21 December 2007

Imaginative and creatively written vision of a world without "the West"

The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
Spectra, 2003

What would the last 700 or so years have looked like if the Black Death virtually wiped out Europe, instead of "merely" annihilating 30-60% of her population? What if Christianity were suddenly and almost completely removed from the world stage? What if Columbus had not sailed the ocean blue in 1492---would the New World have still been "discovered" and if so, by whom? These are among the questions that Kim Stanley Robinson addresses in this masterfully written work of alternate history.

Robinson uses a couple of interesting writing devices to add a singularly human depth and breadth to his speculative vision. Instead of employing a single linear narrative history spanning three-quarters of a millennium, he uses ten individual yet interconnected books of exploration, conquest, and discovery as the brush strokes with which to paint an overall picture of a world without "the West." The connections between the ten books come in the form of recurring characters whose many names throughout the centuries share the same initial consonants, e.g. "B" and "K." Between the varied stories that comprise the novel these characters find themselves in the bardo--the "space in between"--deliberating on their choices and on the progress of humanity as a whole. The use of these cycles and of recurring personalities in the place of linear history and character development reinforces the absence of the West; the characteristically Asian cyclical nature of time, of history, and of progress provides an appropriate foundation for Robinson's overarching vision.

This is the first Robinson I've read, apart from an anthology that he edited (Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias), and based on how much I enjoyed this I think I'll definitely read more.

(This review was originally written on October 15, 2007.)

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