This was my first reading experience with Kim Stanley Robinson. I knew of him, of course. The Mars trilogy created enough of a buzz that it is impossible not to have heard of this author. But not being a hardcore scifi fan, I never felt the urge to read those books, regardless of how much acclaim they had garnered. Now, if The Years of Rice and Salt is any indication, there is a very strong possibility that I might explore more of his books in the coming months.
I have to admit that I'm not too keen on the alternate history genre. But this novel's premise was extremely appealing: What if the Black Death (the plague which decimated Europe in the fourteenth century) had wiped out 99% of the population? That would leave a world in which Buddhism and Islam are the most influencial religions, while Christianity -- with the death of nearly all of its faithful -- becomes a mere historical footnote.
With a unique vision and bold imagination, Robinson explores how our world would have evolved, taking a look at the history that could have been. To say that this project was ambitious would be a gross understatement. Just to consider the amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this book is staggering. And the result is a very engrossing novel.
It is, however, a complex and challenging book. Spanning more than 700 years and covering a group of related characters through multiple lifetimes, this is a novel for "deep thinkers." As such, it is a thought-provoking work that is unfortunately not for everyone.
It is impossible to put what The Years of Rice and Salt is about in a nutshell. It is a multilayered and masterfully written epic that spans continents, cultures and centuries. It is a richly detailed work, erudite, vivid, thoughtful and provocative. This is a book that will challenge the way you look at the world, if only you will let it.
It is also some sort of meditation on several concepts, such as reincarnation, the afterlife, the place occupied by religion in our lives, the impact scientific breakthroughs have on society at large, social upheavals, etc. The book is a wonderfully constructed speculation on what might have been. Robinson explores the evolution of Islamic, Chinese, Indian, and Native American cultures. The novel also offers a number of examinations on the divided nature of Islam, which adds to the philosophical richness that permeates Robinson's work.
The prose, I am glad to say, is of the first order. Kim Stanley Robinson is a truly gifted writer.
Taken as a whole, the book is an ensemble of novellas. Ten in total, they span the generations that followed the Black Death. And although each book contains a different cast of characters, the reincarnations of both "K" and "B" are always present in a different guise.
The Years of Rice and Salt is a literary achievement. As satisfying a book as you are likely to read this year. . .
The verdict: 9/10