Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?
News Books Media Book Reviews

The Years of Rice and Salt 101

Duncan Lawie writes: "Kim Stanley Robinson started reading science fiction at the start of the 1970s, as New Wave was breaking over the genre, and began writing it not long after. He soon established a reputation for literate science fiction, confirmed by the 'Orange County Trilogy' written during the 1980s. Perhaps more usefully re-named Three Californias, this thematic trilogy offers alternative visions of America's future. In the 1990s, he came to dominate science fiction through his massive, and massively detailed, Mars trilogy, tracing the colonisation and terraforming of our neighbouring planet. In turn, his output has been dominated by the success of this work and the continued working out of the ideas contained within it. For a new decade, there is a new kind of work by KSR." Duncan goes on to review an example of this new work below.
The Years of Rice and Salt
author Kim Stanley Robinson
pages 670
publisher HarperCollins
rating 7.5
reviewer Duncan Lawie
ISBN 0553109200
summary What would the world be like without European influence? Very different yet much the same.

The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history, opening at the dawn of what should have been the 14th Christian century. Instead, the Black Death has wiped out the population of Europe, leaving the future open to the trans-Asian cultures of the Old World. Robinson has applied his usual detailed research and rich, convincing narrative to the production of this book, giving the world he creates a lived in and liveable depth. Through this, he has successfully avoided many of the pitfalls of alternate history, growing his work from a common root but not dependent on our branch of history for its survival. This book could have been a rather tedious meditation on the absence of da Vinci, Shakespeare, Hitler and a million others. Instead, it is defined by the presence of Arabic and Chinese civilisations, expanding across the planet and finding $other cultures.

The Years of Rice and Salt covers a period of seven centuries and, in the end, the technology that these rather different occupants of the planet discover seems remarkably similar to what our contemporary world has found. In this, KSR seems to have had a failure of imagination -- he does not, or dares not, find the world too different a place. Perhaps the book would have been tedious to read, or impossible to write, if the world had collapsed into an eternal mediaeval culture. Perhaps a pure golden age ushered in by the avoidance of "Western rapacity" would have produced a story without sufficient conflict or complexity. Perhaps, in the final analysis, human nature is human nature regardless of the cultures which seek to shape it. Of course, this leads to the essential problem of alternate history, something which the book discusses directly - "we don't know if history is sensitive, and for want of a nail a civilisation was lost, or if our mightiest acts are as petals on a flood, or something in between, or both at once."

As the tapestry of its internal history is so convincing, and so little reliant on our own, it can be hard to see what the book actually has to do with us. The characters spend a lot of time in discussion throughout the book's length but as the world reaches into the modern age, it reaches also into self-awareness and the protagonists increasingly become historians and philosophers. Towards the end, the book almost dissolves into the deconstruction of it's own content. This approach seems to be an attempt by the author to give himself an opportunity to comment more directly upon our world. In the final section, the story regains the impetus as a new global culture starts to pull together. This section is written in the future from our perspective and the narrative is more comfortable as Robinson abandons alternate history for the stronger stuff of true science fiction.

In terms of technique, Robinson manages both interesting and admirable approaches, experimenting and further developing his craft as a writer. He maintains a set of central characters across the whole period in question by making use of the idea of reincarnation. This fits nicely with the idea that this is an "Eastern" book rather than a "Western" one whilst avoiding the complications of a generational saga or of writing about totally new characters in each section. It provides the reader with a thread to follow through the ten tales, tying them together in small ways as well as large and allows commentary on the progress of the book and of society. Additionally, each of the ten 'books' which make up this large novel is written in a different style, reflecting the characteristics of the period in which it is set. Even the map which introduces each section is drawn differently.

This new book is vintage KSR - so rich in detail that the experience of his milieu becomes personal. Clearly, a master builder of worlds is at work, thoroughly working his research into the foundations. It also has the fingerprints of ethical and ecological concern, encouraging us to do our best, be of good will and to maintain an upward slope for ourselves, our kind and our world. Robinson's fans will enjoy The Years of Rice and Salt. Other readers may fare better by skipping to the final chapter.

You can purchase The Years of Rice and Salt from Want to see your own review here? Just read the book review guidelines, then use Slashdot's handy submission form.

This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Years of Rice and Salt

Comments Filter:
  • by dknj ( 441802 ) on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @11:35AM (#3523578) Journal
    This work is challenging on many fronts, not the least of which is that there are many long-winded and dry descriptive passages that span many pages. But it is a history!

    Most of the challenge comes in the dramatic paradigm this work uses as a premise. I enjoyed the way the book challenged me to view the world from the Eastern philosophies, and the premise to continue to bring back the same characters in each era was truly enjoyable.

    If you enjoy history, philosophy or the work of KSR, it's worth the read.

  • it makes me wonder how things would be different now if japan and america's roles were swapped, especially with regard to modern day technology.
    • Things would be *much* different. The main thing you must keep in mind in that without the "modern boys" going to England and bringing back tech almost from whole cloth to Japan that they would most likely have *never* developed much beyond where they had been for thousands of years before the 20th century. This is true of most of the Asian cultures (Before you bash me for racist thought keep in mind I've lived in Korea for ~4 of the last 10 years , my wife is Korean, and I speak fluent Korean) The fact is they where never about progress. IMO there would be no modern day technology without the west.
      • I dont really know about that. I mean westernern really only made huge advances in the last 150 to 200 years. there are only superficial differences technology wise between 15th and 18th century england. So maybe an eastern culture would have begun the similar industrial revolution kind of thing shortly after if westerers did not.
        • In that time period -- 15th to 18th century -- a strong mercantile class and a commercial culture developed, that would eventually result in dramatic decentralization of power. In addition, the power of the centralized church gradually waned, as secular institutions gained strength and leaders became more pragmatic and much more focused on temporal power rather than spiritual merit. Economic power became a major motivation for exploration and colonialization... and for science, with monarchs interested in such questions as how to determine longitudes at sea, or anything else that would provide an edge, in addition to prestige-motivated financial backing.

          In short, Europe was undergoing massive societal changes between the 15th and 18th centuries. I'm not too familiar with Eastern cultures except, to some degree, with Japan and China, but IIRC, those two needed external stimulation (the arrival of colonialists with comparatively advanced technology and a willingness to use it) to really get going.

          It might have something to do with Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which strike me as being a bit stability and contentment-oriented -- basically, don't rock the boat, release yourself from material greeds, make peace with yourself. Both of those two societies also were quite insular, and China at least had attained a sufficiently high level of technology (especially compared to their known neighbors) that it fueled complacency...
          • Absolute truth and any honest person from an Asian culture will back you up.
          • I think you may be right about china and japan but how quickly would near east nations (islamic nations specifically) have filled the gap-so to speak?
            • Ask somebody else... I wouldn't know, since I never studied their history or culture in any great detail, especially pre-20th-century. Hell, off hand, I doubt I've read a single Middle Eastern-themed significant work of fiction (let alone non-fiction) that I've read, save for "The Satanic Verses", which is far too allegorical to safely draw upon.
            • They most likely would not have. While it is true that the Middle Eastern world was the primary center of scientific and mathematical study and knowledge from approximately the Fall of Rome to the coming of the Inquisition, Middle Eastern societies, with the possible exception of Turkey seemed to stagnate somewhere around the 11th Century.

              How much of this was due to the destruction that occurred during the Crusades is an open matter for speculation. It is possible that, in a world free from European influences, this stagnation wouldn't have occurred. However, it is just as likely that, absent European influences, the continued intellectual development that occurred in Byzantium might have withered on the vine.

              I guess this is the stuff that science fiction, alternative history and other speculative literary genres are made from.
          • A strong mercantile class and (more or less) commercial culture existed in all East Asian cultures when they were more or less near their peaks.
            The question really is, what do people choose to do with their surplus wealth, power, and time?

            In just about any society, many of the people who have these things (landed nobles, mostly) turn to the arts and sciences. (Not all of them, obviously. Many more spent their time drinking, womanizing, conquering, or on fox hunts.)

            I think the basic difference between the wealthy classes in Europe and (for example) Japan, is that Japanese nobles look to their own pasts (or other cultures) for inspiration. They compete with each other to perfect existing arts and sciences. The push is to have the best handwriting, paint the best landscape, keep the most perfect garden, or write the most moving poem.

            Europeans, rather than perfect existing genres of art and science, compete with each other to produce better and better genres. Europeans want to be leaders (or independent), but usually not followers. What better way to lead than to be the first person to write a great psychological novel, be the first person to document certain properties of electricity, or be the first person to the North Pole?

            The peers of the European say "wow, that's new and interesting!" The peers of the Japanese say "wow, that's really well done!"
        • there are only superficial differences technology wise between 15th and 18th century england

          The key difference between these eras is the slave trade combined with plantations. They allowed English merchants to become fabulously wealthy and so accumulate the capital that powered the indutrial revolution.

          Mainly that trade was based on exploitation and murder - but technology did make a difference - it's very difficult to sail accurately without the maritime technology that was created.

          This is a bit of history they don't teach much of British schools!
    • I agree, it would be wonderful if the U.S. could catch up to Japan with regard to modern technologies (working trains, working cell phones, etc). I would be thrilled to live in a country where things just worked.

      Anyone have any luck tring to get a greencard in Japan?
      • Anyone have any luck tring to get a greencard in Japan?
        I haven't tried it yet, but after I graduate I'm going to try the JET program []. If you want to go there for a year or two and have a degree, give it a go.
    • one thing to keep in mind is that when japan lost the 2nd world war, part of the surrender was to say they would no longer have a standing army. Imagine how much money that agreement saves their government every year. I mean, one jet fighter costs US$100M. That's a heck of a lot of money that's being put to (")better(") use, like the tech sector. not that this would change their culture in and of itself... but by that time they were already moving ahead, and so it certainly didn't hurt.
  • by bravehamster ( 44836 ) on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @11:39AM (#3523602) Homepage Journal
    KSR takes himself way too seriously. Alternate history novels can be a hell of a lot of fun, and this book simply...wasn't. There are a lot of points throughout the book where you get the feeling that KSR is passing up the opportunity to introduce some great situational irony (half the point of alternate history, imho) so that people will focus on his message instead. Like I said, a good read, but not nearly as fun as S. M. Stirling's latest, The Peshawar Lancers, or hell, anything by Harry Turtledove.

    • Read KSR's Escape from Kathmandu, an extremely funny book -- a pure comedy -- and see whether you still think KSR takes himself too seriously. He's written some very funny stuff, but almost entirely at shorter lengths rather than in novels (Escape from Kathmandu is a collection of three shorter pieces).
  • Edward Said (Score:3, Interesting)

    by KelsoLundeen ( 454249 ) on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @11:42AM (#3523608)
    Does this mean that Edward Said never publishes 'Orientalism?'

    Maybe some other dude publishes 'Occidentalism?' So it's possible to blame the East for the same ills and misunderstanding that Said blames the West for?

    More things change, more they stay the same ...
    • You might want to reread Orientalism. Its cultural studies, so is more concerned with the image of the Orient projected by Western thinkers on to the cultures of Asia. Said isn't so much playing the blame game as looking at the social construct that is the Orient, a place which doesn't, in actuality, exist.

      BTW: there's plenty of blame to lay at the feet of the West. To acknowledge the sins of the past, and present, is to engage in a critical appreciation of our cultural heritage--as opposed to some form of blind ancestor worship or jingoism.
  • by crumbz ( 41803 )
    The NYT gave it a positive review a couple of Sundays ago. I just picked up the book yesterday from the local Sci-Fi bookstore. I am looking forward to reading it on vacation next week. Along with Cobweb by Stephen Bury.
  • Western Rapacity? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hairy_Potter ( 219096 ) on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @11:48AM (#3523631) Homepage
    Oh yeah, Asia is just full of gentle, earth loving Asians, who would never dare fill their oceans with mercury, run unstable nuclear reactors, deforest thier jungles, wipe out their tigers, rape their nankings and generally behave just as boorishly as any westerner. Cut the racist crap Timothy, that attitude was old when Kipling used it.
    • Damn Straight brother. Asians like tightly controlled nature that does not get in their way. This from someone who has spent *way* too much time over there.
    • I really dont think there is any racism here. The fact that the book is trying to portray IMHO is that power corrupts and while we have Western Rapacity now there was just as likely going to be Eastern Rapacity. So really there is no racist crap. The idea applies equally to all.
      • He's been fed the whole liberalist lie about white people being the devil, and people of color being pure, kind, nature lovers.
        • Duncan Lawie wrote the review, not Timmy. The editors do enough stupid stuff on their own, I hate it when they get blamed for what others write.
        • by dingo ( 91227 )
          you miss the point.

          he says just after "Western rapacity"

          Perhaps, in the final analysis, human nature is human nature regardless of the cultures

          so what he is doing is pointing out that there is a "lie being fed" and therefore you are just agreeeing with what he says.
    • I was afraid that this book would be PC junk like The last book in his Mars series, and some of his other work. And I thought it would be exactly what you suggest. It wasn't. It seemed fairly even-handed, with a fair share of greed, rape, murder for everyone.

      The last book in the Mars series, however, was a betrayal of all the characters that had been developed in the previous two; simply in order that we might arrive at his utopia. Now, hypocritically, I don't really mind when Heinlein does it, because we pretty much agree on what utopia looks like; but KSR has a new-age greenpeace kill-the-gun-nuts kind of thing going on in his utopias which I would feel compelled to take up arms to overthrow. Budding SF Authors: utopia is forbidden and unreachable. This is why bad-guy wins stories are never quite as appealing as they would seem.
    • Have you actually read the book in question though? It sounds like you had a grudge against the writer before you even read the review.
    • Hah! Whoever thinks Westerners are rapacious needs to read some Chinese history.

      For example, if a Ming emperor disliked you and decided to execute you, he would also execute everyone in your extended family, all the way out to nine generations removed.
  • Then how come I've never read any of his work? Yeah I've seen it around, but I would Hardly say he dominates. I've yet to have anyone tell me he's even worth the money to read, or talked to anyone who has read his books.

    I'm sure he's a decent writer, but lets cut down on the hyperbole here. Dominate. Really now.

    • Just because he didn't dominate in terms of exposure, doesn't mean he didn't dominate in terms of quality and complexity (depth?) in the genre. In 100 years, KSR will be remembered and read, others (from his particular niche) may well not. This is bold wording, but quite possibly accurate. Mozart is often said to dominate his period of classical music, and saying so at the time would be an example of tremendous foresight, but I think could have been done with impunity for similar reasons.

      Let's cut down on the fact that you haven't read his work. Really now.
    • Of course, he doesn't "dominate." It's just another hyper-painful, hyper-intellectual book review for Slashdot. The same with "...the book almost dissolves into the deconstruction of it's own content." Deconstruction? Oh, really!

      I appreciate that Slashdot features sci-fi writers and books, but all too often these reviews need some editorial guidance BEFORE they are posted. Just a little reining in can make a big difference.
    • Re:Dominate?? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jonabbey ( 2498 )

      Well, KSR's Mars books stand as really the definitive Mars work of our generation, much as The Martian Chronicles once did.

      I'd say that KSR is the modern science fiction equivalent of James Michener. Not everyone reads Michener, but you can't really ignore the magnitude of his work. So it is with KSR.

  • I'm not normally a "hard sci-fi" fan,but Robinson won me over big time with his Mars series... He managed to prtray the environment, as well as the human passions shaping it, in such a realistic and engaging manner, that I was drawn in and actually felt a slight sense of loss every time I had to put a book down and return to "earthbound" reality. Good to see a true talent get his props and I look forward to reading everything he comes up with!
  • sounds great! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by tps12 ( 105590 )
    This sounds like a great book. I am a huge fan of
    this kind of writing, and I love rice and salt ('specially with a nice pat of butter...mmmm...), so I was thinking, "this book's for me."

    But then I paused.

    You see, I do almost all of my reading online these days. I get my news from different [] sites [] and even check out the latest fiction in ebook format. I also listen to books on tape.

    When you get right down to it, who has the time to read traditional media such as books anymore? In these modern days we are constantly on the go, and books have fallen aside to allow more efficient methods of information distribution to take their place.

    With Gutenberg's press [], the great oral tradition was left behind. And while we all appreciate its importance, we have moved on. It is time to do the same for printed books.

    • Hmmm. How good are e-book devices at displaying maps and diagrams? Reading a military history without good maps, especially with regards to a theatre in which I haven't spent vast amounts of time learning the geography thereof, can be painful (e.g. John Erickson's "Road to Moscow" is a bit agonizing unless you have an atlas showing detailed wartime maps, or you already know where even the villages and smaller rivers are...).
    • With Gutenberg's press [], the great oral tradition was left behind. And while we all appreciate its importance, we have moved on. It is time to do the same for printed books.

      Uhm yeah. Time to move on from printed books. Yup. Considering 99.9999% of the earths population doesn't have access to a ebook reader that makes a bunch of sense. Yup.

    • Sure, and in the future, people will wear clothes made out of shiny space-blanket material and cook all their food in microwaves, and decorate their walls with pictures of fractals. Feh.

      As much as I'm sure you'd like to think your toys are paradigm-shattering conceptual breakthroughs, you know they only continue along the same path that Gutenburg forged.

      The ASCII character set is nothing more than a new way to implement the character set used by the press. The important advancements made possible by the press are only re-codified by computers. Ebooks are nothing more another way to store a text, and a crappy way at that. Audio books are even worse because they're not even texts. You can't highlight or mark on ebooks (yet), and more importantly, you can't pass a cherished old ebook to your child as as heirloom.

      The physicality of books is important and wonderful, and you're cheating yourself if you don't appreciate the experience of reading a real book in a quiet place. You should curl up with a real book in a room with no computer and get some perspective on this technological terror you've created.
      • Sure, and in the future, people will wear clothes made out of shiny synthetic silk material and cook all their food with electricity, and decorate their walls with pictures of cars. Feh.

        As much as I'm sure you'd like to think your toys are paradigm-shattering conceptual breakthroughs, you know they only continue along the same path that Homer forged.

        The Gutenberg character set is nothing more than a new way to implement the words used by real poets. The important advancements made possible by the spoken word are only re-codified by letters. Books are nothing more another way to store a text, and a crappy way at that. Parchment is even worse because its not durable. You can't sing or chant books (yet), and more importantly, you can't pass a cherished old story to your child as as heirloom.

        The communal aspect of oral storytelling is important and wonderful, and you're cheating yourself if you don't appreciate the experience of being told a real story in a social place. You should curl up with a real storyteller around a fire with no paper and get some perspective on this technological terror you've created.
    • Re: Hey tps12 (Score:2, Insightful)

      by engwar ( 521117 )
      While I'm a busy person and a big fan of all things tech I consider it a bad week if I don't have some time to sit down and read a real book.

      To me that's like saying "who has the time to cook a meal when there's take-out food."

      Sitting down, relaxing, reading a good book. Those are some of the best things in my day. I'm tired of being "on the go" I'd rather be "on the stop"

      As to whether it's time to give up paper books for e-versions. Consider the following.

      1. How long will it be before you can find absolutely ANY book you want as an e-book?
      2. The enjoyment of digging through a musty, old used bookstore is part of the book experience for many.
      3. Lots of books on shelves in my house makes it more of a home.
      4. You can't tell where the dirty parts are in an ebook by seeing where the book opens to!
      5. What would I do with all my cool bookmarks?

        and finally

      6. Mmmmm. used book smell
    • eBooks and computers have their place. I'll never go back to hard-copy specs or give up my email. I not only use them for work but they allow me to maintain contact with friends & family in other states, other countries.

      BUT there are still times that it's more satisfying to rummage through a bookstore, to flip through the pages -- when it's pleasent to write a real letter with the expressive nib of a beautiful fountain pen.

      I may have dozens of computers, but I have hundreds of books and pens!
    • is not about the 'efficient' distribution of information.

      In fact, it's my advice to read a novel at no greater speed than it took to write it.

      Otherwise Romeo and Juliet becomes 'effciently distributed' as:

      " They fell in love and they died."

      The End

    • When you get right down to it, who has the time to read traditional media such as books anymore?

      What, like no-one ever went to the cinema again after TV became widespread? OK, flippancy aside, a new form of media doesn't automatically replace any previous forms, and I'd suggest that those who declare they have no time to read a book need to consider their time management. Books clearly still have a role in the propagation of information. The usefulness of paper is clear by the complete failure of the 'paperless office' concept. While the internet is perfect for the rapid distribution of personal ideas, it isn't the best format for an in-depth, elaborate, well researched and intricately constructed vision by one author. The collection of ideas in a self-consistent whole, intended to be worth perusing more than once, in an easily portable format, that is cheap to produce and once constructed requires only an external light source to be accessed, is clearly still worthwhile to me.

  • Salon Review (Score:3, Informative)

    by wormbin ( 537051 ) on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @11:58AM (#3523683)
    Salon reviewed [] this book a while back.

  • I should also develop the more interesting ones
    in books...
  • by Boulder Geek ( 137307 ) <> on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @12:21PM (#3523802)
    While I do enjoy KSR, and will probably continue to read his works, he does have a tendency to fall into preaching a bit much: he definitely has an axe to grind and is not at all afraid to hone it in public. This isn't a bad thing for a novelist, after all, large amounts of Huck Finn are written in this mode. KSR needs to develop a bit more subtlety about it. Some advanced irony courses would probably help him ;-).

    As for TYORAS (hey, a pronounceable acronym ;-), he does a better job of staying away from the long omniscient passages of Blue Mars that so damaged that novel. It still could have been tighter, IMHO. But then, I didn't write the book. It does seem very, very difficult to paint a picture of a society using only the materials at hand, instead of relying on conversations and exposition that explain everything that a person in the society would already know. I really find novels that eschew exposition more satisfying, as the mental effort to understand the world is more enjoyable than having it spoon fed. Besides, if things are left somewhat ambiguous you can have endless arguments about what particular passages "mean", leading to endless flame wars on USENET ;-).
  • Robert Silverberg did this idea a long time ago A familiar sounding summary []
  • KSR did his PhD. thesis on P.K. Dick, and later edited his short stories. Perhaps it's not a total coincidence one of Dick's best books, The Man In The High Castle [], is also an alternate history.

    Just a thought.

  • Mmmm.... rice and salt....
  • Timothy wrote that

    In the 1990s, [Kim Stanley Robinson] came to dominate science fiction. [emphasis added]

    How does a single writer "dominate" a particular genre of literature that counts its writers in the thousands?
  • I read the first chapter of this posted on BN and I am underwhelmed. The author throws in these cliches that are pretty disturbing and signs of bad writing.

    Baby-babble-barbarian speak. Let's face it we don't how they talked so making up something little better than kung-fu talk is not good. It makes the characters seem stupid.

    All kinds of concepts about religion and philosophy tossed in like we know all about it. You practically need footnotes to enjoy the book.

    Starting the book mid sentence. I understand this is vogue in the age of the sub second sound byte, but I was reading it cold with no preview from /. I would have no clue what this book was about.

  • while the mars series was quite good,I'd hardly call KSR a dominate force. When he add's another 5 books to his list maybe I will start echoing that sentiment.
  • In the 1990s, he came to dominate science fiction through his massive, and massively detailed, Mars trilogy...

    Dominate? They were three books. And average ones at that.

  • KSR was an important SF figure through the 1990s. But he can hardly be said to have "dominated" the genre. On what evidence? Awards? Sure, he collected two Hugos for best novel. But so did Connie Willis... and Bujold gathered three.
  • I'm about 100 pages from the end, it's way overdue at the library so I need to hurry up. Anyway, I've enjoyed many aspects of this book and with any KSR book, it's subject matter is well-informed if not a bit too well-informed. I think it tends to go overlong on character introspection and because it spans many centuries, developing these characters beyond anything other than a 50-100 pages is impossible.

    KSR slips the confines of mortality by reincarnating his characters in subsequent chapters but unless you're keeping track of who is who, it's hard not to feel like you're simply starting over. Also, I wish he had spent more time developing the Americas and its indigenious peoples. He basically ignores Africa (other than to say, yes, it is predominantly Muslim and yes, African slaves are used in other parts of the world) and chooses instead to spend all his time in India, the Middle East and China. I know that this is where much of the story is supposed to spring, but sufficed to say, I came into it expecting more of a treatment how the rest of the world would appear, especially the Americas since it is interesting to think of how things might have been different there if settled by the Chinese and Muslim cultures.

    Anyway, like I said, I'm almost finished and I'm, for the most part, satisfied with it but I think maybe KSR might have bitten off more than he could digest in a single book. Most everything he writes is in trilogy form, why not this particular subject? Regardless, there is a hell of a lot of material to try to take in a single reading but I seriously doubt the re-read value because of its tendency to drag on but I suppose if you really wanted to study it as alternative history then you could really glean a great abount of theoretical value from it.
  • "In the 1990s, he came to dominate science fiction through "

    I never even heard of the guy. I would hardly call that domination.
  • by kmellis ( 442405 ) <> on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @01:56PM (#3524580) Homepage
    I enjoyed this book up until the middle portion where these societies entered their version of "the enlightenment". At that point (although this was true to a lesser extent earlier) only a tiny handful of thinkers have an unlikely number of profound new scientific insights. That one man could casually toss off a series of ideas that took several men in our world generations to produce was, well, absurd. Furthermore, it was evident why the author thought that it wasn't absurd: he has an extremely condescending attitude toward those older, "obviously" nonsensical ideas and those who held them, vastly underestimating their acceptability within their context and vastly overestimating the assumed self-evident nature of ideas that we now believe are correct.

    This is a huge annoyance to me. Unlike most people, unfortunately including KSR, I have a strong education in the history of science and philosophical thought, with a very strong and particular emphasis on actually doing the scientific work and carefully reading the various texts. For someone who approaches the evolution of western empiricism in this manner, it is very often a surprise at how natural, obvious, and reasonable so many false scientific beliefs are. Very often, Kuhn's paradigm shift is a very difficult and sometimes unlikely event that is enabled because some crucial prerequisite(s) is satisfied. In my opinion, the archetypical example is geocentricism versus heliocentricism.

    Moderns assume that the ancients and Ptolemy were just plain batty and obtuse in their adherence to a geocentric geometry of circles upon circles upon circles. Isn't it obvious that a heliocentric model is simpler and compelling? There is an attitude that the ancients were simpletons for not recognizing this. But they did. They were well aware of a heliocentric model, and Ptolemy concedes its simplicity. However, they had absolutely no context within which to find the idea of the Earth in motion (and the consequently enormously large universe) an acceptable idea. Until Galileo's telescope, from an empiricist standpoint, the geocentric model seemed to be completely correct. We grow up learning that the Earth rotates and that it revolves around the Sun, and so vastly underestimate the counter-intuitiveness of that idea.

    In closely examining the history of science, over and over this sort of thing becomes evident. Outdated, supposedly absurd ideas are found to be far more reasonable (in context) than is commonly assumed; and modern ideas far more radical, even in context, than is commonly assumed. It takes a lot of hard work, profound insight, chance, and a friendly social and political environment for even the incremental, but crucial, changes in thought to occur.

    The reason this is important, in my opinion, is because we are no more exempt from the hubris that arises from ignorance as our ancestors were. The contemporary scientist who has nothing but contempt for those ignorant ancients and their ridiculous ideas -- because they are very sure in the assumption of the (overall) correct state of contemporary thought -- is really no different from those ancients they are ridiculing. "All or most of the things I think about the world are true, isn't it obvious?"

    Lest cranks and fringe scientists think I am validating their loonyness, I hasten to make it clear that I am not. In truth, the conservative nature of science and scientists is a necessary and good thing. It's a crucial part of skepticism. The hubris of close-mindedness is the enemy of the Newton or Einstein, that's true. But, while there's only ever going to be a few Newtons or Einsteins, there's (currently) millions of everyday working scientists. So, functionally, this attitude isn't a problem, it's a feature.

    But if one has any pretensions of wisdom and education -- and many scientists do -- then a deep and profound skepticism is a necessity. One should respect the immense mysteries of the cosmos and recognize that they dwarf one's puny certainties. Not only because there's so much left to learn, but because there's also very likely much to unlearn. That is the lesson of the history of scientific thought. You don't really need know this to be a good, productive scientist. But you do need to know it if you wish to exist as thinking being in this universe in the manner that the scientific tradition exemplifies.

    And, without question, philosophers of science, writers of the history of science, or science-fiction writers constructing an alternate history of science -- for all of these, this comprehension is also a requirement.

    Kim Stanley Robison's The Years of Rice and Salt fails in a crucial way for this reason. As he attempts to reconstruct an evolution of empirical thought that mirrors our own, he demonstrates that he doesn't really understand his subject matter. His subject matter is not merely the scientific ideas themselves; but those ideas in the context and tradition of the rational, empiricist tradition and the complexity of factors and ideas that have enabled and nurtured it. He sees the facade, and confuses it for the entire structure and its engineering. That's an egregious error in the context of this book.

    • *sigh* this attitude gets on my nerves as well. Pity, it sounded like an interesting book.

      Your ideas remind me a great deal of James Burke. Ever read him? He writes histories of science where the reader has only as much information as the people at the time did. You're right, most things we think of as "obvious" are really quite counter-intuitive.

      My favorite quote: "Wow, an alphabet! This would be perfect for writing the king's name in very large letters!"
    • It did seem improbable that the same souls would be responsible for such a large amount of the progress the entire human race accomplished; but it is a novel.

      I liked Greg Egan's 'Schild's Ladder'; it did a great job of describing a rennaisance.

      But then Egan is a scientist himself.
  • What might the "modern" world have been like if Queen Elizabeth I had been assassinated, the Protestant movement put down in England, and then subsequently across the European mainland and the New World?

    Through a series of intertwining vignettes, author Roberts presents us with a present time England under papal dominance. Where steam locomotion is the norm (as the church has not sanctioned fossil fuel burning), the inquisition still reigns terror, where electric lights are forbidden as heresy and where individual spirit and idea are considered dangerous. Yet how long can the people be held down?

    Roberts doesn't present the world at large as being negative, for their is a pastoral peace and simplicity to life, but he shows us how papal dominance can hold back both science and individuality.

    Highly recommended!

    Keith Roberts
    Ace 1968
    PB 285pgs
    ISBN 0-575-06103-0

  • I have greatly enjoyed prior KSR novels and I bought this one as soon as it came out rather than waiting for paperback, as I usually do. Right now I am more than half way through.

    Although the premise is interesting and the book must of required a great deal of research and planning, I do not find myself terribly sympathetic to any of the characters' problems. You need to get through (or plod through) the first few chapters (the end of book 1; the novel is divided into multiple books) before you actually figure out what is the driving motivation behind the characters -- that the character who is always reincarnated as someone with a "K" name needs to work together with the others in his/her reincarnation family (jati) in order for them to all progress. While the K character isn't terribly likable, the rest of the members of the jati don't do anything that makes me want to root for their successes or get concerned for their failures. The only thing that keeps me reading is to see how the alternate history turns out, but that alone does not make a good novel.

    For what it is worth, I am pretty knowledgable about world history, cultures and religions. I don't know if I would enjoy the book at all without my background knowledge.

    As for the person who posted above that the writing style of the first chapter was terrible, the novel is broken down into 10 (or so) books, each with its own style, presumably reflecting the period in which it is told. Unfortunately, I feel like he only commits half-heartedly to these stylistic efforts.

  • by timbu2 ( 128121 )

    In the first few chapter the reader was admonished to find out what happens next byu reading the next chapter. Ungghh, how annoying.

    Again, from "Red Mars", which I liked, the notion of monotheism as a shepherder idea.Unghh, ok, but does this have to come up in every book?

    I found very few of the characters interesting, or related to the sweep of history. In "Red Storm Rising" by Tom Clancy or "Winds of War" by Herman Wouk the author manages to tell a sweeping story where you care about the each part and each character. This book missed that.

    All that said, read "Red Mars", you'll probably like it.

    • Toss in the book "Castrophe", I forget by whom. This book talks about the great volcano of 535, and the natural beginning of the Dark Ages.

      Another one to look at is the one on El Nina, the effects of El-Nina on the world history. By its representation, the north atlantic is a back-water. Adds a new meaning to "the pond". :)

  • I recommend... (Score:3, Informative)

    by payslee ( 123537 ) <> on Wednesday May 15, 2002 @04:10PM (#3525534)

    A great book by Sean Russell called The Initiate Brother, and its sequel The Gatherer of Clouds. Actually, I recommend absolutely anything by Sean Russell.

    Most of his books are set in alternate pasts, and the two above take place in an empire similar to ancient China, full of both internal and external conflict. Some arises from dissent within a religion similar to bhuddism, whose monks have attained near-magical abilities through their meditation and training practices. There are rumors of invasion from the barbarian North, intrigue within the court is causing trouble for everyone, and all kinds of interesting things are going on.

    His characters are really compelling and act, think and speak in ways that make you really feel you are experiencing a different culture, not just your own culture dressed up in another time and place.

    The writing is great, the story is interesting, you want to know what happens to everyone, and although all of the events are fictional "history", you get a great feel for what that part of ancient China could have been like.

  • Sorry can't remember the name of it. But Anderson wrote a story of an alternate history where the plage instead of killing say 1/3 of Europe had killed 3/4 of Europe. Thus letting Islam take over Europe. The story is about an Englishman voyaging to the Americas, by the grace of Allah, to visit the Aztecs and the norther Indian civilisations. Where the Aztecs have overcome their sacrificial past and are now into an enlightenment phase and producing an Industrial revolution with the invention of steam engines and steam cars. An interesting different view.

    Someone mentioned "Pavane" also. Hmmm. I'd guess it would be a spoiler to point out that it really isn't an alternate history ... but history being re-run to avoid a nuclear war. Therefore, the religious oppression of invention is seen as a delaying tactic to prepare the world. Maybe I shouldna said that ... nah ... I'm a bastard, so there :)

  • How much did the geography and climate of NW Europe influence the social order of the people who lived there, and by extention their attitudes regarding the natural world?
    Specifically, given enough time, would a group of Arabs or Chinese living in the dense German forests and subjected to periodic small Ice Ages come to develop a culture similar to that of NW Europe today?

    Discuss. :)
    • Paul Kennedy's thesis in _The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers_ ascribes the military progress (and the scientific progress to sustain that) made in Europe from 1500 through the present to the fact that geography and climate made it impossible for a single Monarch/Emperor to control all of Europe. Lack of competition caused the other "world class" empires (China, Persia, northern India, Japan, IIRC) in 1500 to stagnate.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant