Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration is one of alternate history’s most notable texts. As with many British books, its concerns are largely centered on Old Albion, particularly what the Isles would have been like were the Reformation never to have occurred. A wonderfully-imagined possible intersection of religion, politics, and culture, one can’t help but wonder the degree of its influence on Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 alternate history The Years of Rice and Salt. A book that likewise pivots religious concerns on a single point in history, Robinson removes Christianity and Judaism from the scene to focus on the two major religions that remain, Islam and Buddhism. Published in the wake of 9-11, Robinson forgoes finger-pointing to build something of his re-aligned, Asiatic world.
The first two major iterations of monotheism eliminated, The Years of Rice and Salt posits a Jonbar point wherein Black Death wipes out 99% of Christendom and Judaism in Europe. In essence laying out the red carpet for Islam to expand westwards and China eastwards, Robinson revisions the world to be dominated by these two major powers. Not wholly a dichotomy, Hindustani India retains a toehold, and without invading Europeans, so too does the Native American population. (Given extra years without European invasion to disrupt the relative cultural and technological homogeneity, Robinson envisions the tribes forming a loose but stable coalition that evolves to a point it becomes a global player politically and commercially—an interesting aspect, indeed.)
The novel, however, is structured along less concrete lines. Broken into ten stories of novelette to novella length, The Years of Rice and Salt offers instead windows into Robinson’s imagined history, from the plague years to a time loosely equating to the modern era. The stories, while at first seeming to oscillate between Chinese and Middle Eastern perspectives, slowly widen their scope to include other groups and viewpoints, ending up at a global scope.
Robinson keeps all the viewpoints rooted in character. Rather than a dry outlay of ‘how it could have been’, individuals’ stories tell the alternate history. “The Alchemist” is the immensely enjoyable tale of the Arabian Leonard daVinci. “Widow Kang” is the story of an educated woman in the Ming dynasty and the direction she chooses to take her life amidst the draconian regime’s decrees. “Awake to Emptiness” is the story of a Mongolian man who escapes execution from the Great Khan to have the most unexpected adventures across all of Asia—riches to rags to riches to rags...
Another key element to the novel are the segues. Some of the characters’ lives ending abruptly due to political upheaval and others able to live out their days, each, however, must die, and upon taking their last breath, end up in the bardo. Like a posthumous waiting room, the characters discuss their fates before their souls are put back in the real world in others’ bodies. Reincarnation a major motif, Robinson uses the idea to comment upon the evolution of society and culture, or perhaps lack thereof. Mileage for these segues will vary depending on the reader, but certainly in some cases the impact on the novel is significant. “War of the Asuras”, for example, with its portrayal of Chinese soldiers fighting in the Long War, has the wit and poignancy of a Vonnegut story, as well as the anti-war bite. Regardless of personal interest, the segues also act like a reality check, a pause to reflect on what has brought the characters to where they are, and, where they will go.
Dramatic, but not dramatized, entertaining but not sensationalized, The Years of Rice and Salt is a good balance of theorizing, history, and action. In “The Haj in the Heart” a poor man is befriended by a Bengal tiger and eventually becomes sufi for a Mughal emperor. “Ocean Continents” sees the Chinese Christopher Columbus blown against what is now the west coast of North America and having the “native experience” of a lifetime. Not as aloof as it sounds, “Warp and Weft” is the story of a ronin (lordless samurai) living amongst the Native Americans, participating in their life, from lacrosse to hallucinogens.
In the end, The Years of Rice and Salt is a highly unique look at the intersection of Buddhist and Muslim beliefs set against an alternate history wherein European culture, including Christianity, is wiped out with the plague, allowing Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian, and Native American cultures the dominant places on the global culture map. A constructive rather than accusative effort, Robinson avoids finger pointing (something easy to do these days toward Islam) and attempts to highlight paths that can be taken toward enlightenment—not by default the Buddhist definition, rather something that echoes heavily of the Age of Reason. Divided into ten stories, it is as much an exercise in historical fiction as discussion and commentary on the various facades of Buddhism and Islam. I’m not sure the degree of synthesis desired is achieved, but the book remains an intelligent, imaginative read.