Friday, December 16, 2011

#33 Friend Recommended: The Years of Rice and Salt

Books are not just a window into the story told within its pages, it's also a window into the people who love them. You can find out a lot about a person just by reading their favorite books, seeing how its influenced their views, ideas and lives. Books fire our imagination and shape the way we think, the way we approach our lives.

In order to get to know my friends a little better, I decided that for one of my tasks I wanted to ask them to recommend some books. Originally I was just going to read 5 books recommended by friends, but when I posted a Facebook status asking for recommendations I was overwhelmed by responses. People want to be understood, they want to share the things they love and I feel like my friends want me to see a little part of their lives by reading their favorites. So I upped the number to 10.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is my first "Frend Recommended" reading, by my friend Phil.

So I would like to take this moment to thank Phil for the most graphic description of a castration that I've ever read. Thanks buddy.

Seriously though, it's a great read.

I chose to read this book first, out of all the ones that my friends recommended, because it's a Sci-Fi / Fantasy Alternative History and I haven't read too many of those, but I've really enjoyed all the ones that I've read. Plus, it was available at my local library. Yay free!  The cover of the book says: Imagine a World Without Europe. The basic premise is that the Black Plague kills so many people in Europe that history is shaped by the East instead of the West. China, India, the Muslim Empire, Japan, and eventually even the Native Americans, who take on a much more important role in this alternate version of history.

But what dominates the book is the difference in religion. The plot spans 500 years of this alternate civilization, constantly switching points of view and location, and yet the cast of characters is always the same. They just have different names and bodies. As Islam battles Hinduism battles Chinese atheism, all with an undercurrent of Buddhism, in the world, between lives the souls of the main characters battle against the unrelenting and unjust dharma, their feelings of helplessness during their lives and their disbelief that they are making any difference during their lives. It provides a thread of connection between each of the disparate and otherwise unaligned chapters. Seen through the eyes of these characters are key points in time, fulcrums upon which the future of humanity rests.

The most interesting part of the book, to me, is how history hasn't actually changed. Little pieces, here and there. But the overwhelming flow of human history remains the same. Religion stymies scientific progress, corruption undercuts good people, rebellions swell against stagnate empires, and eventually science bursts forth and brings humanity to the revelation of atomics. However, Robinson adds many twists and turns along the way, little markers of personal human goodness that shine through on the page: the ever-present desire to do good in the world and make it a better place.

It's a rather long book, and at times almost frustrating to read, because the characters are so frustrated with their place in life. But enjoyable too. It catches at the imagination, to see a world where the Orient and Islam are the focal points, and the few white descendents of plague survivors make no difference at all. Religion, philosphy, science, ethics,  history, women's rights... no stone is left unturned or undiscussed, all with incredible thoughtfulness and attention to detail.

Although, admittedly, what remains burned into my mind are the details of 1 1/2 paragraphs describing exactly how the Chinese castrated their eunuchs.

Still. I would definitely recommend this book as a fascinating and unique read.

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