The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This book found its way to me through the recommendation of a friend. I mentioned I was reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and, well, you know how book talk goes. Sometimes the talk follows the author, sometimes the theme.

I had read and enjoyed the Mars trilogy by Robinson. My friend mentioned that some people he had talked to about the book found it repetitive. I guess, in a distant way, it is. But if you accept the premise of lives repeating and interacting in similar challenges then it’s no more repetitive than life itself.

Reincarnation is the central device of the book, a way to carry the reader through an alternative history in which most of Christian Europe is killed by the Black Death in the 1400s. So rather than a colonial Europe the world is populated by Islam, which establishes itself in Europe, and a China that spreads influence throughout east Asia. Somewhere in there is also the Hindu world of India, trapped between the two major forces of the east and west. Someone actually took the time do draw world maps for the book which can be found under the book’s title on Wikipedia. In this universe it’s the Japanese who land at San Francisco and bring their own deadly plagues, the Chinese who conquer the Incas and take their gold. Threading through the highlights in history are souls who are brought together in multiple reincarnations with brief pauses in the bardo before coming back to continue their lessons.

Through these lives several themes emerge. One of these revolves around Islam and its evolution. Rather than wars with the west the Caliphates have wars with the Chinese. Sunni and Shiites have their continuing conflicts, and there are extensive examinations of how many of the problems, such as subjugation of women, arise not out of the Q’uran but through generations of Sharia interpretations.

The political evolutions of China are also examined through lives lived there in the past and future.

Throughout the book, scientific discoveries that had come from the west are now rediscovered gradually by Chinese and Muslim science. Robinson, married to an environmental scientist and a Muir Environmental Fellow himself, also incorporates the impact of these alternate historical paths on the environment and climate.

The work is divided into 10 “books”, each one telling a unique chronological story with characters not quite aware or understanding their relationships to each other. I would say I came out of the book more aware of the structure and issues within Islam, but there’s a great deal to be learned throughout the book on a wide variety of social and scientific topics.