The Years of Rice and Salt

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.

Rice and Salt

No updates today – still reading The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s one of those books that catches you off your guard every so often with a wonderful phrase that makes you beam in complete delight, with characters that you can really understand.

I was having a conversation with my friend Alex about reading novels. He prefers having read a good book – I prefer the act of reading a good book. I don’t want to finish reading this book.


Went to the nearby college TV room to get my weekly fix of 24. Got there five minutes early, so I could hijack the remote control if anyone wanted to watch something else, but there were already three other people there watching the golf before 24. As 24 started, yet more people trickled in.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen multiple people, who don’t know each other, actually make the effort to find out when a programme starts (it wasn’t at its usual time) and get to the TV room. I don’t think 24 is that popular in the UK, but clearly it engenders a fanatical loyalty. There should be at least twice as many people next week as well, since more people will be back in college. Maybe I should bring along some popcorn…


Extreme Ironing – ‘the latest danger sport that combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well pressed shirt.’

Oxbridge admissions

While idly browsing through an Oxbridge admissions website, I came across a report of an interview written by someone who applied to the same course at the same college as I did, but a year later. Curious to see if they’d changed anything, I checked out the questions this person was asked at interview.

Practically nothing had changed – this person was asked exactly the same questions that I had been (enzyme kinetics, sketch y=xsinx). The only differences were due to the fact that there was a physics bias instead of a chemistry bias. Incredible. This just goes to show that if you’re on the ball, you can really get an unfair advantage at interviews by using the Internet.

GM grass

Sneeze-free grass on the way – a genetically modified strain of grass has been produced that doesn’t provoke an allergic reaction in hayfever sufferers. The article is sparse on detail so I’m not sure how they did this, other than stopping the production of pollen (but obviously this unleashes a whole load of other concerns).