The Years of Rice and Salt ~ By Kim Stanley Robinson

Oh my what a grand book! But it does get long and seems kind of repetitive after about the half-way mark (perhaps that’s part of the ultimate point).  I haven’t read a sci-fi book this good since the trilogy “Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin, or maybe it was 2041 also by Robinson a few years ago.  This is essentially a series of interrelated novellas which tell the history of the world from about 1350 AD and on to the near future,  And it all comes together at the end. 

The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson 
2003 – 784 pages
Read by Bronson Pinchot 25h 56m
Rating: 9 /A literary sci-fi fantasy – alt history

The stories start in the 14th Century when the Black Plague had just made its way through Asia and Europe killing  about 1/3 to 1/2 of the population and worst in Europe. It lasted about 25 years. Due in part to that plague the Christians didn’t make a lot of headway out of Medieval times while the Muslims managed to expand and thrive in many areas. The Mongol leader, Temur Khan, a Muslim, fought his way to Western France where the book’s first protagonists, Bold and Psin, are just getting ready to fight him when lightening strikes their tent and kills them. Their deaths put them in the Bardo, a kind of purgatory for reincarnations which is a regular feature of the novel. It serves as an intermission between incarnations and eras. There are 10 books with each containing several chapters and each with an accompanying trip to the bardo. The characters are named according to their function, for instance names beginning with the letter B are “believers” while P is for the “wanderers.” 

At about 25% I’d been getting too distracted by my real life, so I bought the Kindle version to go with the audio. The audio has really excellent narration and sometimes I like to read and listen at the same time or going back and forth. It keeps me very focused and I can go back for sentences or names or whatever I like.  Also,  the Kindle version has maps and graphics as well asr chronologies and cast lists but you can find it online (see the links at the bottom of this post).   

At any rate The Years of Rice and Salt is a collection of 10 novellas (loosely defined), in which there are usually several chapters. The first concerns Bold,  a very small cattleman, and Kyu, a black boy, who passes as Bold’s slave. They have both run away from the Mongols and get as far as Nanking and Beijing when the Emperor dies and …. Lots of thriller-type adventures with intermissions in the bardo –  Most of the Books include a “B…” character and an “I…”character and then come the “K…” characters (see below). 

The Books are mainly in chronological order for about 700 years, starting in 1400 AD and going to a few years beyond the current years. There is a time line in the book and also at the link showed at the bottom of this post. A very brief synopsis is also included.

The Books each deal with one or more specialties of human knowledge from geography to history and physics,  medicine, philosophy, religion, technology, society,  etc. It’s a very broad survey and includes alternate history without being entirely speculative. If you want to know what’s factual and what’s not you’ll have to do your own little searches via Google or whatever.  (I’ll tell you that I don’t think the Chinese made it to the California coast-lol!) This is alternative history with a certain emphasis on science so … 

My favorite Books are #s 1 “Awake to Emptiness,” 3 “Ocean Continents,” 5, “Widow Kang” and maybe others, #9 “ Nsara,” for instance. 

In some ways, The Years of Rice and Salt reminds me of The Incarnations by Susan Barker (2015)

And there was a TV show moons and moons ago which used the trope of arch-enemies across time being reincarnated to fight again (?).  I’m glad I read this book, but I’m also glad to be finally getting on to other things.
(Synopsis by Book – 10 books) 

B the believer (faith)
K the rebel (action)
I the scientist (thought)
S the corrupt leader (laziness)
P the wanderer (humility)
Z the warrior (strength)

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