Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt has been nominated for a Hugo this year. Robinson’s intellect cannot be denied; he has created alternate history on an epic scale. As an engaging work of fiction, however, its 658 pages make a decidely uneven read.
Title: The Years of Rice and Salt
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Original Publication Date: March 2002
Cover Price: $27.27 U.S.
Premise: Variants of three characters experience the turmoil of the centuries in an alternate timeline where the Black Death wiped out 99% of Europe’s population.
High Points: The Years of Rice and Salt should really be read as an anthology of related stories, rather than a conventional novel. This is perhaps as it should be; human history lacks a clear plot (a fact with which Robinson’s characters wrestle). The best of these narratives work very well. Books Four and Nine stand out in my memory. Book One takes us into a very believable world, while the “tiger” portions of Book Two prowl through the pages with a unique power.
Low Points: I can accept reincarnation as a key fictional construct in this novel. It permits each story to feature incarnations of the same three familiar characters in each era we visit. In the later chapters, Robinson creates some interesting effects with the concept of the after-life or between-lives. The actual visits to the Bardo, however, prove confusing, dull, and (I felt) unnecessary.
Beyond that issue, Robinson devotes too much time to meticulously telling and interpreting human history and the human condition; we lose the narrative threads every time one of the characters decides to share his or her personal theories about what it all means. Of course, writers should have ideas, but, for the most part, they should tell stories.
Originality: 5 out of 6. Alternate history has been done before, but Robinson does it better than most. We only encounter one major figure from our real history (briefly, at the start), and Robinson gives us lives that people might have lived. The plausibility of the novel’s key jonbar point (if the plague had been that virulent, non-Europeans would have suffered more, too) is not terribly relevant. It gets the book rolling, and a very different and thought-provoking history results.
Imagery: 5 out of 6. Once again, this is unevenly handled: but the best examples are extraordinary.
Story: 4 out of 6. The stories vary in quality; some of them become too heavily weighed down by the historical commentary.
Characterization: 4 out of 6. The repeated characters are fine, but a little flat. The inhabitants of the Mars Trilogy live longer in my memory.
Emotional Response: 4 out of 6. This varies from 3 to 6, depending on the story. At times, I really did feel for these people. The experiences and anger of Kyu, the eunuch, will be difficult to forget, while Kirana, the Muslim feminist professor Kyu becomes in a later era, proves both original and familiar.
Editing: out of 4 out of 6. I really believe this book would have benefited from having certain passages trimmed.
Overall Score: 4 out 6.
In total, The Years of Rice and Salt receives 30 out of 42.
Additional Notes and Comments: Robinson has written a meticulously, obsessively researched novel, with uneven results. His intellect cannot be denied, nor can his ability to get his readers thinking. The attempts to write narrative, history, and commentary all at once, however, often undercut each other. This is no Red Mars; it’s a good but uneven book.
The Years of Rice and Salt has been nominated for a Hugo Award; I hope to review the other nominees in the novel category between now and August.