Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Years of Rice and Salt” (2002) – Kim Stanley Robinson joins the exalted company of Faulkner, Proust, and Garcia-Marquez in the category of writers that I respect but do not particularly like reading. He might be the only scifi writer in that category. He seems like a mensch. His ideas are interesting. It’s good someone is tackling big, hard scifi, be it about Mars colonization, interstellar travel, climate change, or in this instance, what modernity would look like not dominated by Europe. I respect the amount of research and work he puts into things. But his books run long and schematic. In “Years of Rice and Salt,” it was pretty easy to see what each part would be coming in in this history after the Black Death takes out almost all Europeans instead of a third of them. Samarkand alchemists, must be here’s the scientific revolution, here’s the world war equivalent, etc. etc.
Like most alternate histories it’s way too neat and schematic. This is probably an advantage over sloppy and dull (ala Harry Turtledove) but it usually doesn’t grab me. The players in the history are different — Chinese, Indians, Arabs, and Native Americans — which is a fine change, but the roles are mostly recycled. That might be part of Robinson’s whole Buddhist take- the idea is the characters are reincarnations of the characters in the first set, throughout history. None of it is bad and clearly a lot of it is well-meaning, depicting Muslims and assorted other “Others” of modernity as just as capable of enlightenment and modernity as anyone else. But it could have done more to show how modernity would have been different, beyond lines and names on the map and the demographics of who’s involved. Presumably those changes would have changed what modernity itself was all about. I give it credit for what I’m probably missing, because KSR seems like a good dude, and it’s good to have alternate history not about how cool the Nazis and/or Confederates were. ***