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Literature / The Years of Rice and Salt

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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 killing 90% of the European population.

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" Stereotype: Kyu, very much Kyu. Interestingly his anger is directed at the Chinese for enslaving him rather than white people, who really aren't in a position to do much of that in this timeline.
  • Animal Motifs: K and tigers. They even get reincarnated as one in "The Haj in the Heart".
  • 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 90% of the European population.
  • Butt-Monkey: K goes through a rather shocking amount of pain and indignity over the course of their many lifetimes, being (among other things) castrated by Chinese slavers, caught in a tree snare, captured and nearly sacrificed by hostile Incans, and having a hand chopped off by the Khan of the Samarkand.
  • 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.
  • Expanded States of America: An odd, allohistorical example. By the time the reader first meets them, the Hodenosaunee federation (which partly serves as an analogue for the U.S. in this timeline) has already expanded beyond the six tribes that it comprised in real-world history. It adopts additional members (ostensibly with their consent) over the course of the story, and ends up governing much of North and Central America by the "present day."
  • 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.
  • Freudian Trio: B, K and I, with the rest of the jati spinning around them. K as The Id, B as The Ego and I as The Superego.
  • Heroic BSoD: All characters after The Alchemist.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several major rulers remain the same across timelines—Timur (Tamerlane), Akbar, the Yongle Emperor and his admiral Zheng He, etc.
  • Karma Houdini: Remember Shastri, that guy Kokila killed? While she came back as a tiger, he reincarnated as a prince.
  • Last of His Kind: The English fisherman who shares his campfire with Bold in the opening chapters. It's significant that the only English dialogue in the entire book is the word "dead;" naturally Bold doesn't know what it means, but he can guess.
  • The Plague: In this version of history, it led to the near-complete depopulation of the European continent. It also wipes out everyone's reincarnations at the end of "The Alchemist."
  • Rage Against the Heavens: K often does this in the Bardo.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: K is very much the red to B's blue.
  • 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.
  • Reincarnation: The entire cast is reincarnated together repeatedly.
  • Reincarnation-Identifying Trait: The continuously reincarnating characters are identified by their shared initials, such as Kyu and Kokila.
  • The Remnant: Although Western civilization is all but destroyed, a few fragments remain such as Georgia and New Norway.
    • Some extremely isolated communities on the far peripheries of Europe (e.g. the Orkney and Shetland islands) turn out to have survived the plague, although by "modern" times they're little more than a curiosity.
    • There are brief mentions of Ethiopia as the home of one of the last remaining Christian cultures (perhaps the last).
  • 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.
  • World Half Full: Eventually. The list of challenges facing the world after the Long War (which one character helpfully lays out for the reader) is daunting, but humanity has plenty of hope and potential to meet them.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Airplanes remain limited to military use, while civilian air flight is accomplished mostly by airship (and later, "space planes"!).

Alternative Title(s): Years Of Rice And Salt