Saturday, July 18, 2009

Alternate History

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt covers half a millennia of history, a history changed by the death of almost every white person when the plague mutated to an even more lethal version. Islam, China and India carve up the world between themselves, with a little interference from the united league of American Indians. Our viewpoint onto this history is a band of reincarnated spirits, identified by the first letter of their names, who are reborn near each other time after time.

The first few hundred pages are fascinating, as different sections introduce new versions of our heroes, and the reader learns to look for the returning souls while figuring out where and when the story has shifted. The book starts with Bold fleeing the plague and falling into the hands of Chinese slave traders. He meets Kyu, another slave whose intensity is fueled by the torture inflicted upon him. They are bought by I-Li, a restaurant owner with a busy intelligence, but the slaves soon move on. Future stories show people settling the empty lands of Europe, a Chinese fleet accidentally exploring the west coast of North America, scientists exploring optics and ballistics with the genius of a Leonardo, and so on. Different sections are in very different styles, and the characters are recognizably similar but still distinct in each incarnation. Short passages between lives serve to tie it all together, but I found those scenes increasingly repetitive. The final two sections were a disappointment; instead of action Robinson literally presents lectures -- the characters are academics who spend a lot of time listening to cafe talks. But the first few hundred years were captivating. B-.


kmitcham said...

Half a millennia is a very long period for an alternate history. I think things would be pretty unrecognizable after even 50 years

Beth said...

There isn't much convergence. Well, they manage to have a devastating World War at about the same time, give or take a century.