Poetic and all encompassing alternative history of mankind with a central component missing

I have a soft spot for Kim Stanley Robinson: his prose is always intermingled with beautiful poetry or elaborate fairy tales, his research into his works impossibly thorough and his alternate realities plausible. He has explored the narrative possibilities that alternative realities give the author before: two of his short stories handle the tricky issue what would have happened if that first atomic bomb would have missed its target, there is a little novella on the discovery that the Viking settlements on the American mainland are nothing but an elaborate hoax by a Victorian joker with an archaeological mastermind and of course his most remarkable work, the Mars Trilogy. More alternative reality than Sci-Fi, more scientific text than Star Wars, Robinson always blurs the boundaries between prose and non-fiction.

Being such a fan, I was delighted to pick up the paperback of The Years of Rice and Salt before boarding a plane from Christchurch to Frankfurt via Singapore, as the alternative would have meant that I had to continue Robert Fisk’s The great war for civilisation, and although it’s a gripping read, it’s at more than 2 kg’s just (literally) too bloody heavy for 24 hours.

Robinson describes the last 1400 years on this earth with one little twist: Europe was literally wiped out during the great plague, all lives eradicated due to a cruel mutation in the bacterium’s genome. First discovered by a unlucky scout from the riding hordes of the east, (who ends up as a slave in a Chinese restaurant in Nanking), history unfolds without any European influence. The main civilisations battling for supremacy are Islam (quickly establishing caliphates all over Europe), the Chinese, and a little later, an enlightened Indian subcontinent and the native nations of the American mainland (now called Yanghzou). Throughout the 1400 years of history we meet the same group of characters who keep meeting on the bardo, the legendary Buddhist spiritual plane where souls are being judged before reincarnation. Initially a idea that one has to get used to, it does make sense, as history is often shaped by similar characters: the angry, probing, brillant firebrand, again and again clashing with the more plodding, thorough, caring and introverted intellectual: Ying and Yang displayed in two personalities. Both souls lives regularly violently interrupted and destroyed by violent and impulsive characters, be it a ignorant tyrant or a mad general. Again and again reincarnated, these souls shape a history that shows similarities to our own, but due to the dominance of Islam and Confucianism, sound different and have more religious incantations.

The cast of characters that accompany us through the centuries is dazzling: farmers, religious leaders, scientists and even a tiger, interspersed with soldiers, eunuchs and historians of all ages and religions. Only white people and Christians are absent.

Not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt HarperCollins 2002