I dug into The Years of Rice and Salt with much gusto, for its premise was an intriguing example of why alternate history can be so seductive. Yet almost immediately, my expectations were completely torn apart and shoved in my face. Sometimes this can be good; other times it ruins a book completely. In this case, while I quite enjoyed some of the philosophical aspects of the book, it failed to sustain my interest for its 760 pages.
In this version of history, the Black Death decimates the white Christian population of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire vanishes. Columbus never makes his infamous "discovery" of the New World. The Renaissance never happens. Shakespeare is never born. Robinson takes the discoveries our history often attributes to dead, white, male Europeans and transfers them to Muslim and Buddhist Chinese and Middle Eastern men and women. Muslim alchemists invent calculus while trying to measure the speed of light; a Chinese fleet ordered to invade Japan gets blown off course and winds up, eventually, in North America.
Given the fact that the back cover copy promises "a look at history that could have been—one that stretches across centuries.... Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars," perhaps my expectations were too simple. Robinson uses reincarnation as a plot device to carry his characters across eras and around the world. Although the characters don't retain their memories of past lives (except for a few instances) while living a new one, this device forces the reader to interpret their actions as part of a great karmic cycle. This is particularly the case for the first part of the book, where the narration reinforces the idea that each life is a chance to "embrace the Buddha-nature" and move on to the next plane of existence. Later in the book, the emphasis shifts from the characters to the necessity for society as a whole to come to grips with its own existence and embrace peace before it's too late.
And therein lies my problem with the book. Although the reincarnation device was not what I expected, I tolerated it. This isn't the first book I've read with reincarnated main characters; it probably won't be the last. However, the narrative style of The Years of Rice and Salt is demonstrably inconsistent in a way I can't reconcile with any dramatic purpose.
In the first "book," each chapter is numbered but untitled but has a short snippet that described what would take place: Chapter 1, "Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land; Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end." I liked those. Each chapter also ended with a fourth-wall-breaking remark, such as, "What happened in there we don't want to tell you, but the story won't make sense unless we do, so on to the next chapter. These things happened." I hated these; they were annoying, and I was glad when they stopped after the first book. So did the chapter descriptions though. In Book 2, the chapters had numbers and titles but no descriptions. In Book 3, the chapters had neither numbers nor titles. In Book 4, the chapters had titles but no numbers! And so on, changing apparently on whim, with neither rhyme nor reason. This irked me even more than the book's story—it distracted me from the story, which is a cardinal sin. Robinson's editor should have stepped in, either to standardize this practise or make sure there's an evident reason for it.
Suppose I'm just a complainer, though, who's way too obsessive over meaningless design decisions that don't actually pertain to the plot. Does The Years of Rice and Salt redeem itself in its story, in its heart-warming characters who struggle against centuries of adversity to advance the plight of humanity? Not really.
Reading this book, I was reminded of Umberto Eco, whose novels don't even try to pretend they're anything other than didactic philosophical treatises wrapped in a fiction taco shell. And I know some people find that unforgivable; I, on the other hand, don't mind it—if the author can pull it off. Robinson, at least in this book, falls short of the mark. He flirts with the concept of parallel history, chronicling the development of science in an order suspiciously similar to our own history's, just via Muslim and Chinese scientists. Oh, and there are airships, naturally. This flirtation undercuts the differences explored in the development of moral philosophy, governance, equality, power equity, etc. Once and a while we're treated to an interesting chapter in which one of the reincarnated characters shares a theory on the role of women in government or whatnot, but then we get page after page on the development of the law of universal gravitation (or later, smugly veiled references to relativity versus quantum mechanics).
I loved the sense of difference created on a macrocosmic level, watching China and Islam duke it out for control over the world. I liked how the indigenous peoples of North America actually prevent wholesale takeover of the continent by other of those two factions; indeed, their egalitarian style of government influences much of Europe and West Asia. For all of these broad strokes, however, Robinson neglects the minutiae of his characters' various lives. The detail he adds to the settings, many of which would be unfamiliar to Eurocentrically-educated readers like myself, doesn't quite compensate for this lack of characterization. Overall, The Years of Rice and Salt stretches itself too thin.