The Years of Rice and Salt is a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. At first this is hard to believe because he doesn't refer to women as dolphins in it, but then on page 545 he refers to one as a "big wet beautiful animal," so you know it's the real deal.

Rice and Salt is an alternate history which begins shortly after its point of divergence with the real world. In the novel, the Black Death kills not merely a third but the entire population of Europe. (Or close to it — a line of specially bred redheads from the British Isles eventually shows up in a sultan's harem.) The book is divided into ten chapters. In the first chapter, we get a tour of the world through the eyes of a Mongolian soldier named Bold as he starves in desolated Europe, winds up in the Alexandrian slave market, and is taken down the coast of Africa where the slave ship picks up a boy named Kyu; they are then taken to Hangzhou, eventually winding up attached to the imperial court in Beijing.

Then they die and are reincarnated. When the second chapter begins it's about two Indian girls named Kokila and Bihari. Then they die and the story focuses on a man named Bistami and a tiger named Kya. These Ks and Bs repeat throughout the novel; it also spends a fair amount of ink on characters who through many reincarnations always have names beginning with I and S. P and G names crop up as very minor characters.

Thus, as in Robinson's Mars novels, we end up following the same characters through centuries of history — this time thanks to reincarnation rather than geriatric treatments. The third chapter covers the discovery of the Western Hemisphere continents by an off-course Chinese war fleet; the fourth is about a couple of guys in Samarkand inventing pretty much all technology from medieval times to the industrial revolution; the fifth is very brief and details the contact of the Japanese diaspora with the Iroquois. Then comes the sixth, with which the book goes sharply downhill.

Because starting with the sixth chapter, Rice and Salt focuses on... historians. The action of the second half of the book is little more than people sitting around in cafés and university classrooms talking about history. And not just history — historiography. Robinson quotes long stretches of Hayden White, cleverly disguised as "Scholar White." The thing is, putting academic texts in the mouths of characters doesn't actually make them any more interesting than they were when I was studying the New Historicism back in grad school.

Mike D'Angelo has pointed out that there's a serious problem with movies like Good Will Hunting which revolve around psychotherapy. To a great extent, the purpose of narrative is to explore people's psychological makeup. We follow characters around and watch what they do, what decisions they make, and come to understand what makes them tick. This process is entirely short-circuited by having a character sit down in a chair and say, "Here's what makes me tick, doc." Similarly, if you have a theory of history you'd like to propound, the way to do so narratively is to illustrate it. You don't write a chapter in which a professor takes her class to the local coffeehouse and explains in long monologues her theory of history. The dialogues of Plato may be classic pieces of philosophy, but cracking good stories they emphatically are not.

But I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise, coming from an author whose instinct is to abstract and theorize at every turn. This is the guy who, in Red Mars, had a chapter devoted to (sigh) a psychiatrist, who sat in a chair and theorized — with diagrams! — about a scheme for understanding personality. He drew a little chart and placed all the characters onto it. I remember being interviewed about Ready, Okay! and being asked to throw out a few adjectives to describe the various characters... but that's not the way I write. I put myself in the characters' places, look through their eyes, and intuit what they'd say and do. I don't think of them as lists of traits. Robinson explicitly does think of his characters as lists of traits. In Rice and Salt, K. is choleric and ambitious; B. sanguine and deferential; I. the phlegmatic sidekick; S. stupid and usually in power. In case you haven't figured out by the end what the characters are like — and given that the characterization is not exactly deep, it's not hard to figure out — Robinson comes out and tells us this in chapter ten.

I've read history that doubled as masterful storytelling (A New World) and fiction so thoroughly grounded in history that it felt somehow more real than reality (Was, which I think I'm going to reread next). Sadly, not only is The Years of Rice and Salt mediocre as a narrative, it's a mediocre history as well. The settings don't really come alive, and there isn't much drama in the collisions of cultures. Nor are the deviations from real history very interesting: the eighth chapter is about a war that's Just Like World War One... only it's in Asia! Chapter nine is about a country that's Just Like the Weimar Republic... only the hard-liners are chased away by protests! (Just Like the Second Russian Revolution in 1991!) Fangzhang is Just Like San Francisco... only it's on the north side of the Golden Gate! It comes off as a bit of a parlor game.

Speaking of games, though, it occurred to me that the early references to the Chagatai Khanate and the Timurid Empire and Zanj and various other political entities of the non-European medieval world would have totally thrown me had I never played Europa Universalis II. The traversal of the technology tree in chapter four had a been-there-done-that quality for me thanks to Civilization. The thing is, these aren't explicitly educational titles. They're games. The entertainment value is the whole point and not just a sugar coating. But even computer games that aren't specifically designed as teaching vehicles have tremendous power to educate: they let you not just read about but actually grapple with history, geography, city planning (Sim City), geopolitics (I learned more about the Cold War from Balance of Power than I ever did in school), engineering (Bridge Builder)... economics, civics, ecology... man, if we could make cool, addictive games revolving around these topics, we could start an educational revolution. Instead we churn out games about carjacking.

I suppose I should also say something about reincarnation here. Rice and Salt is built around the exoteric Tibetan concept of reincarnation, with the souls of the dead traveling to the "bardo" for forty-nine days before returning to earth. This sort of thing, along with such practices as "testing" young children to see whether they're actually reincarnated lamas, seems to me to be just as silly as Western ideas of the afterlife, with harps and haloes and 72-packs of virgins up in the sky and lakes of fire and devils with pitchforks down in the ground. But whereas heaven and hell seem ridiculous to me as a concept — the idea that life is a brief window of action leading to an eternity of reward or punishment is a combination of wish fulfillment and social engineering — reincarnation has a much lower buy-in. All the heavy lifting's already been done.

After all, the unlikely thing about reincarnation isn't the "re-" part — it's the "-incarnation" part. It doesn't take a great leap of faith to suggest that there can be life after oblivion... after all, here we are, all of us with 13.7 billion years or so of the void behind us. And that's not even getting into the very different sort of void before time started. The fricking non-existence of time would seem to be a bit of a stumbling block to us finding ourselves wandering around this little universe of ours. But nevertheless, suddenly there was something rather than nothing, and we ended up inside it. Having established that we can make it here once despite these obstacles, why not twice? I tend to think about this the same way I think about life on other planets — right now there's no proof, but once you've established that life can arise on one planet, why not more? Even if the likelihood of life arising on any given planet is minuscule, there are so many planets out there...

Of course, it's hard to know what reincarnation would even mean. So much about us changes even during the course of the one lifetime we know about — everything from our personalities to the very molecules that make up our bodies — that the only real constant is the feeling of "I'm me! Here I am!" But that's important. Life, viewed from the outside, isn't actually all that remarkable. It makes sense that strings of chemicals that are good at replicating themselves will do so and that we'll start to see a lot of them; that's just math. The things that make up the building blocks of our lives are also easily explained. Organisms that don't seek out food die before reproducing; hunger confers an advantage in prompting organisms to seek out food; hunger becomes universal. Organisms that don't avoid injuries die before reproducing; pain confers an advantage in prompting organisms to stop doing things that are injuring them; pain becomes universal. Organisms that aren't driven to reproduce die without leaving copies of themselves; organisms that are driven to reproduce do leave copies of themselves; the drive to reproduce becomes universal. But the gulf between simple observations explaining the existence of hunger and pain and love and the actual subjective experience of hunger and pain and love is impossibly vast. Why does my experience of the universe derive from the inputs and outputs involving this particular organism and not some other — especially given that, as noted, there isn't anything about this organism that stays constant? Some of the molecules that were in your body a year ago and weren't part of my experience of the world at all are now in my body and now "feel like me"... what exactly our sentience is linked to is not at all easy to pin down. Who's to say that in the vastness of the universe it doesn't somehow re-coalesce after death?

I cannot even completely dismiss the possibility that, much to Kim Stanley Robinson's delight, a woman might come back as a dolphin.

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