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Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 2003

The Years of Rice and Salt

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 2002
Reviewed by William H. Standard

How important, and how distinctive was the role of the West in world history? Kim Stanley Robinson addresses that question in a classic science-fictional way: devising a fictional "what if," a world where the West is absent, and tracing the history that results. He shows a world dominated by the Muslim and Chinese civilizations, strong competitors of the West in real history or many years, while South India and the Iroquois Confederacy achieve a flowering real history denied them, adding their own flavors to the emerging world culture. Robinson's use of real historical details to support this is ingenious; he has clearly studied the comparative history of science and technology. In his history, a full-fledged scientific revolution transforms the world into a technologically based global civilization, at about the same time as in real history. There is even a world war in the early 20th century, as destructive as World Wars I and 11 together. Ultimately, Robinson's story suggests, the West just happened to be where modernity emerged; other civilizations would have done the same—in Charles Fort's words, it steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time.

Robinson starts the great change by having the Black Death kill, not merely a third of Europe, but everyone. This point of departure has stirred up debate among alternate history fans; many find it epidemiologically implausible, and consider Robinson's story too improbable for good alternate history. But the standards of alternate history may not be the most productive to apply to The Years of Rice and Salt. What Robinson has produced is something different: a thought experiment, starting from the "one impassible assumption" that H. G. Wells asked for. The academic historians who do similar things talk abut counterfactual history, and that's what Robinson has produced, with the removal of Europe as his counterfactual.

From a different angle, this book isn't science fiction at all, but fantasy, and thus not alternate history in the conventional sense. Like some east Asian fiction, it has a reincarnationist framework, with epistles in different eras linked by having incarnations of the same basically bonded people take part in them. Perhaps Robinson is writing as if this were historical fiction from his counterfactual world; the last part of the book has two characters discuss books in this genre and comment skeptically on their claims to identify reincarnation sequences. But Robinson also recounts scenes from the viewpoint of souls awaiting reincarnation and hints at past life memories, so it may be the skeptics who are wrong. If so, from the viewpoint of our world, this is a supernatural fantasy of linked destinies.

The real question about Robinson's story is its assumption that a scientific revolution would still have happened. It doesn't seem that inevitable. China was the world's most advanced culture in the middle ages, with technologies the West didn't have until centuries later; but these never produced explosive growth, largely because of bureaucratic obstacles. The Ottoman Empire faced similar problems. Robinson envisions his alternate world developing internationalism, science, and women's rights—but without the Western individualism that inspired them. This needs more justification than he provides. It's easy to sympathize with Robinson's love of the unrealized cultural potentialities of other civilizations; but the West actually values those potentialities more than their native civilizations did—and Robinson doesn't persuade me otherwise, though he does a brilliant job of trying. Even this very book is evidence for the difference of the West, in its effort to enter into the values of other cultures.

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