Finished The Years of Rice and Salt. As usual, it’s up to Kim Stanley Robinson’s high standards. I’m not going to review the book here, as Salon has already got an excellent review. What I want to do is to talk about my impressions of the book.
Firstly, it’s not for everyone, and it is something of a departure from KSR’s usual SF-ish novels, at least from a superficial viewpoint. There are parts of the novel which seem a little neglected or even unbelievable (e.g. it really would not have been possible for the black death to have wiped out 99% of Europe, anthrax or no anthrax). And KSR still has his usual vice of utopianism (though we do love him for it) which shows itself in the last few chapters and bogs the novel down in long, dense political discussions which can get frankly boring.
Now that I’ve summarised pretty much everything that I didn’t like about the book, I hope you realise that if that’s all that was wrong, the rest must be pretty damn good. It is. KSR is at his best writing short stories and looking at the development of characters in changing circumstances, and this is what the novel is all about. Some readers will find the concept of reincarnating main characters to be unacceptably foreign, but I put this down to an lack of familiarity with non-western literature. I read one review which said, “This is nothing like a Turtledove novel!” (another alternate history writer). Well, of course not! If it was, what would be the point of writing it?
KSR makes his books very accessible; while he doesn’t shy away from using whatever language he wants to express himself, he doesn’t use long words just to show off his vocabulary. This is a typical KSR trait, and readers of his work will spot a whole load of his other (good) characteristics.
Anyway, I recommend that you read the Salon review to find out what the novel is about, and if you find it even mildly intriguing, go and buy the book. You’ll learn a hell of a lot about Islamic, Indian and Chinese culture, and you’ll have a great time reading it.