Robinson uses alternate history to get at these big questions, and he does so in a way that I think no other science fiction writer has. Philip K. Dick and writers of historical fantasy or steampunk usually focus on aesthetics, capturing the mood of a era or shocking the reader with a sense of dislocation from a world like and unlike our own. How many times have we seen the old “Nazi flag flapping in a modern city” trick? Harry Turtledove is a bit more focused on the historical questions, but he still spends more time wargaming alternate Americas than historical inquiry. Robinson, however, wants to know what made the modern world, and he does it by subtracting Europe.
This is an ambitious work of massive scope. Robinson starts with the Black Death, which killed as much as half the population of Europe in our own world. Robinson has it explode in virulence and wipe out more than 99% of the population. Then, he follows the rest of the world for the next seven hundred years to see what happens. Who discovers America? The Chinese, but they arrive among the hunter-gatherer societies of California rather than near the wealthy societies of Mesoamerica, and they don’t have as many competitors as the Spanish, so Indians have more time to maneuver. The Iroqouis (Hodenosaunee) form a pan-American movement of resistance. The Enlightenment is centered in Samarkand; the industrial revolution in India (giving us a bit of well thought out steampunk, for once). Rather than a post-Inquisition Jewish diaspora spreading capital and knowledge, there is a Japanese diaspora prompted by a Chinese invasion. The Great War is a six-decade affair that pits industrialized China against industrialized Islam, killing a billion people. San Francisco is a Chinese city called Fangzhang centered north of the “Gold Gate.” In other words, many things follow the same path – the processes of exploration, scientific discovery, technological transformation, and international conflict make certain developments inevitable, but the shape of these changes is different enough to make things interesting. Similarly, the same natural disasters occur (Japan’s Ansei earthquakes and the great California flood, both in our 1850s-1860s, get special attention), but the contexts change.
As a history geek, I’d be happy to read a dry fictional history in this mode for 600+ pages, but Robinson also manages to give us a consistent set of characters through an ingenious device. We begin with Mongol Bold Bardash and African Kyu, who are both enslaved and shipped to China. When they die, they come to the Bardo from the Tibetan book of the dead, and then they are reincarnated into the next age as Bihari and Kokila in India. They, and a small group of other characters, form a jati; they are destined to meet in each life and influence each other, and Robinson helps us keep track by using the same letters in their names. K is brash and rebellious while B is humble and steadfast.
I can’t say that The Years of Rice and Salt always works as a character-centered novel; sometimes time passes too quickly, and it is hard to get attached to storylines when we change scenery every sixty pages or so (on average). I’d almost rather have 10 short novels set in this world than this set of vignettes. But, I did think it worked extremely well, and the last two chapters slow things down a bit and offer a nice capstone to the whole novel, as K and B become scholars who can look back on everything that’s happened before.
It’s probably not for everyone, but I adore this novel; it’s one of my favorites from the past decade. I love that a book can create interesting, centuries-spanning characters, build a really fascinating counterfactual world, and be so unabashedly intellectual. This isn’t just a historical novel, this is a novel about history, and I think science fiction is at its best when it works as social science, and tries to dig into the workings of the world.