best and at worst a kind of artistic evasion but, then, using a different approach would have make for a much longer and more difficult book.

    BTW, I doubt that this is appropriation in the usual sense of the word; it is not “appropriation” when a Chinese sets a novel in Europe or the USA. Appropriation usually implies imperial abuse of a less-powerful culture. China, India, and Islam are not that.

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    • Jesse says:

      I’m having a small amount of trouble getting my head around your comment, Randolph. I don’t know Robinson’s official political stance, but I would guess neo-socialist based on his novels, and neo-socialist seems much closer to the liberal end of the spectrum than conservative. As such, I’m also not sure The Years of Rice and Salt, or any other of Robinson’s novels, are direct translations of Marxist theory into fictional form. Again, a neo-socialist, not a strict Marxist. And commie-porn? 🙂 Great quote, but of all the Robinson novels I have read, The Years of Rice and Salt is near the bottom in terms of how much of Robinson’s personal political views are implemented. The Science in the Capitol and Mars trilogies, for example, are imbued with much heavier socialist content.

      Regarding the jati, some of the characters were influential, but I think most were bystanders, witness to larger cultural and social movements, not always the doers and shakers. Artistically, this use of character suits the “window into history” mode of the novel quite well, I think.

      And lastly, I think ‘appropriation’ was used correctly. Robinson did more than locate his story in non-Euro-American setting, he used Chinese, Arabian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, and other cultures and beliefs non-native to his upbringing, which automatically entails making value judgments, interpretations, etc. This, to my mind, fits the idea of ‘appropriation’. It’s the potential misuse of another culture/belief, not imperial abuse of a weaker state.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Hi Randolph, thanks for commenting again. That particular paragraph “another case of blah blah blah” was actually an eyeroll at what I expected would be common criticisms of this novel from predictable genre quarters, and not my own words. I just didn’t highlight it with emoticons or gifs, which is why my humor is often lost on people…

        But I agree with Jesse that that particular use of “cultural appropriation” is the appropriate term here, one which literary critics apply when a white author adopts non-American or non-Euro settings and characters. Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi have received this sort of criticism for their work. (Both of whom I have enjoyed, but the criticism is deserved.)

        My interpretation of this novel is that it’s a criticism of history, particularly the “Great Man” theory, rather than any attempt at designing an idyllic communal setting by one faction of people. In fact, I see nothing of what you describe. The jati participants are rarely in any position of influential power, they often fail, but sometimes demonstrate a collaborative effort at effecting change at the community level. By the end of the novel, history is slightly ahead of us in time, yet classism, economic disparity, and even a post-modern feudalism (courtesy of China) exists, and “B” of the jati essentially gives up and joins a commune.

        … which did impress upon me the idea that KSR has perhaps had experience in such a commune. Funny you should mention that.

        If there is any political experimentation at all in this novel, I wouldn’t say it’s “commie-porn,” but rather a demonstration of beneficial collaborative diplomacy, as exhibited by the Hodenosaunee intervention and the scientific conference in Morocco. It’s an idea that has been put forth by international political scholars, but maybe that’s what rings as marxist to you. (My undergrad is in political science, emphasis Latin America, and one of my master’s degrees is in social studies, mixed history/political science. And, yeah, I did have that giant poster of Che on my bedroom wall in college. Cliche, I know.)

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I meant to read this when it came out, but then I decided it was a gimmick. I read Shaman in 2013, so I know I like KSR. I’m torn between this and the Wild Shore books.

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  10. Whoa, this sounds a hell of a lot weirder than I initially thought. But in a good way.

    The Grasshopper Lies Heavy!!!

    Sorry, your “we are on the wrong timeline this book should be our history” sentence took me right into PK Dick land. So you don’t have to look it up, that is the name of the book in Man in the High Castle that contains our side of history.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Man in the High Castle must definitely be my next PKD!

      But yeah, I can’t help but feel that KSR’s history is way more legit than the one we know. It just feels more real and logical to me.

      Like

  11. Well done on posting your 100th review. I’m very impressed; that is a lot of books to get through. 🙂

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  12. […] my 100th review! Which happened to be my new all-time favorite book by one of my favorite authors: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson. So that was perfect timing and completely unplanned and I am lying, […]

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  13. […] A reread! Although Jonathan Strange has been recently dislodged by my new favorite novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson, it withstood the test of time (and manic reading). Funnier and […]

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  14. […] it’s like I suddenly care about the real world again what’s that about? I blame The Years of Rice and Salt. That did it to […]

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  15. […] More Stapledon: Odd John (1935) for a tidier novel-like experience More speculative history: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson […]

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