In Facebook terms, my relationship with Kim Stanley Robinson would be “complicated”. On one hand the themes and scope of his books tend to be interesting, but the novels themselves too slow-paced and packed with an ensemble of too many characters. I had a hard time with the Mars trilogy, but the weather/D.C. one went down much more easily.
Even if The Years of Rice and Salt was a single volume, it was both impressively thick and covered an ambitiously long stretch of history. Hence I approached it with apprehension.
Years of Rice and Salt describes an alternate history where the plague decimates Europe and the other cultures thrive instead. Obviously the beginning resembles our world closely, but the history indeed turns alternative quickly.
The main narrative device is an odd one – reincarnated characters that meet each other throughout the millennia, vaguely understanding that they have encountered each other previously. The scenes in the various purgatories and other spiritual locations are at rather severe odds with the otherwise moderate plot. At first the device surprises, then it gets annoying and towards the end of the novel (consisting of ten separate periods and clusters of the characters) it’s pretty much par for the course.
The book encompasses the whole world, the evolution of civilization and plenty of conflicts. The perspective varies quite a bit both geographically and ethnographically, but vast stretches of the world (Oceania, once again, expectedly) remain essentially undescribed. The perspective varies also from almost purely personal to scientific discovery, and as such some of the chapters make for much drier reading than the others.
Nowhere near the laborious slog I originally anticipated, Years of Rice and Salt was actually a pleasant book to read. The episodic nature made it a good fit for commuting. More enlightening than entertaining, but a fresh take on the genre of alternate history (this is history from a social perspective as opposed to that of great individuals and nations only).