The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice And Salt is probably the most highbrow and audacious work of alternate history printed by a mainstream publisher and aimed at a wide audience. A sweeping magical realist epic, this starts with the question “what if there was no Europe?”
To achieve this, Robinson uses a plot disease to wipe out Europe’s population in the Middle Ages while leaving the rest of the world mostly unscathed. It’s basically the literary, sophisticated version of The Seventh Carrier’s haywire satellites knocking out every jet and rocket engine. While there are many contrivances and valid criticisms, it’s clear what the author is trying to do. Alternate history by English-speaking authors can understandably be kind of Eurocentric, something which he takes a chainsaw to with his divergence. Robinson tries to be different.
And he succeeds, going from character to character in a millennia-long saga, with excellent prose and a great sense of wonder. It manages to achieve the not-easy feat of being both broad and human at the same time. The writing style and structure helps a lot in this regard.
Unfortunately, even something as distinct as Rice and Salt can still fall victim to a common issue with alternate history: Getting worse as one gets farther away from the point of divergence. The last part of the book has both clunky historical parallels (like a giant decades-long World War I static conflict) and political soapboxing ramped up. But even this can’t harm the book too much.
Alternate history fans should read Rice and Salt. It’s a rare anomaly in an otherwise constricted genre.