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.