Posts Tagged ‘Islamic science’

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt

August 8, 2022

     I’d been meaning to come back to this long novel for quite a while; it intrigued me when I first read it some twenty years ago, but it was nothing like I’d remembered it, this time around. It’s a well-written and evocative alternative history of the world covering several centuries, with a major difference: the Black Death of the fourteenth century did not kill only one third of the population of Europe, but eliminated it entirely, leaving the world to develop along a rather different track. Robinson explored potential futures focused on the Islamic, the Chinese and the Indian worlds, with a major emphasis on reincarnation thrown in…

It’s complex – obviously! – confusing, and at times annoying and rather boring; it’s clearly a tour-de-force for an accomplished writer like Robinson to imagine history on such a grand scale, but it does verge on the self-indulgent. Being a great fan of alternative history, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I shan’t even attempt to summarise the plot. The absence of Europe is thought-provoking in itself, given how we and our various offshoots, the USA especially, have shaped the world as we know it. Christianity has also gone, places have disappeared, and later on, our ancient history becomes the study material for curious archaeologists from other continents.

Imagining how the Muslim world might have developed is an interesting line of development, and I wonder what the reaction of Muslim readers has been to various strands that Robinson explores. The futures he creates are largely impressionistic rather than detailed; other religions and philosophies can get stuck in a rut just like Christianity has done in numerous ways. The effect is convincing, and also frustrating at times when I felt I’d have liked rather more detail to his alternative visions…

The Chinese explore the world in the way that various European nations actually did, and Islamic scientists replicate the investigatory and experimental tracks that actually took place in the West: the Islamic science that we know to have faded rather after the Middle Ages continued to flourish. Fortunately, scientists from all nations conspire to foil the development of nuclear weapons.

Although a world without Europe is very different, Robinson inevitably must remind us that humans are humans: there is still the lust for power, much cruelty, development of weaponry and warfare: in his future the equivalent of the First and Second World Wars are telescoped into one war which lasts over sixty years. It’s a strangely riveting read, and at times I found it hard to believe that a Western writer had written it; equally, I wonder where a non-Western writer would have gone with a similar idea. Robinson philosophises about the world, about power and religion and has obviously researched his material: I didn’t ever find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t a credible development’.

The best science fiction, to my mind, makes us think about and reflect on our own world; if it goes into the future, it makes us consider our own future, too. Humans are the same everywhere, and the big question which faces us now is surely whether we can learn from our history and our mistakes or whether we are condemned to revisiting and repeating them, in which case there’s little hope left. Robinson, from a very different and unusual perspective, and in a challenging work, offers much to think about.

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