"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
Now there is nothing left to do
But scribble in the dusk and watch with the beloved
Peach blossoms float downstream.
Looking back at all the long years
All that happened this way and that
I think I liked most the rice and the salt.
The Years of Rice and Salt is a thick, dense alternate history spanning continents and centuries. Its vast cast of characters includes, as the blurb puts it, "soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars". Through their eyes we see the forces that shape their world, which develops in strange and yet intriguingly familiar ways through the centuries.
That description to me sounds like a roadmap to Boredsville, and though I'd heard good things about this one, part of me was expecting a plodding, dry tome focused more on history's big machine and prominent personalities than on any relatable human drama. Normally I'd avoid that sort of thing like the plague -- which, incidentally, is where the book diverges from our reality:
Here, instead of killing a third of Europe's population, the Black Death kills 99%. White people are more or less nonexistent, Christianity is a footnote, and China and the Muslim nations have become the dominant powers shaping world history.
In ten sections, the book takes us from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century, and from China and India to the European wastelands and the New World. It is not only emphatically unboring, it's one of the most ambitious and stunning novels I've read in a long time.
The book is structured around its Hindu/Buddhist conceit, following the same set of characters through several incarnations as they struggle to evolve and pursue nirvana. Though their races and genders (and occasionally species) morph through time, they fill similar roles in every avatar. The character whose name starts with K is disaffected, angry, an iconoclast - often tortured or martyred for hir idealism, whether as a mutinous slave, a radical feminist, or a hotheaded scientist. K's foil is B, hir friend or partner (but rarely lover) who is the more hopeful, pragmatic and effective of the pair - it is B who is usually the POV character. Then there is I, who is usually a scholar or a mystic, and romantic partner to either B or K. And S, who is a dick, always antagonizing the other characters (which they get pretty pissed about in the bardo between incarnations, when they remember who they have been in other lives: "And you!" [K] roared. "What is your EXCUSE! Why are you always so bad? Consistency is no excuse, your CHARACTER is NO EXCUSE!")
In this way, the book avoids one of my main frustrations with sprawling epics like this - the lack of developed characters with an arc to get really invested in. Though the setting changes, here we're essentially following the same handful of people throughout history. And they do develop as themselves, but they also stand in for all of us. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, the story of humanity is the story of generation after generation striving to avoid the mistakes of the past and achieve the closest thing to perfection it is within our power to attain. And none of us ever gets there, but every new generation picks up the baton and gives it a shot anyway.
B: Come on, you can't deny it. We keep coming back. We keep going out again. Everybody does. That's dharma. We keep trying. We keep making progress... Here we are. Here to be sent back again, sent back together, our little jati. I don't know what I would do without all of you. I think the solitude would kill me.
K: You're killed anyway.
B: Yes, but it's less lonely this way. And we're making a difference. No, we are! Look at what has happened! You can't deny it!
K: Things were done. It's not very much.
B: Of course. You said it yourself, we have thousands of lifetimes of work to do. But it's working.
K: Don't generalize. It could all slip away.
B: Of course. But back we go, to try again. Each generation makes its fight. A few more turns of the wheel. Come on-- back with a will. Back into the fray!
And so, through genocides and world wars, injustice and devastation, these characters reveal their world to us as they endeavor, in small ways, to improve it. They make scientific discoveries, write influential books, build egalitarian societies, thwart wrongs large and small. Each section is told in a different style, which brings to mind Cloud Atlas (something several people pointed out to me when I described the book, though the two actually strike me as very different -- Cloud Atlas is about the repetition of themes across time, the connectedness of everything; Rice and Salt is about the impact of history on human lives and vice versa, and the will to evolve). Strangely, it also reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, another unexpectedly engrossing, satisfying philosophical SF tome - alternate universe rather than alternate history, though really, there's not much difference between the two. I felt the same way reading both books -- that thrill of having discovered something precious and perfect.
There's plenty in here to satisfy different interests: a vast and well-developed alternate history, an intriguing cast of characters, a crash-course in some tenets of Eastern spirituality, a meditation on the human condition, an array of metafictional highwire tricks, and ten ripping good stories.