The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

Recently, I searched up and through a variety of online books lists. The point was to get some perspective on my quest to read more this year and to add some titles to my own prospective reading plan.

“Fifty books to read before you’re fifty.”

“The 100 best books of all time.”

“The twenty best books of 2020.”

Or, where I saw mentioned my next read…

“Great books to read during a pandemic.”

A pandemic, huh?

I’ve had a paperback copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt sitting on my shelf for years. It caught my interest once, but stacks of unread books are not an uncommon sight at our house. Apparently, it was waiting for a global pandemic for it’s moment to shine. It is, after all, about a former global pandemic, one that in the fourteenth century wiped out a third of Europe’s population. But what if, Stanley proposes, the plague had wiped out ninety-nine percent of Europe’s population? Just Europe. Everywhere else had a tough time, but mostly pulled through. And thus the ascendency of Western Europe… um… never happened?

In fact, only last night I completed a very European-ascendant-type novel. Prelude to Foundation offers a far future glimpse of mid-twentieth century Western values transposed many thousands of years into the future. I don’t think it was the point of the book that pretending that the social growth from the 1950s through the 1980s stalled. Yet, Isaac Asimov was telling a light backstory to one of his more famous characters crammed in between a few of his more popular works. What emerged from my perspective was casual social commentary. That book (as I explained to my wife in my frustration between chapters) was as much a dissertation on late twentieth century counter-culture social hang-ups as it was an exploration of any of the fantastic ideas from the Foundation series itself. Prelude to Foundation wowed me as a teenager because I lived in a small city with conservative ideals during that era. The twisting story of a fortune-telling mathematician fleeing those who would use him for their own political means dabbles broadly but simplistically in tackling concepts like gender equality, social movement, and even sexual prudishness as the protagonist blunders through a diverse society. I think it blew my mind that people were questioning this stuff… and in novel form, to boot. But that was thirty years ago. Thirty years later, and having lived through and participated in a variety of social movements, I’d like to believe that I’ve questioned ideals that are far more complex… and that I still am. So, as a recommended starting point for a modern perspective, even if it is a quick, fun read, Prelude to Foundation would not be my go-to.

With my latest pick, NOVEL.2021.03, I’m continuing questioning big ideas about our place in the modern world. For insight on the events of the past that have shaped us I’ve turned to some alternate history fiction. The Years of Rice and Salt as a recommended pandemic read has some obvious parallels to living in a time of contagion-fear.

The vibe I got from the first couple chapters, though, was that fool-hearted self assurance we Westerners all take for granted of that ascendency of Western Europe. It happened, sure. But I think Robinson is going to push hard on the you do know it wasn’t inevitable angle.

Maybe in thirty years those ideas will be just as quaint and simplistic as Asimov getting hot and bothered and writing a full chapter about a secondary character taking her shirt off in public… but we did just watch an attempted (failed) fascist coup of the US government so who can say. Maybe the impacts of Western European culture go a little deeper.

Ok, a lot.

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