I just finished Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), and wanted to blog up several notes on it.
Overall, a very impressive, interesting, and sometimes surprising novel. The counterfactual idea - the Black Death wipes out all of European civilization - works as a good engine for generating historical differences and continuities.
- Robinson stocks the novel with a steady stream of nice details, like briefly including one character within the apocalyptic tradition (as a Twelfth Imam believer, 116), or offering a nonwestern version of the table of elements (as mandala, 539).
- There's a solid theme of leftist analysis of history and politics, consontant with KSR's other works. This is where the title comes in, with "rice and salt" standing for enormous amounts of human work and suffering, foregrounded as the novel's concern (347). The progressivism inherent in leftist analysis is problematized, however, partly by the framing device of reincarnation.
- Naturally enough, Robinson offers a discussion of alternate history (575-6), the center or omphalos of all alternate history sf:
"It's such a useless exercise," Kirana reflected. "What if this had happened, what if that had happened... These historians who talk about employing counterfactuals to bolster their theories, they're ridiculous. Because no one knows why things happen, you see? Anything could follow form anything... Because we don't know if history is sensitive, and for want ot a nail a civilization was lost, or if our mightiest acts are as petals on a flood, or something in between, or both at once."
(Very cutely self-referential, and applicable beyond the novel to some of KSR's short stories about WWII).
- Many readers note the use of first-letter repetition to signal the reincarnation plots, with the recurrent characters' names always starting with B, I, and K. This leads to the very surprising last scene, which might constitute a sort of divine war with humanity. She who appears in the last line had already suffered at the hands of our other characters, after all.
- Marginal glosses appear for a while (starting at 348), hinting at changes in print culture.