Years of Rice and Salt, published by Kim Stanley Robinson in 2002, is the best book that I have read this year.
This book has two important gimmicks. The first is alternate history, the question being how would Chinese and Islamic cultures developed in a world where Europeans are virtually eliminated by the Black Plague. The second is reincarnation. The common thread through Robinson’s seven speculative centuries are the fates of several transmigrating souls. These two features allow the novel’s diversity to be anchored around three solid personalities.
Or solidish personalities, at any rate. You can tell which character is which soul by the letter that begins their name. For example, the K-soul is actively and impatiently trying to improve the world. The B-soul is more contemplative and religious, and is more interested in peaceful living. The third soul is the I-soul, who is curious about everything. Their stories play out in the Forbidden City, in an Islamified Europe and a North America colonised by Asians, during an Indian Industrial revolution and a Samarkand scientific Enlightenment, all the way up to World War between the Islamic world and China.
Clearly there is a lot of going in this book. What makes it work is the excellent characterisation. I like Robinson’s characters, they are most than just puppets who act out speculative scenarios but well-rounded people who are genuinely interesting in their own right.
Robinson writes in a different narratorial voice for each time period. The first section, about a member of the Golden Horde who stumbles into an empty Europe and becomes a slave in China, is modeled after the Journey to the West. Robinson includes the brief synopsis at the start of each chapter, and the questions at the end. The text of the first section also occasionally breaks out into Chinese-style poetry, as well. Robinson’s diversity of voices adds variety, and dare I even say it, verisimilitude to his text.
So if you see Years of Rice and Salt at your local library or St Vinnies, get it. Those of you who don’t like speculative stuff will enjoy the human interest. Such is the variety of this book that it will contain something for everyone.