The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) is Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, his first since 1997's Antarctica. The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history, one with a simple premise: what if the black death had killed off 99% of Europe's population instead of a third? As one would expect from Robinson, the book is packed, almost overflowing, with ideas. It explores historiography, the way cultures interact, and the question of the prominent role oppression has played in human history, all in the context of Robinson's slightly quirky humanist leftism and communitarianism that readers of his previous books should be fairly familiar with by now.
The way he frames the narrative is a bit unusual and interesting. He tells the story in a series of linked vignettes, episodes ranging in time from when a soldier in Tamerlane's golden horde comes across the utterly depopulated cities of the Balkans to sometime in the mid-21st century when a Chinese revolutionary and academic settles down at an agricultural school in California (that we get strong hints is located in the same place that UC Davis, where Robinson lives and teaches, is in our history) to reflect on his life and find a kind of peace. An interesting touch is that the main characters recur from episode to episode, through a framing story based on Buddhist cosmology where their karmas have become linked, and they find themselves meeting over and over in different relationships, both in the world and in the bardo between lives.
Robinson's PhD is in history, and alternate history has been something of an obsession of Robinson's throughout his entire literary career, one that he explored in depth before in his Three Californias trilogy, and in several short stories and novellas ("Remaking History", "The Lucky Strike", "The Lunatics"; all available in the anthology Remaking History and Other Stories). Comparing The Years of Rice and Salt to these earlier alternate history works shows that Robinson has matured as a writer. While all of these earlier works were successful, I think, Rice and Salt is a much more ambitious look at a broader canvas, as wide in scope as his Mars trilogy, if not in sheer length, and it fulfills its ambitions.
The Years of Rice and Salt's greatest strength, as is Robinson's as a writer, is in simultaneously portraying both the sweep of history and the way it affects individuals caught up in it. It would be easy for as broad a subject as a history of the world for more than six hundred years, told in episodes, to feel diffuse and disorganized. The framing device Robinson chooses here works well for giving the book focus, though it also hovers dangerously close to preciousness at times. It would be very, very easy for a book about a group dealing about the reincarnation of a group of people as they seek spiritual advancement to cross the line into a particularly treacly kind of New Age preachiness, and the biggest fault I can find in The Years of Rice and Salt is that it comes too damn close several times.
Still, this is an excellent book, and one that I can recommend happily to anybody interested in history and historiography, and particularly to anybody that's enjoyed Robinson's earlier works.