The Years of Rice and Salt
is a counterfactual
(or Alternate History
) novel by SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson, which depicts world history in an alternate timeline where the Black Plague epidemic that ravaged Europe in the 14th century was even more destructive, and caused the actual extinction of Western civilization.
With Europe out of the game, the two civilizations that grow into global superpowers in the following centuries are Islam and China. Eventually, their geopolitical rivalry escalates into total war.
The story is told from the perspective of a small group of characters, who get reincarnated into new but recognizable selves from generation to generation.
The Years of Rice and Salt contains examples of:
- Alternate History: Right from the beginning.
- Ascended Extra: In a couple stories, The P character (see Theme Naming below) plays an unusually large role.
- Author Filibuster: Particularly in the Widow Kang section.
- Ax-Crazy: Kyu, the African firebug eunuch. To be fair, the slave traders just sort of sprung the whole "eunuch" thing on him without asking.
- It's a recurring trait of that character throughout the eons, both in the bardo and out. To be completely fair, it's usually for very good reason. Such as the one above.
- The Black Death
- Celestial Bureaucracy: Every time they die, the characters find themselves in the Bardo, where the souls of the dead await reincarnation according to Tibetan Buddhism. As China grows in power in the world of the living, the Bardo falls under the influence of the Chinese Celestial Bureaucracy.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Kokila reincarnates as an animal because she poisoned a guy who seduced her best friend, got her pregnant and abandoned her to die.
- Education Mama: Widow Kang mercilessly drills her youngest son in the Confucian classics in order to make a proper scholar out of him.
- Eunuchs Are Evil
- Forever War: The Long War between China and Dar-al-Islam lasts for over 60 years, at which point hardly anyone remembers or cares what started it in the first place. China wins. Or, rather, Dar-al-Islam loses.
- Heroic BSOD: All characters after The Alchemist.
- Karma Houdini: Remember Shastri, that guy Kokila killed? While she came back as a tiger, he reincarnated as a prince.
- The Plague: In this version of history, it led to the complete depopulation of the European continent.
- Power Trio: B, K and I, with the rest of the jati spinning around them.
- Rage Against the Heavens: Kheim in the Bardo.
- Reformed Criminal: Kheim is a former pirate who ended up an admiral of the Ming fleet. Khalid went from trying to con a Sultan to providing him with scientific military advances.
- The Western Remnant: Although Western civilization is all but destroyed, a few fragments remain such as Georgia and New Norway.
- Reincarnation: The entire cast gets reincarnated repeatedly.
- Rule of Cool: During the Long War, Dar-al-Islam uses long-range artillery to blow the top off of Mount Everest, making K2 (within their borders) the tallest mountain in the world. A tactic with no military value, and arguably minimal effect on enemy morale.
- At the end of the book, a more heartwarming variation, as mountain climbers bring bricks with them, rebuilding the summit piece-by-piece.
- Shout-Out: The first chapter is written in a style that imitates Journey to the West.
- The last chapter has a shout out to Candide.
- Theme Naming: Taken Up to Eleven to help us keep track of who was who in a past life, making all reincarnations of a character always keep the same first letter in their names.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Butterfly and Bihari.
- Training the Peaceful Villagers: When Busho is taken in by the Hodenosaunee League, he begins to teach them about modern warfare, agriculture and industry, so that they will be able to withstand the Chinese colonisers on the West Coast; and the Islamic ones on the East Coast. Centuries later, the Hodenosaunee League survives as a major world power.
- War Is Hell: The Long War was like a World War One that lasted three generations.
- Zeppelins from Another World: Airplanes remain limited to military use, while civilian airflight is accomplished mostly by airship (and later, "space planes"!)