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William C. Altreuter
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Saturday, July 16, 2005

I was looking for a summer read, something I could sit in the yard and drink glass of wine with, when I happened upon Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt". I'd liked his Mars trilogy, up to a point. When it was all said and done, I thought it was about a third too long, a funny thing to say about a trilogy. I suppose I guess I mean that if each of the books were trimmed with a cumulative reduction amounting to a third I'd have liked it better. I wasn't really knocked out by "Antarctica". It didn't seem to have the same spark as the Mars books. "The Years of Rice and Salt" is an alternative history, a history where the Black Plague killed off 99% of Europe. How would things be different?

You'd think going into it that no Europeans would be a pretty good start, but it doesn't work out that way. The Arab world vies for control with the Chinese, and as far as I can tell, it seems as though things really aren't so different. Too bad for you if you are African, for example. There are still telephones, and religious fundamentalists. American Indians catch a break, but they are not really very central in the book.

Robinson seems to want to take the long view in his novels, but he doesn't want to let go of his characters. In the Mars books he accomplished this by making the characters develop technologies that extended their lives indefinitely. This was interesting, to a point, because he then had to deal with the question of what relationships between such long lived people would be like. In this one he decided to have his principals reincarnated on a regular basis. This is much less interesting, and worst of all is when he takes us with them into "the bardo", the in between place where souls wait to be reincarnated. The whole thing gets tangled in a pseudo-mysticism that detracts from the alternate history.

There is also a problem here with the way the style of the narrative changes. In the opening chapters Robinson uses cliffhanger endings and teaser paragraphs: "We know what happened next, but you will have to read on to find out." That sort of thing. It is done well, and really propelled me into the book, but he stops after a hundred pages or so, for no real reason that I can tell.

There are some interesting bits, and there are scenes of such stunning violence that I was actaully left a little breathless, but on the whole I'd have to say that it's been a long time since I was this disappointed withmyself for sticking with a book that was such obvious rubbish. I have toyed with the idea of starting Robinson's California trilogy-- I reckon I will continue to toy. Nothing about this book made me anxious to make the time investment

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