It is the 14th century, and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur - the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe's population was destroyed. But what if the plague had killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been - a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.
This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world's greatest scientific minds - in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions, and Christianity is merely a historical footnote.
Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.
©2002 Kim Stanley Robinson (P)2015 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Alternate history is a genre I enjoy, and this book often appears on "best of" lists, usually somewhere under classics like The Man in the High Castle or Pavane. I figured it was worth a read.
The point of divergence from our own timeline takes place in the 1300s, after the Black Plague wipes out virtually all of Europe, except for tiny populations on remote islands. A Mongol warrior comes into Poland/Hungary with a small scouting party, and discovers a land bereft of all but corpses. He reports back to his Khan, attracts the man's anger, then flees back into Europe, where he wanders around for a while, before being taken by Muslim slavers. He ends up being sold in Egypt, where he befriends an African slave boy who has a somewhat different outlook on the world. Eventually, they both die, meet in purgatory, and are reborn into new lives.
This sets up the template that the rest of the book follows. The protagonists, who I couldn't really tell apart, appear at important junctures in the world's subsequent history, and help steer it in one direction or another, while undergoing their own climb towards enlightenment. It's a little facile of a device (I preferred the enigmatic connections across eras in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas), but it didn't get in the way.
The alternate history aspects of the novel are more interesting. Robinson's speculations on how the world might have developed absent Europeans are well thought out. It's not a stretch to suppose that China and the Islamic world would have become the two main poles of the civilized world, with India caught between them. There probably would have been a scientific revolution somewhere in the Islamic world, as well as a liberal, reformist movement in newly colonized territories. North America might well have been discovered by Chinese sailors blown off course into the Aleutians, and explored by Japanese fleeing Chinese oppression. The industrial revolution might well have begun in India.
Some ideas seem a little wishful. Might Native Americans have united into a proto-democracy, with a little help from refugees from other places? Might scientists delving into atomic physics in the wake of a horrific world war have collectively decided not to pursue the bomb? The more fantastical elements of the story come into play at such times, with characters "remembering" wrong turns from previous lives. Other chapters crib heavily from real world history, but with the actors and a few cultural details changed around.
This isn't necessarily an "exciting" book. Often, the characters sit around discussing philosophy, religion, science, law, the evolution of culture, etc., caught in the thinking of whatever era they're in, but eager to argue about different paths forward. Yet, this is the sort of thing I enjoy, so I didn't mind so much. In the background is the interesting theme of: could we change the future for the better if we brought the lessons of the past to it? Or is history a river that can't quite be tamed? One chapter expresses it quite literally.
I don't think I would put this at the top of my personal list of alternative history novels; it's not quite as literary as Pavane, nor is it as mind-bending as The Man in the High Castle. But it is a richer reading experience than Harry Turtledove, and it does cast a light today's major non-Western cultures. By showing how they might have evolved without the influence of the West, he gets us to ponder directions they may yet evolve in, or are already doing.
This book starts out as a very good story and somewhere along the way has me thinking of how to appreciate each day anew. What a fantastic thing. I was at a low spot in my life and contemplating this book and its central ideas have proved uplifting.
I run hot and cold on the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, finding some of them unbearable and pretentious, others sublime, and most somewhere in between. This book represents the sublime end of my own personal Kim Stanley Robinson spectrum. Those familiar with some of his short fiction and essays are probably aware of his deep and abiding interest in the theory and practice of historical narrative. This interest is subtly woven through the sweeping, centuries-spanning plot of this book, enhancing its depth and texture without getting in the way. In other novels, the spiritual proclivities of some of Robinson's characters ring false; here those same proclivities are present, but feel much more credible and sincere. This has less to do with the characters themselves (the Khalid of this book is clearly the same person as the Galileo of "Galileo's Dream") than with the narrative context in which they find themselves.
The story begins around 1400, when advance scouts from the army of Timur (known to us as Tamerlane the Great) enter Eastern Europe (in our timeline Timur never made it further west than Smyrna on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean). The scouts discover that everyone, EVERYONE, in Europe has died of the plague. Western civilization is gone. From this premise, the narrative extends into the 21st or 22nd century, though of course no one is using the Julian Calendar. More can't be revealed without spoilers, but suffice it to say that despite the timescale, there is a surprising degree of continuity.
I read this book when it first appeared in print, and was very pleased to get a chance to revisit it in audio format, especially in the hands of so capable and versatile a reader as Bronson Pinchot. He doesn't disappoint. Even if you don't ordinarily like Kim Stanley Robinson, you may want to give this one a try.
This is an alternate history in which the POD (point of departure) and even the characters repeated through successive generations are a means for Robinson to explore various topics including religion, to government, power, epistemology and even the environment. The writing is a bit heavy-handedly poetic at times. I like a bit more story myself. But maybe that’s just my Western (extinct in the Salt and Rice world) mind.
This audio version was skillfully read. The narrator was engaging, clear, and entertaining. I appreciate the narrator's use of character accents, passable foreign language pronunciation, and passion to the story! Also, it was the complete story, unabridged!!
Yes, Adelba's passing in Book Nine Nsara
This is a big book, ambitious in its scope and important in its ideas. I was quite surprised how well it jumped out of the book and into my ears. A good first Audible experience!
After having read this novel some time ago I was somewhat hesitant to lesson to this audio version. Do not be afraid. The narrator is spot on. Especially thrilling is that his narration brought out plot development I missed in the first reading. Highly recommended!!
I would recommend this audiobook to friends who love and respect great thinking and fine writing. I would not recommend this work to friends who prefer the audiobook equivalent of fast food.
I like best the fact that I can read this book every few years and still find new subtleties to relish.
Yes. I've never heard Bronson Pinchot give a poor performance. He is one of the very best narrators, regardless of the various quality of the materials he is given to work with. In this case, he is as gloriously wonderful as the book itself.
Not at all. It is far too good for that, and deserves as much savoring as anyone has to offer.
In my view, The Years of Rice and Salt is one of the great books of our times, and it isn't for everybody. So I will do my best to convey why I enjoyed this book so thoroughly, and hope it helps you to decide.
First things first. The inspired choice of a narrator is Bronson Pinchot. And he very wisely chose not to hasten through the journey, but to match it in rhythm and feeling. He speaks in a very clear and flowing cadence, subtly blending with the very rhythm of the story itself as it unfolds over many times and places. He uses his considerable intelligence and talent to help us experience the disparate and highly complex pieces of the story as the unified whole they already are.
With a book as sophisticated, multidimensional, far-flung and intricate as The Years of Rice and Salt, this is a gold standard for great narration.
In reviewing books, the first thing most people naturally do is describe the basic outline of the story. But in this case the book jacket does that well enough. No amount of telling you what The Years of Rice and Salt is "about" will help you much in deciding if you might like it.
If you strongly like or dislike certain topics or types of stories or authors, then the usual publisher's description here will serve very well to steer you toward or away from this book on that basis.
The more important thing to know is that this work is not a comfortable clone of something else, as most books are. It is exactly the opposite.
It is wholly original, soaring, immense, and worthy of the best sustained attention. I think The Years of Rice and Salt is an example of an unusual accomplishment, only widely recognized much later as great literature. Allow me to explain what I mean by that.
The Years of Rice and Salt does not resemble the self-indulgent display of personal subconscious idiosyncrasies some also call literature these days. In other words, it is not at all like the last few books written by Kim Stanley Robinson himself.
No. This is classical literature: wondrous in depth and breadth and vividly original, with fine-grained characterizations and utterly satisfying universal story-telling. And it is directly related to that same enormous, humanity-encompassing and delightfully specific mind which created The Golden Age of Kim Stanley Robinson.
I mean when he was one of the finest story-tellers of his or any other generation.
Back when he wrote science fiction at the level of Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos, or Dan Simmons at his Hyperion best. When he once dedicated his sublimely imaginative intelligence to telling stories on behalf of the whole human race.
I refer to the Kim Stanley Robinson of world-class grandeur and literary attainments--- before a subconscious imp whispered in his ear that "higher" literary greatness could be achieved by focusing frequently on descriptions of sex. Or through "impressionistic" writing, as if blurry suggestive strokes are superior to classical clarity, vividness and scope. As if Monet was superior to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bosch, and Bruegel. In other words, I have sorely missed Kim Stanley Robinson's unique gifts- and therefore greet The Years of Rice and Salt audiobook as a dear friend of the mind, returned in a new form.
There are an infinite number of ways to illustrate the journey of human beings through time and space, and one of the best is through science fiction. After all, this Earth is our primary and original Generation Ship- and we are already flying through space.
But this book is not quite that, or anything else either. It is not in a category. And it doesn't matter whether or not you accept the underlying premise. It is so well described that all you need to do is suspend personal beliefs, and let the tale tell itself on its own terms.
Personally, I think a great hidden truth of our life on Earth may very well resemble the general idea behind The Years of Rice and Salt, to one degree or another. And that is partly why I enjoy this story so much. But I would also have enjoyed this book just as much if I thought the premise was utter nonsense. The great beauty of masterful story-telling on this level is that we find some kind of telling reality in it, whether purely symbolic or purely imaginative- or any admixture in between.
My advice to anyone considering buying this book is to think about it, and let all the descriptions sink in. See if you resonate with it or not. I didn't have to think twice, since I have long wished for this particular audiobook during my own long years of rice and salt.
I felt like this was a very confused book. Am I following a few souls through many incarnations, yes, for a while this seems clear, but then it becomes muddled and hard to figure out who is who. The premise is great, and enjoyed the first third of this book a lot. I think the author gets lost in his own story. I also found that his long religious meanderings were not helpful and became distracting and overlong and did not move anything forward. He also spends a lot of time describing the 'rediscovery' of scientific principles and inventions that were of course discovered in the same way they were in 'our' Euro-centric world, so what is the point of that exactly? Overall I pretty much slogged through the last third simply because I had already invested so much time and kept hoping it would go somewhere after all, which I hate to say it really didn't.
Thought provoking and enthralling. A great story with an immense breath, yet allowing the reader to get attached to its heroes.
The narrator also does an epic job. I'll be looking for his other readings.
This was a delightful work of cross cultural historical and speculative fiction. The author uses reincarnation as a vessel to tell the story of different peoples and cultures across the span of the ages. There are incredibly explosive grenades of wisdom dotted throughout the book, many of which forced me to pause and contemplate for many hours. Despite the wonderful audio reading, this is one story that i wish i had bought in paper so that i could highlight and bookmark and take pictures and quote. This is simply a must read/listen.
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