It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur—the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe’s population was destroyed. But what if? What if the plague killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been–a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.
Kim Stanley Robinson has a view of historical process that is refreshingly other to that of much science fiction. Even his Great Men (and Women) live in a social context and are bearers, rather than creators, of historical significance ... If there is a weakness in Robinson's work, it is perhaps this; his characters are so intelligent that they never shut up and often have fascinating conversations for page after page about the engineering of fortifications or the reconciliation of Sufism and Confucianism or, most extendedly, the ways that history works. It is always good talk, in which everyone speaks in character. For Robinson, science fiction is not only a literature of ideas, but a literature whose characters have lots of them ... Robinson can write action and adventure as well as anyone, but in the end this is an ethical fiction about the true purpose of humanity. His supple, thoughtful prose is always up to the challenge, whether exciting us with ideas, thrilling us with spectacle or presenting us with moments of elegy or quiet passion.
Since history is by nature episodic, the challenge of a book like The Years of Rice and Salt is to orchestrate a steady stream of new characters from different eras while keeping a core of familiar players on stage throughout. Robinson's solution is to borrow an article of faith common to the surviving cultures: reincarnation. By focusing on a small band of souls who are born and die and suffer rebirth again and again, he turns a speculative chronicle into a group biography that plays to the heart as well as the mind.
For the most part, what a novelist tries to do with any given book is far less important that what he or she actually manages to accomplish, but it's impossible to read The Years of Rice and Salt without stopping now and then to contemplate the vastness of the task Robinson has set himself ... After having cut out so much cerebral work for himself, Robinson could hardly be blamed if he lost track of more intimate matters in this book. But perhaps what's most remarkable about The Years of Rice and Salt is the way it hews so closely to the lineaments of the human heart even as it fans out across such a mammoth stage ... It's only...in the home stretches...that Robinson's utopian inclinations wrest the novel away from his storytelling ones. The writing often becomes regrettably expository, weighed down by long, stodgy passages about economic and political developments ... Nevertheless, The Years of Rice and Salt is for the most part a magnificent and endlessly fascinating book. Setting himself the Scheherazadean labor of holding his readers through a chain of tales, a series of endings and beginnings in which we must let go of one story and then quickly be caught up again in the next, he pulls it off with a trapeze artist's grace.