Review of 'The Years of Rice and Salt', Kim Stanley Robinson, Harper Collins £16.99
A community of souls are reincarnated time and time again, experiencing various lives in a kaleidoscope of relationships--as lovers or family, rulers or ruled, oppressor or oppressed. After each lifetime they meet in the bardo, the antechamber to eternity, to have their karma assessed and a judgment made against them which will determine the nature of their next life.
Through their eyes we experience 600 years of history from the 14th century to the present. The twist is that it isn't our history. In the mid-1300s bubonic plague wiped out between a third and a half of the population of Europe. Robinson imagines a world where that disease killed every European. This is the story of world history without the shadow of the Europe we know.
Muslims of various sects repopulate the empty continent. Chinese civilisation, far more advanced than Europe at the time of the Black Death, goes on expanding and 'discovers' and begins to colonise the American continent from its west coast as opposed to the east. The principles of empirical science emerge from the military rivalry between small states around Samarkand. A federation of states in the Indian subcontinent carry through an industrial revolution which challenges the power of both the Chinese and Muslim empires. Imperialism results in a conventional industrial war which lasts over 60 years.
But if the details of history change, the form doesn't. There are dictators, tyrants and wars to match the bloody reality which humanity has lived through, and there are revolutions which give the world hope of a better tomorrow. Robinson's world is different, but not a significant improvement on ours.
The genre of 'alternative history' is hardly new, but this is a particularly fine example of it. Robinson uses it to ask big questions about history, the nature of change, and the role of the individual within it. A number of views on history emerge within the book, and although none is given more credence than another, Robinson appears to be sympathetic to Marxism. Although there is no parallel figure to Marx in this new world, different individuals come up with key Marxist ideas such as the labour theory of value and the notion of change through class struggle.
Robinson has said in interviews that he inclines to a technological determinist view of history one that is led by changes in productive technique. This downgrades the role that social factors play in history and this is apparent in the structure of the novel. But history is not just a question of the technological development of a given society. Productive techniques are held within specific social forms which can develop them or hold them back. If this is not understood then we can't explain why medieval China, with the highest level of civilisation in the world and a very impressive technology, didn't truly expand to dominate the world down to the present.
However, it is enough that Robinson raises these questions, and raises them in a very entertaining manner. For 20 years now the study of history has been blighted by the fashion of postmodernism, with its extreme subjectivity and its abhorrence of 'grand narratives'. It's refreshing to read a bestselling novel which argues that history can be understood, and that understanding can help us shape a better future for us all.