The Years of Rice and Salt is a an Alternate History novel by 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 the Islamic world 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: One where Europe is taken out of the picture and it ripples from thereon out.
- Alphabetical Theme Naming: To help us keep track of who was who in a past life, all reincarnations of a character always keep the same first letter in their names.
- Angry Black Man: Kyu, very much Kyu. Interestingly his anger is directed at the Chinese for enslaving him rather than white people, who really arn't in a position to do much of that in this timeline.
- 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: The K Character frequently has shades of this throughout their different lives (though usually for good reason). In particular, Kyu, the African firebug eunuch, though to be fair, the slave traders just sort of sprung the whole "eunuch" thing on him without his consent.
- The Black Death: In this world, it was much more virulent, killing off just about the entirety of the European population.
- 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 is reincarnated into a tiger 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: Kyu, though not so much evil insomuch as he's Ax-Crazy and pissed off.
- 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: K often does this 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 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.
- Reincarnation-Identifying Trait: The continuously reincarnating characters are identified by their shared initials, such as Kyu and Kokila.
- 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.
- Scenery Porn: Vibrant descriptions of the settings are frequent.
- 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.
- Two characters in the "Age of Great Progress" chapter are named Kiyoaki (one of the protagonists of Yukio Mishima's The Sea of Fertility cycle, in which the same person is reincarnated in each book) and Tagomi (a character in The Man in the High Castle, another very famous alternate history novel).
- The last chapter references the real-life historiographical scholarship of Hayden White, attributed to one "Scholar White" in the alternate-timeline present day.
- Shown Their Work: Events shared with our timeline are handled in very great detail.
- Space-Filling Empire: Dar al Islam, China, and the Hodenosaunee League.
- 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 colonizers 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 can best be described as being like World War One leading directly into World War II without a pause.
- Zeppelins from Another World: Airplanes remain limited to military use, while civilian airflight is accomplished mostly by airship (and later, "space planes"!).