trenchkamen: (Pensive)
[personal profile] trenchkamen
The Years of Rice and Salt has a simple premise: what if the black plague of the 1300's had wiped out 99% of Europe's population? I've been calling this the "no white people" book as shorthand, and I think that's a fairly succinct summary. The premise is simple, but the outcome, with the imminent super-colonizing-genocidal-power of Europe off the world stage, is not.

First, addressing a concern somebody brought up: this is not a simplistic Orientalist, "white people are evil, so the world would be perfect if they did not exist", book. White people certainly were responsible for a huge amount of genocide and conquest, but that lack of melanin doesn't make us uniquely evil. It is the privilege, and circumstance of centuries (quite complicated and oft debated) that put white Europeans in a position to conquer and enslave. Humans are corrupted by power, and given the chance, other militaristic societies would have done exactly the same thing. This is clearly illustrated in the novel. There are peaceful societies that try to create an egalitarian democracy and value scientific advancement and justice, but they are constantly defending themselves from invasion by the two militaristic superpowers. The peaceful can't convince the whole world to coexist as long as humans have such diverse personalities. There are still violent assholes with way too much power (or who seize way too much power) who fuck everything up for everybody else. It's nice to know there are some constants in life.

The book spans ten reincarnation cycles from AD 1405 (the year the Christians were obliterated) to 2002, following a jati group of three main players who maintain the same basic personality throughout their lifetimes. A jati group is a group of 'soulmates' (divorcing this term from the erotic overtones implied in our society) who travel together through their lives, who are always destined to meet and drive one another's stories. Their names always start with the same letter. B, the protagonist, or intelligent 'everyperson' of the group, is perceptive and just, and takes up with K, the iconoclast and rebel, and/or I, the scientist and scholar. This group is reincarnated across nations, dynasties, genders, and social classes, which provides a varied view of the world without Europeans. Between lives they meet in the bardo (a sort of Buddhist limbo where you await judgment), where they remember all their past lives. They encounter multiple issues: feminism, hegemony, fundamentalism, the co-opting of scientific discoveries for warfare, reconciliation of science and religion, genocide, disease, imperialism, the horror of war, globalization, natural resource management, for a start. In each cycle, K's malcontent and subsequent rebellion (in various forms, not always instigating an uprising) illustrate the problems with the society through contrast, and I tries with the noblest of intentions to advance collective knowledge. There are also several callbacks to former lives, and the setup implies that the characters are unknowingly continuing their work from their past lives, which implies that the reincarnation cycle itself is a coherent journey.

This brings up a point: the bardo, a Buddhist concept, is treated as a reality, whereas there is no Islamic heaven/hell. Even when the characters had just come from a life as Muslims, they return to the bardo. So take that as you will.

The book is rich with parallels and allusions to our historical timeline, so a working knowledge of world history is essential. There are compelling motifs and solid characterizations, but first and foremost this is a book of ideas, told in narrative form. The lack of info dump (for the most part) must be compensated for by the reader's own knowledge. It is by comparison to our timeline that the developments become more weighty, and the philosophies outlined more profound. Humans inevitably, for better and worse, react to similarly to similar circumstances, within the context of differing religions and histories.

As one of the reviewers in those little blurbs they stick in the first few pages of the book points out, the book was published in 2002, which means that a great deal of the writing was done before September 11, 2001. This dispassionate, critical look at Islamic society could not have been published at a better time, and serves as balanced voice in a country gripped by Islamophobia. And, the author did foresee several patterns inevitable if one follows the increasing influence of radical fundamentalist Islam to its logical conclusion, but the topic is handled with nuance and wisdom. It is a shame messages like this do not reach more of the American public; we could do with stories that illustrate Muslims are as varied as any other group. In the vast majority of Western media, when Muslims do appear, they are either tokenized as religious fanatics, or peaceful adherents who side with 'merica because they desire justice. While the fanatics and pious might be well-characterized, they are all the American public sees. It is a grossly simplistic dichotomy. We also rarely see Muslims in any circumstance that is neutral, or in which the story does not revolve around and the fact that the characters are Muslim. There is the same issue with any minority group: white heterosexual cis-male is considered neutral and universal, and any deviation occurs only when the writers need a token character to illustrate a point about said token group. Thus Americans are able to view Christianity as a nuanced, hugely variated religion, with thousands of different interpretations (including the fuck-crazy ones, which tend to get the most attention because their adherents are the loudest and most zealous, and make for more sensational TV), because they live in a predominantly Christian area and experience firsthand the heterogeneous reality, but assume Islam must be a monolithic, radical entity. The news always focuses on the most radical and extreme adherents and their activities, because it makes good news, but when that is all you see of a country, and not its vast majority of citizens, you begin to believe that extremism is all that exists. This is no different than if non-Americans saw only coverage of Westboro Baptist Church and abortion clinic bombers, and assumed that most Americans are actively that extreme.

Certainly, religious extremism differs by the edicts forming the base of the religion. There will be greater justice or injustice, or an imbalance of consideration or freedom, based on a certain set of religious documents. This is where the real danger from fundamentalism is illustrated: many religions, when taken to literal extremes, become tyrannical and hegemonic, and some of those documents are more extreme than others. Inherent in this observation is a plea to the religious to view their founding documents critically, with compassion and temperance. We could say this of all religions, especially the Abrahamic ones.

Ultimately, despite its (warranted) criticisms of the two militaristic societies that take the world stage in place of European Christiandom (Islamic empire and China), this is a fair book. Too often liberals try to compensate for rampant knee-jerk Islamophobia by refusing to speak any ill of Islam, and while I understand that this country desperately needs positive discourse on the subject (or any nuanced discourse, at all), it is equally simplistic to pretend Islam is not deeply problematic in many ways--as is fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism, and any other hegemonic religion. While the book features dreamers who want to exalt what they feel is the true heart of Islam--forgiveness, peace, and mercy--the government co-opts the religion to retain social control and maintain hegemony over other societies, thereby justifying their conquest. The very same thing happened in Christiandom. Whether the ruler is a true believer or is just using the letter of the law to maintain control of a populace, the result is the same: a tyrannical theocracy, crushing to dissidents, and self-righteous in its conquest of other lands.

China... well, China's justification for its actions is its enamourment with the myth of its own superiority. They didn't need any pretense of religion to feel fully self-righteous about their conquest. And that, also, is a long and complicated history that Americans could afford to explore given the current hysteria about China taking over the world. I have heard so many people who speak intelligently about the complexity of Western societies assume that Eastern societies adhere to all these trite stereotypes, uniformly.

While the Islamic Empire and China are the two colonizing superpowers, other cultures fight to remain independent. India and Japan are explored, with Polynesian and Oceanic states mentioned, and Africa staged as having a parallel history to its 'real' counterpart. Of particular note is the Hodenosaunee union of Native Americans, which maintains control of a parcel of land around the Great Lakes despite China colonizing America (Yingzhou) from the west, and Muslims from the east. The Hodenosaunee alliance is an egalitarian, democratic government, and a model for the rest of the world as they emerge from the Long War into the present day. Rather than being wiped out by European disease or genocide, they are encouraged to arm and organize by a ronin, Busho, who escaped Chinese tyranny on the west coast, and are able to stave off Muslim and Chinese invasion. Intellectuals around the world kept hailing the Hodenosaunee alliance as an ideal model for government, but for most of the book were written off as far too idealistic, and, for those in power, dangerous. Ultimately, these peaceful societies become the model the world must follow, or destroy itself. But the militaristic governments don't listen to the hippies and intellectuals until the development, and dissemination, of a certain technology checkmates the entire world. How sad and familiar.

The book takes a while to take off. It is one of those books wherein the real payoff for reading becomes evident toward the end, and then the beginning makes far more sense, and is more profound, in context. However, this will drive off many readers who do not have the time or patience to wait for the book to get more interesting. If you don't like history, or exploring in depth ideas and philosophies, I assume reading this book would be like watching paint dry. It is also in areas disjointed, and often toward the end of chapters the pacing suddenly speeds up as though the author realized he had hit his page count and had to close out the damn thing. I felt the last chapters were stating the obvious, to tedious effect, but a summation of the book's themes was probably appropriate, and it gave a sense of closure.

I compare it to the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, just a fraction of the length and written in broad strokes across hundreds of years, rather than picking over details of a more limited time frame. It is considerably less of a time investment, but should cater to the same target audience. The characterization was better in the Baroque Cycle, but the reader had far longer to get to know the characters, and the benefit of the characters existing through one life cycle. In other words, you knew their cumulative history (what existed in their memory), what it did to them, and how it made them the way they are. In The Years of Rice and Salt, you started with a new lifetime each section, and though the characters maintained the same core personality throughout their reincarnation cycles, their former life circumstances were erased from memory and therefore from who they were. Though, it is interesting to explore how the same core personalities are molded in different circumstances.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it to an audience with a background in history and a love of exploring ideas, sometimes at the expense of plot.
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July 2012


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