Thursday, March 29, 2012

200 or so pages of The Years of Rice and Salt

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I have been exploring my interest in sci-fi, and particularly the dystopian novel. This interest began for me in high school when I read books such as Farenheit 451 and 1984. For many years I followed other pursuits and it has only been recently that I have begun to go back to this area of interest. The book that I am reading now, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, is something of a departure for me. Although KSR is well known for his sci-fi writing, this novel would more accurately be called a speculative or alternate history. The novel consists of ten books which recount the history of the world, but a world in which the black plague wiped out almost all of the population of Europe and Asian cultures took a place of dominance instead of Western Christianity. KSR uses the concept of reincarnation to provide a sort of continuity in the novel. Each book features a reincarnated version of the same two central characters who are inextricably bound together in a karma group. This device helps to convey the arc of history that KSR builds over the course of the novel because each individual book is tightly encapsulated: the narrative begins at some point in the lives of the characters -- sometimes detailing how they met, other times not -- and ends with their deaths. The result is that the overarching revised history is left largely implied.
KSR finds inventive ways of restating this large theme within the episodic narratives of the individual books. For example, the third book titled "Ocean Continents" focuses on a fleet of Chinese treasure ships that have gotten lost at sea and come across an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has not been encountered before. The sailors, having brought small pox with them to the island, infect the islanders and end up taking a young girl with them for their return to the mainland. Kheim, one of the recurring characters wonders if they are justified in taking the girl away from her home even though this means saving her from the certain death that many of her family will face. Kheim considers the speed with which the girl, whom they call "Butterfly," adjusts to life on the ship, which parallels the reader's experience of reorienting, or adjusting, to each new life that the characters appear in. The reader is put into the paradoxical position of knowing more and less than the central characters. The reader knows more because he/she sees the broad arc of the novel, but knows less because the individual lives within each of the books is very minimally glossed. The reader is then forced into a position from which they can see the big picture, the broad historical perspective, but miss out on the intricacies of the lives of the characters presented. This contributes to KSR's purpose because the characters are in tune with reincarnation and often recognize that a single lifetime is a small aspect of the entire "life" of a soul.
The book is fascinating so far. I found it a bit jarring to read at first but it only took the first couple of transitions between historical ages and characters to catch on to the conceit of the novel. The two concepts that interest me the most in the novel are the treatment of character and the treatment of history. KSR develops a complex reimagination of history through his inventive use of "character" in a completely non-traditional way.


Unknown said...

The Einstein Intersection by DeLaney is one of my favorite college sci-fi novels. I've also heard good things about Ender's Game.

What more thoughts do you have about Speculative fiction in general? It's been really difficult for me to define personally.

M Raese said...

I haven't read either of those books.
I like speculative fiction, but is has taken me a while to come to appreciate it. I didn't much like sci-fi for a long time because I kept thinking about the pulp genre conventions -- cowboy astronauts, sexy aliens, and thinly veiled imperialist apologia. Then I read Stephenson's Snow Crash in a class for my doc program and it turned me around. I still limit my ventures into speculative fiction and sci-fi because I'm snooty about it and still don't like those pulp elements. I have some more posts planned on other dystopian novels. I'll get around to them eventually.

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