"This is what the human story is, not the emperors and the generals and their wars, but the nameless actions of people who are never written down, the good they do for others passed on like a blessing."
Kim Stanley Robinson has a view of historical process that is refreshingly other to that of much science fiction. Even his Great Men (and Women) live in a social context and are bearers, rather than creators, of historical significance. His "Mars trilogy" covers centuries of progress and the "terraforming" of Mars into a habitable place, a liveable society. This new book is a thought experiment that asks: what if medieval Europe had been wiped out by the Black Death?
In a sense, not a lot. The seven centuries covered in The Years of Rice and Salt include genocide and exploitation and universal war, just as they include the growth of feminism, the discovery of the telescope and the Enlightenment. Robinson assumes that the West that Europe became is not in possession of special virtues, but that other cultures had their own equivalents of its vices. The world he shows us is not better or worse: very different in surface details, but much the same at its core. It is the worst of times; it has the possibility of becoming the best of times.
But 700 years is a long span to make cohere as a novel. In the Mars books, Robinson simply had various protagonists be pioneers of life-extension as well as of planetary colonisation. Here, the recurring characters are three and more souls endlessly reincarnated and struggling to remember the purpose – of universal betterment – to which they swore themselves centuries earlier. Without, in general, being major players, they manage to help inch the world along.
So this is the tale of Bold, the Mongol horseman who finds Europe dead and Kyu, the young African eunuch with whom he is a slave in China. It is the tale of the man-eating tiger Kya and Bistami, the young scholar whom she spares and inspires, and of Katima, the proto-feminist Sultana he serves on the Islamic frontier of Northern Europe. And it is the tale of Khalid and Bharam, the Samarkand alchemists who discover gravity, calculus and poison gas and die of plague. The Indian potentate known as the Kerala humbles Islamic and Chinese power, and the Chinese radical Bao helps humanise the Chinese revolution that follows seven decades of universal war. All the time they bring progress, and all the time they talk at each other.
If there is a weakness in Robinson's work, it is perhaps this; his characters are so intelligent that they never shut up and often have fascinating conversations for page after page about the engineering of fortifications or the reconciliation of Sufism and Confucianism or, most extendedly, the ways that history works. It is always good talk, in which everyone speaks in character. For Robinson, science fiction is not only a literature of ideas, but a literature whose characters have lots of them.
Seven centuries of things happen. We see the emptiness of dead Europe, the sack of Constantinople by the Kerala and the resistance of native America – aided by vengeful Samurai advisers – against the encroaching empires of the Chinese East and Islamic West. The core, though, is partly the conversations and partly the moments of stillness and joy in which the central characters come together in contemplation or love.
Robinson can write action and adventure as well as anyone, but in the end this is an ethical fiction about the true purpose of humanity. His supple, thoughtful prose is always up to the challenge, whether exciting us with ideas, thrilling us with spectacle or presenting us with moments of elegy or quiet passion. It is not just the reader who, in section after section, recognises the same characters in new guises. They discover each other time and time again with delight, sometimes meeting twice in a life after early death and sometimes waiting almost until old age for that fulfilment. After years of rice and salt come moments of happiness and celebration.