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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley ROBINSON

This was a great read, long but worth the effort. I was pleased and not surprised to find that my fellow San Francisco Bay Area resident Kim Stanley Robinson earned a Ph.D in History. After all, I had been slogging through his series on sudden climate change (or Science in the Capital) series, in which his attention to philosophical and cultural connections and distinctions almost overwhelm his palpable descriptions of place. (His descriptions of place would be cinematic if they did not also trigger the sense of heat or scale or sound that they do - they're beyond cinematic.)

While I was impressed with his character and plot development in Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below, something about the protagonist, Frank Vanderwal, nagged at me. It was as if he were more than one person - not inconsistent, but too busy and inventive. I've struggled to figure this out for a year now, and only after reading The Years of Rice and Salt am I satisfied with my own explanation. I think our discomfort with change and violations of convention - our inherent, visceral conservativism - makes it unrealistic that a person could withstand, never mind thrive on, as much thwarting of social norms as Vanderwal seeks out and/or causes.

My reading list is long, and my hours short, and my distractions many and effective, so I have little tolerance for books I am not enjoying. (That's where all my bookmarks go - the middle third of books I regretfully gave up reading, like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood or The Stone Raft by José Saramago.)

But Rice and Salt was a different matter. For one thing, it's an alternative history, and despite the odiferous sludge I've forced down my optical gullet because it was classified as such, I have a soft spot for the genre. It's also fantasy on a grand scale - like The Lord of the Rings or Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. You can read it just for fun - that is, if you're a weirdo like me who is entertained by philosophical discussions and historical (or alt-historical) narratives. The fun part is the thrill-ride adventure many of the characters experience.

In a way, Robinson has packed a roller-coaster into an encyclopedia. It's a pretty cool read.

The book begins with the premise that the bubonic plague has killed 99% instead of 33% of the peoples of Europe. It covers over seven centuries of the subsequent history, and occupies six of the seven continents. (Okay, five of the six, since a depopulated Europe is even less of a continent than the Europe of our reality.)

How Robinson weaves this into a narrative is the second premise. At first, the reincarnation scenes - which are all fascinating, and used to move a meta plot along - struck me as a little too enthusiastic, as if Robinson wanted to share the joy Buddhism with his readers. I now think I was hypersensitive to a fault I am guilty of - becoming a fan of what I study - and that Robinson treated all of the characters and cultural traits and civilizations he touches with balance and fairness.

Okay, maybe not the Hodenosaunee. I can cut him that much slack.

The Years of Rice and Salt is divided into ten "books," each the length of a novella (I think), for each of the reincarnations of the group of characters. My favorite were the first book, which prepares the reader for the sweeping geographic scope of the novel, "The Alchemist," which I think collapses a bit too much of our real history into a few characters in the alt-history, but does it in a compelling and enjoyable way (I especially like the parallels to Niccolo "Tartaglia" Fontana, intended or otherwise), and "The Widow Kang," which is a bit long, but seems to have been the first written.

There was a point in the middle, set in Mecca, at which I realized how much I appreciated the research and thought that had gone into Robinson's work. And he published it during a time in America when thinking critically and openly about Islam, about empire, about the justifications for war, about the interplay of civilizations, was considered unpatriotic and dangerous. And it was probably partly from this consideration that I gained an appetite for the rest of the book, about 400 pages then remaining, of which all were a rewarding read.

There was also, for me, a personal/geographical indulgence. Robinson and I live near San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, where he sets a few key sections of his narrative, including the most straightforward part of an exciting and nuanced chapter, an odd and perhaps unintended echo of Gavin Menzies' idea about Admiral He's treasure fleet. The section in question seems to have been set within a few miles of where I grew up. As with the use of Mount Tamalpais as a location in the fourth (?) Percy Jackson book, this made me feel an unearned and silly pride, but it was still fun.

Poor Frank Vanderwal. I couldn't believe the range of actions he took in the parts of the Science in the Capital series I read. If only he were reincarnated, I could apparently have accepted almost anything!

This was my favorite book in years.

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