Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (London: HarperCollins, 2002)

[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation 86 (2002), 134-36]

the-years-of-rice-and-saltBold Bardash, a Mongol horseman in the army of Temur the Lame, crosses through the Moravian Gate and onto the Magyar Plain, and there finds Europe dead, victim of a plague that has killed nearly everyone on the continent. Forced to flee Temur, he heads south to the Mediterranean, where he is captured and sold into slavery. As he sails east to China, he befriends the teenage Kyu, a fellow slave. Various adventures see them become members of the Yongle Emperor’s household, travelling between Nanjing and Beijing. But things end badly, and a tenth of the way through the novel they are dead.

Reunited in bardo, the afterlife, they await rebirth. Bold, Kyu, I-li and several other characters are members of a karmic jati, and when they reincarnate, their lives will again intertwine.

The opening book, ‘Awake to Emptiness’, establishes the basic pattern for the following nine, each of which is written in a slightly different style. For example, ‘Awake to Emptiness’ imitates aspects of Wu Ch’êng-ên’s The Journey to the West, with passages of incidental verse, and narrative hooks at the end of each chapter:

One of the sailors happily names it: ‘Alexandria!’ Bold had heard the name, though he knew nothing about it. Neither do we; but to find out more, you can read the next chapter (23)

whereas Book Six, ‘Widow Kang’, contains marginal commentary, a sometimes sarcastic scholarly exegesis of unfamiliar terminology which also hints at the meaning of the novel’s title (372).

Each book is set in a different period of the seven hundred years following the death of Europe, producing an alternative history centred on Asia, but also including North Africa, colonised Europe, and a North America in which the native American Hodenosaunee League occupies the central region between Chinese invaders on the West Coast and Muslim invaders on the East Coast (one of the novel’s tributes to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; there are also a couple of references to Tagomi-san). Later books trace the spread of Islam, the temporary establishment of an Islamic utopia, an attempted Chinese invasion of Japan, the discovery of the New World, a revolution in bardo, the birth of empirical science, the establishment of the Hodenosaunee League, attempts at religious co-existence, the industrialisation of warfare and a 70-year long world war, and the gradual development of a world-wide League based on mutual interdependence and responsibility.

Previously, Robinson has deployed various conceits to ensure continuity of viewpoint over a long historical span – such as the Mars trilogy’s anti-agathic drugs, which extend the lives of key members of the First Hundred – or in alternative versions of the same world. In The Years of Rice and Salt, he achieves the latter by doing precisely what Clute suggests he did in the Orange County trilogy, using the same characters under new names (Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 1015); and to assist the reader in following them through their multiple incarnations, he uses a naming device ascribed to ‘the Samarqandi anthologist Old Red Ink’ (649). However, as the novel progresses, reincarnation starts to be treated by the characters as a useful metaphor which needs to be reconceptualised in secular terms: humans live again through our children; when we are remembered or when, unremembered, we nonetheless affect the way people behave; when broken down into atoms, ‘we are diffusely reincarnate throughout the universe’ (664). Most importantly, reincarnation can be achieved by thinking of the species as the organism. It lives on, with history or language or DNA as its consciousness and, as Bao Xinhua says,

if we think of it that way, then it might increase feelings of solidarity and obligation to others. It makes it clearer that if there is a part of the body that is suffering, and if at the same time another part commandeers the mouth and laughs and proclaims that everything is really fine … then we understand more clearly that this creature-species or species-creature is insane, and cannot face its own sickness-unto-death. Seen in that sense, more people might understand that the organism must try to keep itself healthy throughout its whole body. (665)

Ultimately, The Years of Rice and Salt tells us not just that other worlds are possible, but that another world is possible.

One of the basic attractions of the alternative history for both reader and writer is the puzzle element: what was the initial moment of divergence from the historical record? For example, the pervasive anachronism in Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine is commonly said to stem from Babbage’s success at transforming his designs for mechanical computers into working machines; but as this could not happen without advances in metals technology and engineering, the authors alter economic, social and political circumstances by positing a revolution in which a coalition of workers, scientists and capitalists overthrew the Duke of Wellington around 1830. Byron’s leadership of this pro-industrial faction is in turn attributed to his wife’s decision in 1815 to stay with him despite his peccadilloes. This event has typically been described as the point of divergence for The Difference Engine, yet there are hints of at least one earlier change to the historical record: the successful establishment by Wordsworth and Coleridge of the Pantisocracy, a utopian community, in North America (that was really proposed by Coleridge and Southey in the 1790s). Did their absence from the British literary scene mean that Romanticism failed to take hold, leading to political rather than poetical careers for both Byron and the Luddite leader, Shelley? Are there even earlier divergences?

This puzzle aspect of the alternative history points to the form’s dependence on a shared epistemic base: we know that the Spanish Armada, the South and the Nazis did not win that vampires do not exist (Roberts’s Pavane, Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Deighton’s SS-GB, Stableford’s The Empire of Fear, respectively), and, to take an example from Robinson, that America did drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima (‘The Lucky Strike’). Alternative histories then work by establishing how the world created by the alteration differs from our own. This is the other aspect of the shared epistemic base: the reader must be familiar with the historical record that is being changed.

In The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson offers a magnificent misprision of the form. He has created an intricate alternative history of cultures whose real-world history is largely excluded from Western mass education. This is a profoundly political act, and one which could not be more timely as ignorance of Islamic cultures forms the basis of the stereotyping which is used to justify slaughter of Afghan civilians, oppression of Palestinians and genocidal sanctions on Iraq. Throughout the novel Robinson draws multiple perspectives on the many strands of Islam and the variety of Chinese and Japanese cultures. Sometimes these cultures seem to match stereotypes all too common in the real world – Islam as viciously repressive, the Chinese as yellow peril – but Robinson’s world is too vast and complex to allow these views to go unchallenged. For example, Islam is mourned as a religion with a more or less feminist and egalitarian core in the Quran that has been lost behind the hadith (later teachings which have rather more to do with the subjugation of the people and the maintenance of power); later, other muslims propose looking for what is most buddhist in their religion.

The structure of the novel enables Robinson to demonstrate once more his tremendous skill at novella-length writing, his marvellous economy in creating credible characters, his eye for many different landscapes, and his thematic complexity and coherence over both shorter and longer lengths. He remains a didactic writer, but the various discussions about politics and theories of history that appear throughout The Years and Rice of Salt are vital, integral and invigorating.

It is a work to be pondered, certainly, but more than that, to be savoured.

Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is the last of them.

4624298147_dc53dc7d03First edition: New York: Pyramid, 1960
Edition used: New York: Pyramid, 1960

Charlie Johns, a contemporary American, mysteriously wakes up in a posthuman future, the apparently utopian society of Ledom (‘model’ backwards). It is home to homo sapiens’ replacements, an androgynous species possessing both male and female genitals. As devoted to the principles of process and change as they are to their children (who symbolise the future and thus change), they live lives of fulfilment and repose. They transported Charlie through time so he can learn about them and offer an ‘objective’ view on their culture and society. Or so he is led to believe…

Interpolated between the chapters charting Charlie’s adventure are shorter ones depicting the life of contemporary suburbanites Herb and Jeanette Raile, and their children, Davy and Karen. These contrapuntal chapters offer sharp satiric insights into gender roles, sexual politics and mores, consumerism, competition, materialistic Protestantism, social hierarchies and child-rearing. Although their tone is very different from that of the Ledom chapters, they offer an essential counterbalance to the more traditionally utopian method of Charlie’s story.

John Clute described Venus Plus X as the novel which

bravely came as close to a traditional utopia as any US genre-sf writer had approached before the efforts of Mack Reynolds.[1]

5896940782_43c4b2478e_bThis tension – between the utopian guided tour and genre sf’s predominantly action-adventure format – is perhaps most evident in the closing pages of the novel in which a cognitive breakthrough (of sorts) piles fresh revelation on fresh revelation, casting much of what has gone before in a fresh light. A similar tension is effectively balanced in the tonal differences between the Ledom and suburban chapters. Because the utopian form requires expository dialogue to interpose between the utopia and the visitor (including the reader), there is always overt commentary in place of the effect of direct perception. Consequently, in depicting suburban America, Sturgeon is faced with the option of an apparently realistic vision or an expository technique which would parallel (without replicating) the technique used to depict Ledom. Sturgeon’s turn to the satiric, which had become increasingly commonplace in 1950s US magazine sf, is in many ways the more satisfactory method of reconciling the traditional utopian with genre sf, not least of all because it keeps them in constant tension and balance. Venus Plus X, like Ledom, is about ‘passage’ (107) and ‘dynamic imbalance’ (108).

What, then, are the qualities of Ledom that make it utopian? Without biological differentiation in terms of sexual characteristics, and without the fetishisation of particular body parts, there is no basis upon which to construct an ideology of gender differentiation. Biological determinism is invalidated as a concept, replaced by a variety of cultural (including technological) determinism. The Ledom thus express themselves, rather than sexual or gender categories, through their modes of dress, labour and creative activity. Competition has been replaced by harmonious coexistence. Community has replaced suburb.

sturgeon_t_venusplusx_1970_1These utopian elements take on greater effect because of their contrast with the harried, frustrated, confused lives of the Raile family. Herb and his neighbour Smitty worry about what they perceive as women taking over in the guise of attaining equality. Where Smitty struggles to maintain masculinist bigotry, Herb struggles to compromise between traditional masculinity and an equal relationship with Jeanette. But Jeanette is not without her own neuroses about sexuality and power relationships. And in a number of comic asides – when Karen touches herself in the bath, when Davy hits her with a pillow for receiving different treatment from their father – it is clear that their children will be caught in similar dilemmas.

The major set of images Sturgeon uses to valorise this distinction between community and suburb is concerned with music. The inspirational, unrehearsed but nonetheless perfect group singing of the Ledom stands in stark contrast to the pop idol Herb and Smitty watch singing ‘Goozle Goozle’ on TV, a polysemic performer targeted at a whole array of market segments:

The words are something about Yee Ooo: I hold Yee Ooo, I kiss Yee Ooo, I love Yee Ooo, Ooo-Ooo. The camera dollies back and the singer is observed in a motion which one might explain by asserting that the singer, with infinite ambition, is attempting to grasp between his buttocks a small doorknob strapped to a metronome. (37)

venpxAt the core of the novel lie its least novelistic chapters, when Charlie receives a history lesson via the cerebrostyle. The Ledom – and arguably Sturgeon – locate the failure of Western civilisation in the suppression of pre-Christian ecstatic religion and sex and their distortion into instruments of social control:

So sex and religion, the real meaning of human existence, ceased to be meaning and became means. (130)

In the opening chapter, the dislocated Charlie devotes his energy to trying to remember:

He could not stop remembering; dared not, and did not want to stop. Because as long as he kept remembering, he knew he was Charlie Johns; and although he might be in a new place without knowing what time it was, he wasn’t lost, no one is ever lost, as long as he knows who he is. (8)

Continuity of identity here depends not upon name but upon recollection; and what applies to the individual applies to society as a whole. As long as ecstatic religion and sex are repressed, forgotten, Western so-called civilisation is alienated from its true identity.

Central to this repression is an overemphasis

on differences which [are] in themselves not drastic. (61)

venusAnticipating Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), the Ledom argue that differentiation is a product of looking for difference – which is then employed to construct ideologically naturalised hierarchies. Without the deconstruction of sexual differentiation – an act literalised in Ledom – sexual equality will continue to be one of Western literature’s ‘hallucinatory images’, along with

pigs with wings, human freedom, fire-breathing dragons, the wisdom of the majority, the basilisk, the golem. (84)

[1] John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Orbit, 1993), p.1176.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More