Thursday, February 18, 2010

Neighborhood Bardo

I've been meaning to write a little something about Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. Fitting to do it now that I've finished the book. It really is an amazing accomplishment. (Him writing it, not me reading it.)

A plot synopsis won't really get you anywhere. The initial premise is simple. It's an alternate timeline. The bubonic plague didn't just kill off the majority of Europe's population, but rather scrubbed the continent clean of human habitation. White people--or rather, those who would eventually self-identify as white--are basically extinct. (There's a small population in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.) In the absence of Europe and Christianity, history consists of a long competition between China and the Muslim world.

That's right, a world-spanning Islamic empire. The novel was published a few months after 9/11, and there are some character monologues about Islam being a backward and inherently conquest-minded belief. But this should be taken as those characters talking. Both sides show progress, as does a third power that eventually rises in India. The idea of Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons handling the same concept doesn't really bear thinking about.

Another aspect of the novel--one that really shouldn't be overlooked--is the fact that about half-a-dozen characters are reincarnated and come back to play their roles in different stages of history. We occasionally get to look in on them in the Bardo, a wait between lives as detailed in Buddhist writings. The characters come back in different forms, but the reader's knowledge that they are the same souls does make the very large-scale (about 1,000 years) more digestible. And there's a kind of interdependence, a way they all serve each other's journeys. Even the antagonistic character always given the initial "S" may be conscious of giving the others something to resist.

Might not be a perfect story, but Robinson has aimed at something unique and achieved it.


susan said...

I read his Mars series as the books were published and was very impressed with his ability to write alternate history beginning with the framework of current technology and known cultures. Although I enjoyed a couple of other old ones the Mars books were my favorites until I read the Years of Rice and Salt. It's been a long time now so I don't remember much detail but I did like the way it was formatted into novellas with the bardo scenes breaking up the extended time frame. It was also pretty neat that the native peoples of the Americas got a better deal than they did under the Europeans.

It's dangerous territory writing alternate fiction about a time we know (and one we're experiencing) so I wound up not liking 40 Signs of rain for a number of reasons. The premise of Galileo's Dream doesn't interest me at all.

Reading is always a matter of very personal taste but my favorite sci-fi writer over the past decade has been Iain M Banks. The Culture books are wonderful and don't require being read in any kind of order but a good introduction I think you might like would be one of the non Culture books like Feersum Endjinn (94) or The Algebraist (04).

Ben said...

I did like what he did with the Hodenosaunee League. They're basically the Iroquois, who were a very sophisticated group. Basically had a constitutional republic going on before the colonists thought of it. There was a little bit of deus ex machina involved with the samurai being blown off course, but I found it perfectly acceptable.

I actually don't read that much hard sci-fi, but Iain Banks does sound interesting. So I may check the Culture out in the near future.