THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT – Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley RobinsonOne has to admire Kim Stanley Robinson for the breadth of his work. He has published 19 novels, 2 works of non-fiction, 8 short story collections and 4 novellas. If you just look at the novels, you see a wide variety of angles. Still, his topics remain steadfast: the evolutionary & ecological nature of humans, what human societies could amount to  – progressive, utopian thinking – and how science and technology ties into that.

The Years of Rice and Salt is no dystopian near-future story, nor an account of prehistorical homo sapiens, nor a clifi thriller, nor an hard SF tale of terraforming or interstellar travel. It’s what’s called an alternative history.

As a starting point Robinson lets the black death wipe out 99% of the European population, instead of – current best estimate – 65%. What follows is, in 652 pages and 10 chapters, a history of seven centuries “on an alternate Earth in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions. (…) the New World is discovered by the Chinese Navy, and the Renaissance is played out as a conflict between a Middle Eastern Islam and Chinese Buddhism.” (Kirkus)

Robinson basically wrote 10 novellas that are entangled because they each figure the same three characters, each time reincarnated – as “orphaned Indian girl, Sufi mystic, African eunuch, Sultan’s wife, Chinese admiral, dourly brilliant alchemist, feminist poet, village midwife, glassblower, theologian, etc.”

The Kirkus review is on point in that it names the book at times a bit “ponderous” and “overlong”, and also Laura Miller expresses some of that sentiment in her 2002 review for Salon. But it would be foolish to discard the book just because of that: The Years of Rice and Salt is a tour-de-force.

The task of imagining a 700 year alternative history to the extent that Robinson does is something to behold. He brings the same rigor and research to the table as readers of some of his other works might recognize, and the result is an intellectual smorgasbord that’s nevertheless adventurous, astounding and at times emotional. Especially the chapters that deal with slavery and colonization shine in their power to transmit some of the effects of cruelty and horror to the reader’s own feelings. Not all is gloom, as Robinson manages similarly to convey love and intellectual curiosity in other chapters.

It is only in the one but final chapter I lost interest, as there, indeed, the study of “esoteric ironies among evolving theological and political ideologies” takes over – in that respect this chapter reminded me a bit of the dry yet imaginative slog that is Stapledon’s Last and First Men. But me losing interest was a matter of taste: I’m sure those with a bigger appetite for comparative religious studies will find this 100-page chapter a delight. And besides, as The Years of Rice and Salt can be considered and enjoyed as a collection of seperate novellas too, it’s no biggie if you don’t like it: it’s not like the regular fantasy book in which a dud of a grand finale ruins all that came before.

The three recurring characters (“earthy, pragmatic B, impetuous, vengeful K, and quietly intellectual I” as Kirkus dubs them) contribute to the intricacy of the novel, but figuring out their correspondences chart isn’t at all necessary to enjoy the different chapters: a bonus, not a sine qua non. In that sense, Robinson has written something modular – and yet not, making the form of this book something wholly original, on top of the content that is a rare hybrid too: both intellectual & wondrous.

The Years of Rice and Salt is Robinson’s most feminist book, as he takes the historical practices of foot-binding, harems and Islamic patriarchy as a springboard to explore these issues – sometimes to chilling effect – without pointing fingers or resorting to cheap & essentialist Islamophobia. It also struck me that Robinson seems to be in the same boat as Graeber & Wengrow, clearly admiring certain Pre-Columbian Native American ways of organizing their society. It makes me want to read up on Native American history – if you have any recommendations on that, do not hesitate to comment, but please, only solid work, without the questionable methodology of The Dawn of Everything.

Politics & religion aside, the other thematic focal point is the advent of science – in that sense it is a curious fellow of Greg Egan’s Incandenscence, or even of  non-fiction books on convergent evolution. A bit like an unexpected gift, in the final chapter it turns out that The Years of Rice and Salt is also meant as a deep exploration of history & history-as-storytelling & storytelling itself.

Robinson shows himself to be an idealist, having written yet another “romance in which humanity struggles to work out its dharma, to better itself, and so generation by generation to make progress, fighting for justice, and an end to want, with the strong implication that we will eventually work our way up to the source of the peach blossom stream, and the age of great peace will come into being.”

But, as always with Robinson, it is more complex than that, because Zhu Isao, the fictional founder of the League of All Peoples School of Revolutionary Change, continues that passage. It is probably the most explicit formulation of Robinson’s own poetics, so any Robinson aficionado would do well to read this carefully, more so, it should be of any interest to any student & lover of literature.

“It is a secular version of the Hindu and Buddhist tale of nirvana succesfully achieved. (…) The opposite of this mode is the ironic or satiric mode, which I call entropic history, from the physical sciences, or nihilism, or, in the usage of certain old legends, the story of the fall. In this mode, everything that humanity tries to do fails, or rebounds against it, and the combination of biological reality and moral weakness, of death and evil, means that nothing in human affairs can succeed. Taken to its extreme this leads to (…) people who say it is all a chaos without causes, and that taken all in all, it would have been better never to have been born. These two modes of emplotment represent end-point extremes, in that one says we are masters of the world and can defeat death, while the other says that we are captives of the world, and can never win against death. (…) two other modes of emplotment (…) tragedy and comedy. These two are mixed and partial modes compared to their absolutist outliers (…) they both have to do with reconciliation. In comedy the reconciliation is of people with other people, and with society at large. The weave of family with family, tribe with clan – this is how comedies end, this is what makes them comedy: the marriage with someone from a different clan, and the return of spring. Tragedies make a darker reconciliation. (…) they tell the story of humanity face-to-face with reality itself, therefor facing death and dissolution and defeat. Tragic heroes are destroyed, but for those who survive to tell their tale, their is a rise in consciousness, in awareness of reality, and this is valuable in and of itself, dark though that knowledge may be. (…) Now, I suggest that as historians, it is best not to get trapped in one mode or another, as so many do; it is too simple a solution, and does not match well with events as experienced. Instead we should weave a story that holds in its pattern as much as possible. It should be like the Daoists’s yin-yang symbol, with eyes of tragedy and comedy dotting the larger fields of dharma and nihilism. That old figure is the perfect image of all our stories put together, with the dark spot of our comedies marring the brilliance of dharma, and the blaze of the tragic knowledge emerging from black nothingness. The ironic history by itself, we can reject out of hand. Of course we are bad; of course things go wrong. But why dwell on it? Why pretend this is the whole story? Irony is merely death walking among us. It doesn’t take up the challenge, it isn’t life speaking. But I suppose we also have to reject the purest version of dharma history, the transcending of this world and this life, the perfection of our way of being. It may happen in the bardo, if there is a bardo, but in this world, all is mixed. We are animals, death is our fate. So at best we could say the history of the species has to be made as much like dharma as possible, by a collective act of the will. This leaves the middle modes, comedy and tragedy. (…) Surely we have a great deal of both of these. Perhaps the way to construct a proper history is to inscribe the whole figure, and say that for the individual, ultimately, it is a tragedy; for the society, comedy. If we can make it so.”

A bit later, might Robinson talk about himself? “Zhu Isao’s own predilection was clearly for comedy. He was a social creature.” Whatever the answer, it is clear that, as a species, we need more weaving indeed, more cooperation, more family. Isn’t that as good a meaning as any – especially if you consider Robinson’s one line version of human history: “Meanwhile a kind of monkey kept on doing more things, increasing in number, taking over the planet by means of meanings.”

Highly recommended – except chapter 9.


My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984)Icehenge (1984) – The Memory Of Whiteness (1985) – The Gold Coast (1988) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – Pacific Edge (1990) – 2312 (2012) – Shaman (2013) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry for the Future (2020) – The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022).


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

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26 responses to “THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT – Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

  1. Great review! In an interview with Terry Bisson, KSR said about this book: “So, once I had the idea, I knew I couldn’t write it, that what it implied was beyond what I was capable of expressing. I wondered if I would ever be capable of such a thing (I have a couple of good ideas I’ve never written because I can’t think how to yet), but after the Mars novels I figured I had worked out the method, and I was feeling bold. I’m glad I wrote it when I did; I don’t know if I have the brain cells for it now. Although that’s partly that book’s fault, because I blew out some fuses writing that one that were never replaced.”

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    • That’s a great quote, thanks. Yes, there’s something very bold about this book. It probably also conditioned him to write Red Moon, but indeed, that one was written without the same amount of fuses.

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  2. This sounds interesting and is one of the few Robinson novels I would consider reading. Have you read Stephenson’s baroque cycle and are there any similarities with that, like an interest in the development of science?

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    • I’ve thought about including a reference to the Baroque cycle, but I’ve only read the first, almost 10 years ago, so I wasn’t to sure what to write about it. They are different books though. I will say this: the Baroque cycle is definitely more overlong and more dense than this book.

      If you haven’t read The Ministry of the Future, I would consider that, as well as Shaman.

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  3. I was looking at your author index. How often do you update it? And have you thought about tagging your book reviews with the authors name so you don’t have to list every book by said author in the post itself? Or was that purposeful to do it that way, even long term?

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    • I update it each time I write a review. Not that hard, as my review frequency isn’t too high.

      I do tag my reviews with author name, it’s just that for a few (basically only Robinson & Herbert) I’ve included an overview at the end of each review so that a potential reader has them in one glance, and doesn’t need to click the tag.

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  4. While my experience with Robinson’s Mars series did not end well (I abandoned the first book midway) and it did not encourage me to pursue other works by this author, I have to admit that this alternate history premise is intriguing.
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  5. Wonderful thoughts on a wonderful book. For the longest time when folks would ask me which KSR novel to start with, I’d always point them to Years of Rice and Salt. That’s probably actually a mistake, because it is ponderous, and it’s BIG, these days I’m more likely to recommend Icehenge to folks looking to get a toe into KSR, and see how they like it.

    Years of Rice and Salt, though, is something special. I also liked how he dealt with indigenous America, though from my understanding there are some criticisms of his portrayal (I read a review of this book, I can’t remember where, from someone who was of Haudenosaunee descent, giving up on the book during the Lacrosse sequence). I think there is some romanticizing of indigenous America in KSR’s portrayal, but I think it’s coming from a fundamentally good perspective – the Haudenosaunee and their League are not outright perfect people, or “in tune with nature”. They act as blatantly political animals in later sections of the book, and I think their portrayal ultimately bypasses many portrayals of indigenous America as some kind of lost noble civilization; these are people warts and all.

    I’ll have to see if I have any decent surveys on indigenous America that are rigorous works to recommend. I briefly studied that type of thing as a minor in college, but also know some folks actively involved academic work in this area.

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    • Interesting, Icehengs wouldn’t be my first pick at all. I liked it, but it didn’t make a whole lot more of an impression, I basically forgot what it’s about. I tend to say ‘Aurora’, especially for SF fans, as that was my first. But I think for a regular educated audience The Ministry is a good starting point too, as is Shaman, or his California Trilogy.

      Agreed on your remarks on the Haudenosaunee, but I still think it’s would have been a bit of a better book if the early romanticizing would have been toned down a bit. Thanks for looking into some possible recommendations, appreciated!

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      • The reason I pick Icehenge (these days) is because, though it’s a definitely early work of his, it tends to encapsulate a lot of his general themes that you see in later works; reliability of historical narrative, memory, political revolution, ecological concerns, lots of bits which are slices of life meant to convey themes rather than the plot specifically. It is not his best, but as a survey book I think it has a lot going for it. I would say the California trilogy, if someone were willing to read more than one book. That said, it’s also been some time since I read Aurora or Shaman, and we’ll see how my feelings change once I get back around to them. I’m particularly looking forward to getting back to Shaman. I didn’t know what to make of that book the first time I read it.

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        • I think Shaman is really straightforward, what puzzled you about it?

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          • Less that I didn’t understand it, so much as I wasn’t certain if I liked it or not. A large number of KSR’s books on first pass I’m ambivalent about until I reread them, and Shaman was one of those.

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            • Thanks for clarifying. I instantly liked it, I thought it was a very human story.

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              • I think with it and Aurora, for me it was a question of maturity. I had read everything of KSR’s up to 2312 at that point, and apart from Years of Rice and Salt and A Short Sharp Shock, I had a very specific idea of what I thought KSR was as an author. Shaman (being entirely prehistoric) and especially Aurora (which I initially found to be outrageously pessimistic) really conflicted with what I thought of him as an author, and as a result I felt very conflicted about them. They didn’t fit with my assumptions about what it was I liked about him. The years since I’ve found my “favorite books” of his bibliography have changed a lot, and it’s largely because on second (or third) read I’ve had a very different perspective on them.

                Those two and Galileo’s Dream are the three novels I’ve been most excited about getting to in my reread of KSR, but in those two novels’ cases it’s because I think my second read of them are going to yield a dramatically different reaction from me.

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              • That’s interesting, I fear rereading Aurora a bit, because it was my second KSR (2312 being my first), and I thought it was so so good – especially because of the pessimism/realism, but also because of his ‘humans evolved’ angle – which was something exiting to me back then – and also the meta-part of the AI learning to tell a story.

                I fear rereading it because somehow I feel now that I know KSR as an author better, it might be too transparent, or if it doesn’t, that I won’t be as awed by it as I was back then. I think a bit part of the awe stemmed from the fact that here was this guy daring to write in an SF novel that showed the bulk of interstellar SF basically is bollocks, or at best a pipe dream, and he’s even backing it up with science.

                My initial plan was to read all of KSR before I’d reread anything. As I still have Galileo, Antartica an the Mars Trilogy to go (and the short fiction), I might not stick to that and reread Aurora sooner, it’s been over 7 years, and that book has been so important to me as a SF reader (on the level of Dune and Book of the New Sun) I should honor it with a reread, and a proper review – the one up on my blog now is one of the very first reviews I wrote.

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  6. Re “The Dawn of Everything”

    “The Dawn of Everything” is a biased disingenuous account of human history (www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages, or linearly, and must not end in inequality and hierarchy as with our current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavour geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

    Fact is human history since the dawn of agriculture has “progressed” in a linear stage (the “stuck” problem, see below), although not before that (www.focaalblog.com/2021/12/22/chris-knight-wrong-about-almost-everything ). This “progress” has been fundamentally destructive and is driven and dominated by “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” (www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore naturally (no one can write a legitimate human history without understanding and acknowledging the nature of humans). And these two married pink elephants are the reason why we’ve been “stuck” in a destructive hierarchy and unequal class system , and will be far into the foreseeable future (the “stuck” question — “the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’ How did we end up in one single mode?” or “how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles” — [cited from their book] is the major question in “The Dawn” its authors never really answer, predictably).

    “All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organization. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie. With their different motives, those who need experts are falsifiers and fools. Whenever individuals lose the capacity to see things for themselves, the expert is there to offer an absolute reassurance.” —Guy Debord

    A good example that one of the “expert” authors, Graeber, has no real idea on what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title) — see last cited source above. Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

    “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses who crave myths and fairy tales.

    “The evil, fake book of anthropology, “The Dawn of Everything,” … just so happened to be the most marketed anthropology book ever. Hmmmmm.” — Unknown

    Liked by 1 person

    • While you raise interesting points, many of which I agree to, but I don’t follow Rolf Hefti at all – I don’t see how the covid pandemic was some kind of scam or conspiracy, even though questions can obviously be asked about how it was handled – and is still being handled – by different governments across the globe.

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      • You shouldn’t “follow Rolf Hefti” or anyone else at all. Follow the facts, reality. Unlike you, Hefti seems to have grasped that concept because of his statement, ‘trust facts, not authorities’ …
        Speaking of facts and reality and your statement that “I don’t see how the covid pandemic was some kind of scam or conspiracy”, even a lucid 12-year old could see from the start of the Covid ‘pandemic’ that it was a scam and conspiracy because the psychopaths-in-power’s global censorship and suppression of anyone and any knowledge on cheap safe and effective Covid remedies (proving they conspired), which amounts to the deliberate murder of lots of people anywhere .
        Yet almost 3 years later, most grown-up people still CANNOT figure that out. Why? Hefti’s essay explains it coherently.

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  7. My feelings on “The Years of Rice and Salt” are similar to yours. I think it’s a fascinating book with several great segments, but my attention drifted in the final section.

    Perhaps this is due to my own expectations. I wanted the novel to build-up to an explicitly utopian future, complete with the usual science fiction tropes (sky cities! Futuristic spaceships!), but what Stan gives us is something much more low key.

    I’ll probably re-read it again in a few years time to see how it plays on a re-read. The last time I read it it struck me as a comment on September the 11th and the Bush-era crusades, but I’m not sure how intentional that was. The novel, after all, offers a vision of the East colonizing the West, “their” civilization/culture consuming “ours”, all released at a moment in time when the West launched little crusades into the Arab world to – in the eyes of many – prevent the reverse. Stan then washes all these tropes of the usual bigotry and biases, and grounds it all in his usual historical/material analysis.

    I also like to look at “The Years of Rice and Salt” as the trial run for “Galileo’s Dream”. The historical research that went into “Salt”, and its virtuoso segments, point to what Stan would do in that later novel, which IMO features his best writing on a technical level. The Galileo segment of that story flows and zips, the sentences pop in a way rare for Stan, and all for a remarkably sustained length of time (his books are huge, after all).

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    • I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that the book was conceived and largely (even fully?) written before 9/11.

      My next KSR will probably by Galileo’s Dream, that or Antartica. Looking forward to both.

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