One 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.