I have had Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt on my “To Read” list for ages. Now it isn’t there anymore, having moved to the “I must bore everyone I know talking about this because I love it” list.
The book tells the story of a number of souls. Well, they’re more Buddhist than that, like assemblages of characteristics. They encounter each other and try to make the world better. They’re Persian or Chinese or Japanese or other subjects of the great empires of the world since the 14th century. There’s one who is a dreamer and one who desires justice and one who is happy. They find themselves on opposite sides of ideologies from their previous lives and in bodies of different genders and cultures and occupations. Sometimes we see them after they have died and they’re getting their souls redistributed in the bardo where they can have a bit more meta- attitude about the point of their lives and going back again and again and how they should do better the next time.
Each section takes place at a different critical point in history when these souls (whose human names begin with the same letter every life as a mnemonic) try to live and improve the world. It’s so good, and makes me so sad that all my conversations with friends are about what kind of jobs we’ll be able to find. The scale of the story is so big, so pan-human that anything else feels so petty.
The other thing about this book is that it is an alternate history. In the 13th century plague wiped out most everyone in Europe, so all the history is different from that point on. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known, but Christians have been lost to history (much like we’d think of druids today). The whole colonization of the New World is a competition between China and the Muslim world coming at it from opposite oceans. Things are different but similar all throughout the book. The indigenous people of North America resisted colonization in different ways because being exposed to smallpox in smaller batches meant there was less genocide by germs. And feminist Islam is different and the development of nuclear power is there but different.
I’m sure that if you wanted to examine the choices Robinson made in creating this alternate history critically you could see it as its own exoticizing racist colonialist terrible thing. I read it more as a book about possibilities and loved it. The language wasn’t systematic in what it made unrecognizable but it was enough to remind you that things are different in this world even as the beings living through it feel like nothing is changing. It’s exactly what I want fiction to do so I loved this book.
As always when I read one of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, after Surface Detail it took me a while to get back into twenty-first century human life. Surface Detail is about a war over hells and whether they should be allowed to exist or not, and it’s about endlessly fighting battles, and about revenge and political expediency.
There’s an excellent bastard you’re rooting against for being terrible, but you know he doesn’t give a shit if you want him to win or not, and a woman who gets murdered in the first chapter (almost everyone dies at least once in this book) and then crosses the galaxy to get revenge, and a couple who voyage to hell and one of them doesn’t make it out again, and an appropriately uncouth Ship designed for battle. Pretty excellent stuff.
In my super-secret job I’m never allowed to mention for reasons of national security I find myself in the position to recommend books sometimes. The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King is one of these books that made its way across my workspace (can’t tell you if I have a desk or not, as that is a secret) and struck me as interesting. It’s the story of an Irish pirate and her reincarnation as a person in the late twentieth century after being cursed to spend 100 lifetimes as a dog. The cool thing is that Saffron (her 1990 self) retains all the memories of being 100 different dogs and of being Emer the badass pirate. And the great part of Emer’s memories include knowing where her last greatest treasure was buried. So yeah. Awesome.
There were several things that made this book better than the standard YA fare. First: I loved that it was set very specifically in 1990 for the “modern” parts. It made even that feel historical and obviated the need for today’s GPS and communication technology. In general I’m in favour of fiction being set in a specific year instead of “the present,” so there’re my biases.
Second, Saffron’s family is fucked up and [SPOILERS] they remain so right through the end of the book. There’s no redemption of the grasping mother who wants to live through her daughter’s success instead of doing something herself. Her father is a drug addict Vietnam vet and her brother steals from crippled people and burns down their home. You completely see why Saffron would want to go make a life for herself, memories of 300 years rattling around inside her head or not.
The sex in it is not what you might expect from a YA book too. It’s not all Gossip Girled up, there’re a couple of scenes of Emer (the pirate) getting raped and the villain spends a lot of time masturbating while watching the beach and telling the voices in his head how he’s not gay. So yeah, there’s that.
In all, what I liked about it was how it didn’t feel written to a YA formula. And in the back of the copy I read there’s an interview with the author and she says that she didn’t realize it was a YA book until her agent sold it as such. That makes sense to me. It makes it a bit weirder and out of place maybe, but a teen book I have no problem recommending.