Book: The years of rice and salt - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The years of rice and salt
Thursday, 10 July 2008 at 03:28 pm
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Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Details: (c) 2002 Kim Stanley Robinson; Pub Bantam 2003; ISBN 978-0553-58007-5

Verdict: The years of rice and salt has some neat ideas, but not enough story.

Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man told me about it and I liked the premise of an alternate history of a world with no Europe.

How it came into my hands: Bought from Amazon.

The years of rice and salt feels a little bit like one of those really good pub conversations with lots of detailed explorations of an idea with contributions from intelligent geeks who know their stuff in all kinds of obscure fields. But a lot of cool ideas isn't really quite enough to fill a 750 page novel. The characterization is not awful, but the constituent stories are just the wrong length, long enough that you want more than just a single idea, but too short to really build a connection with the characters. The reincarnation trope, telling life histories of the same characters in their various incarnations in different times and places, ought to mitigate this but it doesn't really succeed in doing so; I completely lost track of who was supposed to be a reincarnation of whom, and with such a long book I couldn't be bothered to read slowly enough to figure it out. There's also not quite enough plot to sustain the reader's interest; Robinson has chosen to showcase his alternate history using people who are somewhat out of the ordinary but not pivotal figures of history, which is fine, but slice of life stories only work if the characters are absolutely fascinating, and these aren't quite that good.

One thing I really did like was the sense of the different cultures conveyed. This is truly a world alternative history, with various elements of Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Native American culture done with a lot of sympathy and without over-simplifying or exoticizing. The people are individuals, products of their cultures but not exact stereotypes. And of course killing off all the Europeans before the age of colonial expansion was a good way to achieve this while avoiding eurocentricism as far as possible. I do like the way Robinson handles religion, with a very clear sense of both the good and the bad elements of religion as a sociological force and no unnecessary editorializing about whether religion is actually "true". One thing I did disapprove of was the almost complete omission of Africa; the continent gets about three sentences of asides in 750 pages, which is pathetic. It would have been better to have claimed that the plague spread to Africa, or to have postulated the Chinese and Islamic civilizations competing for dominance of the African continent in an analogy to what happened in our timeline, or ideally to have explored what kind of civilization might have developed in Africa had it not been for European colonialism there.

The other thing that Robinson does really well is descriptions of the development of technology. The course more or less follows what happened in real history, but melded rather well into a setting appropriate for the non-European cultures described. There's some really nice explorations of the way that people's world views affect their choice of scientific metaphors. And the writing about early scientific discoveries is of a really high quality; The alchemist was without question my favourite story, describing the emergence of modern scientific method, and the AH retellings of some of the key early Enlightenment discoveries.

My knowledge of our timeline history isn't really good enough to assess whether Robinson's speculations are realistic, or even really to spot most of the allusions to our world historical events, though I did see enough to notice that's what he's doing. But the one divergence I found implausible was the idea that it was possible to introduce metallurgy and guns to the Native American culture, allowing them to resist invasion by the Chinese and Islamic empire builders, while still retaining their pre-colonization way of life essentially intact. I spent most of the book expecting the ending of Warp and weft to turn out to be deeply ironic, but in fact it was absolutely sincere, and we even have the Americans intervening to prevent the equivalent of the second world war in the modern section, as representatives of a culture that has modern technology but still has a tiny population living in harmony with nature and collaboration instead of hierarchy. That's just excessive optimism, quite possibly motivated by romanticizing Native American culture, which would be a shame when the rest of the book is trying so hard not to romanticize.

I think on the whole people who are interested in this kind of stuff would be better off reading Jared Diamond; although Diamond is writing non-fiction, his Guns, germs and steel is generally more entertaining than this over-long, somewhat pedantic novel. Like Diamond, Robinson does occasionally slip into propaganda, albeit propaganda that I agree with, in favour of feminism and against racism. But I don't want to be too hard on tYoR&S; it was interesting enough for me to keep going all the way through, even if sometimes that felt a bit of a slog. And there are definitely some cool what-ifs explored, so if you're a fast reader it might well be worth it.


Whereaboooots: Samarqand
Moooood: okayokay
Tuuuuune: Lycia: The remnants and the ruins
Discussion: 18 contributions | Contribute something
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ewx: default
From:ewx
Date:July 12th, 2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 03:37 pm (ewx's time)
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I quite enjoyed YRS; I suspect I may have shortly previous read Roma Aeterna which makes it shine in comparison.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:July 14th, 2008 09:31 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 09:31 am (livredor's time)
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I might have guessed that you'd be a person to appreciate the good points more than many people. It's definitely not a bad book, by any means, it's just too long compared to the amount of content.
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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
From:rysmiel
Date:July 12th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 11:46 am (rysmiel's time)
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Um, who is a reincarnation of whom is really rather easy, because the same person always has the same initial letter to their name.

The thing that really lifts this book up a level for me, is what it does with the bardo all along forming into set up for that war without end bit where it really is not clear whether they are in the real world hallucinating or actually in their Hell, that is amazing. I do not think it needed the subsequent sections, though.
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:July 13th, 2008 09:11 am (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 09:11 am (lethargic_man's time)
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I do not think it needed the subsequent sections, though.

(As I said to rysmiel at the time we first discussed this book:)

I can see where he's getting at. There is no big The End at the end of a major war; real life is about picking up the pieces and building for a new future. Indeed, I think possibly he's riffing off 1066 And All That, in which after peace was signed in the Chamber of Horrors at Versailles, "history came to a.". By the time the book was published in 1930, it was extremely clear that the Great War was not the War to End All Wars, nor the peace settlement afterward the Peace to End All Peaces, but Sellars and Yeatman chose to ignore that in the interests of resolution and conclusion. tYoR&S is the opposite—fiction going for historical realism rather than a history going for fictional resolution.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:July 14th, 2008 10:39 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:39 am (livredor's time)
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I disagree. It was possible, albeit naive, in 1930 to believe that Europe would hold an uneasy peace; the Nazis weren't even in power by that point. And if there hadn't been a fairly widespread popular belief in the idea that nobody would risk modern warfare again after WWI, how could Chamberlain have negotiated Appeasement several years after the publication of 1066 and all that? Of course Sellars and Yeatman didn't literally believe that history came to a ., but they might well have predicted that there would be repercussions to the economic collapse in Germany (and the US Depression), but not as major repercussions as WW2. If it had been that obvious in 1930 that Hitler was going to try to conquer the whole of Europe, the history of the next nine years would have been very different.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 14th, 2008 09:42 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 09:42 am (livredor's time)
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Um, who is a reincarnation of whom is really rather easy, because the same person always has the same initial letter to their name.
Obviously your mind just works differently from mine; I didn't find this at all helpful, and actually didn't really figure it out until nearly the point where it was explicitly mentioned anyway. I guess there's a B who is compassionate and optimistic, a K who is rebellious and idealist, and an I who is intellectual and dispassionate? The characterization is vague, though, and I wasn't ever quite sure how many people were actually part of the jati and how many were just NPCs. There didn't seem to be enough similarities between the various incarnations to get a sense of continuity; this is a good thing in that it allowed Robinson to handle the reincarnation theology with the light touch that I so enjoyed, it would have been a much weaker book if there had been really blatant recurring themes. But I gave up trying after the first few stories in terms of looking for the connections between them and trying to work out who would half-remember what incidents.

what it does with the bardo all along
Absolutely, that was one of the strongest parts of the book for me. I like the fact that sometimes it's literal and sometimes it's more metaphorical; the ending of Widow Kang with the settled peace of a very old marriage also moved me a lot.

that war without end bit where it really is not clear whether they are in the real world hallucinating or actually in their Hell
I agree that that part is extremely powerful. But I think it would have been a bit of a downer for the book to end with a literally endless WW1, with the whole of Asia turned into a giant no-mans land and human civilization destroying itself by agonizing degrees!

I do not think it needed the subsequent sections, though.
There are quite a lot of chapters that don't really drive the story as much as you might hope. I must admit I appreciated the AH 20th century, because of course I'm a lot more familiar with more recent history so I have more basis for appreciating the proposed ideas.
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blue_mai: default
From:blue_mai
Date:July 12th, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 10:42 pm (blue_mai's time)
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hmm. i am not a fast enough reader for this book. i started reading it and it was interesting but too long and it also made me very sad. but it has stuck in my mind and bits of it were interesting enough to make me really think, although the thinking made me sad it was not really about things in the book. anyway i really need to return it to its rightful owner.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 14th, 2008 09:51 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 09:51 am (livredor's time)
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Yeah, it does have a lot to think about. If it were half the length, I'd enthusiastically recommend it to everybody because I want to be able to have a discussion about whether the alt history is or isn't plausible. And yes, there is a lot of sadness in it, because even though it's optimistic overall, it does throw into relief lots of the tragedies and cruelties of real world history.
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blue_mai: via
From:blue_mai
Date:July 14th, 2008 11:09 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:09 am (blue_mai's time)

the long version

(Link)
starting to read this book really showed up for me how little i know about the world and history and cultures, emphasised rather by your review and other people's comments. i was 'into' the book despite it being rather long for me, but i had to stop reading it because of the sadness, which wasn't really to do with the stories at all, but because of the scale of the stories, about the rise and fall of civilisations, it's a zooming out in scale from where i feel comfortable. i know i know, discomfort can be good. and i went back to the book a couple of times, but it kept making me curl up and feel sad, because when i start zooming out i keep going and i think about when people will die out and how sad it will be that all the weight of the human world, the wars and words and love and music and things we think are important, will just end. my fear of death is directly connected to my awareness of the eventual death of people as a whole. i didn't fear death before i realised that people would not continue indefinitely. and i am really not all that confident in humans not screwing things up for ourselves sooner rather than later. all this makes me want to curl up and escape, although escape is not really possible. so that's why i never finished the book.
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rysmiel: child garden
From:rysmiel
Date:July 16th, 2008 04:14 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 12:14 am (rysmiel's time)

Re: the long version

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how sad it will be that all the weight of the human world, the wars and words and love and music and things we think are important, will just end.

In some ways, it not mattering beyond our own scale and span is a relief; imagine the weight of expectation if all your deeds and errors lasted forever.

Within out own scale and span, we can be glorious. That's enough for me to be happy.
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siderea: default
From:siderea
Date:July 13th, 2008 04:26 am (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, July 12th, 2008 11:26 pm (siderea's time)
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Something which I seem to recall is not explicated in the book, but which you might enjoy knowing: Ka and Ba are (the) two sorts/parts of soul in ancient Egyptian belief.

I'm still hoping to learn whether the title (and the list of ages of women it is from) was original to KSR or whether it's actually traditional.

(Also, was it clear the relevance of the title?)
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 14th, 2008 09:54 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 09:54 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Oh, good point about the connection to Egyptian mythology. I did know about Ka and Ba, but I didn't connect them to the K and B characters in the book, which are linked explicitly with Buddhism. Cool!

The title seemed sensible to me, but not strikingly relevant; what am I missing?
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siderea: default
From:siderea
Date:July 15th, 2008 05:30 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 12:30 am (siderea's time)
(Link)
It's an allusion to the stages of a woman's life, and represents the one after bearing children but before old age. It seems to suggest that he is making a comparison between the stages of a person's life and the stages of maturity of the human race/civilization; thus the book can be taken as proposing a story of the attainment of a level of humanistic maturity of the species.
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lethargic_man: blue!
From:lethargic_man
Date:July 13th, 2008 09:07 am (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 09:07 am (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
Well, I liked it, and I thought it did all manner of interesting things.

Seeing the Ottoman Sultan determine successfully the weight of a soul demanded an explanation, and when I was almost the whole way through the book, and had seen both sections in the bardo, and characters arguing that such things did not exist, I was beginning to think I was not going to get an explanation for these. The explanation that KSR eventually gives is really quite a clever one. The only question remaining is, is there any direct mapping of "Old Red Ink" onto "Kim Stanley Robinson"? I spent some time puzzling over this, but could not spot it myself.

Googling at Usenet's response to this book, I thought it interesting how some people thought the book good, but others thought it extremely weak, and for different reasons. Some people protest it wasn't historical fiction, just history; but I'd not agree with that. Some people thought the historical development was too fast, which I'd not agree with in general, with the exception of the Samarqandi Renaissance section. It's a bit of a cliché to have a single Leonardo figure come up with so many discoveries; real life's not like that, even a scientific Renaissance.

Unless, of course, that's another deliberate device used in the "dharma history" style. (Is there any evidence in the book that this is so?)

With my knowledge of how Christopher Columbus spent his third voyage tracking up and down the coast of Darién thinking it was Asia and searching in vain for the Straits of Malacca, I was most amused by the discoverers of America in this book tracking down the opposite coast, as little as a few tens of miles away in the region of Darién, searching in vain for the Straits of Gibraltar.

Likewise I was most amused by the inhabitants of Fangzhou concluding the south side of the Gold Gate being far too steep to build a city on.

Also, with my abortive Plains Indians novel, I was impressed with the circumstances leading to the foundation of the Hodenosaunee League. (You realise, I presume, that the Hodenosaunee League is what we call in our world the Six Nations of the Iroquois?) He certainly came up with a better justification for an Indians Held Their Own scenario than mine!

I found myself wishing whilst reading the book to be able to go back to Europe and see what was going on there. There wasn't much in Europe, but what there was was really good. (I liked the agonising of the settlers from the Maghrib over how the Plague could have been the instrument of G-d against the Firanjis when it also wiped out the Granadan kingdom in al-Andalus.) (Are you aware of why they call Europeans Firanjis? I don't think it's made explicit in the book.)

As for the lack of mention of sub-Saharan Africans, I spotted that; there's also almost no mention of South Americans anywhere.

And finally, one minor linguistic quibble: Given the extent to which KSR goes to get his names right, e.g. Ibn Sina rather than Avicenna, the reference to Maimonides rather than Ibn Musa grates for me, but of course, as you know, that's just me. ;^)
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lethargic_man: blue!
From:lethargic_man
Date:July 13th, 2008 09:14 am (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 09:14 am (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
Also, I trust it doesn't need pointing out (but just in case it does) that the Zheng He in this book is the same as the ChQeng Ho in Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought books...
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:July 14th, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:33 am (livredor's time)
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Yes, I know you liked it, that's why I read it in the first place! But when I mentioned this before you said I'd overstated your enthusiasm for it. But anyway. It does typify the kind of book that has much more appeal for you than for me; its strengths are the things you most care about, like exploration of ideas, whereas it's weaker (though by no means awful) on my priorities like characterization and plot.

I think I missed the bit about explaining the weight of the soul. I just assumed that either they were trying to measure with a precision greater than the accuracy of the system, or else that their scales were so sensitive they could measure the weight of air in the subject's lungs.

I had about the same thoughts about "Old Red Ink"; it looks at a glance like an anagram, but it isn't. I bet it's some subtle pun via representing his name with Chinese syllables or something.

I didn't think the level of achievement attributed to Khalid was too bad, allowing for a bit of simplification for the purpose of making the story emotionally compelling. It's made quite clear that he doesn't invent everything in the world by his sheer genius, but rather is the head of a productive team, and encouraged an atmosphere where the various madrassas were working on natural philosophy and there was a major intellectual crucible. That's fairly analogous to what did happen in the real Renaissance; I thought of Newton more than Da Vinci, actually.

You know a lot more about the early history of the discovery of America than I do, but I did pick up the bit about the location of San Francisco! I did know that there had been proto-national alliances of various Native American tribes, but didn't know the detail. As I mentioned in my review, I found the survival of the Hodenosaunee League completely implausible; I just can't believe you can have a technological and industrial revolution while maintaining the social structures of a subsistence agricultural society. I could believe in the League resisting complete devastating conquest by the Chinese and later Islamic invaders, but not without themselves turning into a capitalist and probably colonialist power.

IMO there was as much about Europe as there needed to be, especially as the whole point of the book was to explore history without the influence of Europe! I agree with you that the sections that do deal with Europe are very impressive, the opening story with the devastation of the plague, and the glimpses of the remains of the Roman civilization, and the little pockets of survivors in remote places like Orkney. I assumed that Firanji was an Arabic form of France, but now you mention it perhaps it's connected to the same Hindi (I think?) root that was used for the Star Trek Ferengi?

South America is dealt with adequately, for me: what happened there was completely analogous to our timeline, with the Inca civilization being wiped out by disease and social structures which made them collapse in the face of conquest, while the other indigenous populations never expanded beyond the hunter-gatherer level by the time they were conquered by China. So we get a largely Chinese South America just as we were left with a primarily Spanish South America in our world. But there's no equivalent of the expansion into Africa, and you would think that with Islam and China competing as global superpowers they would have noticed this entire resource rich and politically free continent! Or else Africa might have developed its own civilization, emerging as a competing superpower in the more modern sections.
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lethargic_man: blue!
From:lethargic_man
Date:July 14th, 2008 12:10 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 12:10 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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I think I missed the bit about explaining the weight of the soul. I just assumed that either they were trying to measure with a precision greater than the accuracy of the system, or else that their scales were so sensitive they could measure the weight of air in the subject's lungs.

It's (IIRC) one of the bits Old Red Ink put in to convey to the reader that this is a dharma history; it's not real history.

I assumed that Firanji was an Arabic form of France, but now you mention it perhaps it's connected to the same Hindi (I think?) root that was used for the Star Trek Ferengi?

You were right first time: When the Arabs first learned about Europe, they didn't know much about its inhabitants, and applied the blanket term "Frank" to them all, and "Firanja" (land of the Franks) to the whole continent; and, in the way these things do, the name has stuck ever since.

According to Wikipedia, "Ferengi" has the same source.
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lethargic_man: blue!
From:lethargic_man
Date:August 3rd, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC)
22 days after journal entry, 09:46 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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A propos of a random comment on hatam_soferet's blog, you may, now you have read The Years of Rice and Salt, find my review of Journey to the West a bit more meaningful.

Also, a propos of:
On being met with a blank expression, I started explaining, and got as far as mentioning the name Tripitaka before being interrupted by "Monkey!" and a peculiar gesture. Turns out there was a (possibly animated, I didn't quite pick this up) television series (in Chinese, dubbed (badly) into English) based on the book; I had no idea of this, and the person I was talking to had no idea the series was based on a book.
In a funny way I find it cool that that series exists and that people have heard of it. Gosh. And yay interconnectedness of everything.
...you may find this article about it interesting.
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