Friday, October 2, 2015

The Years of Rice and Salt

Somehow, I read a synopsis of this book somewhere, and bought it, and read the back of it, and still managed to not realize what the book was about!

I thought it looked at how life in Africa might have proceeded if European colonization had not occurred.  And yes, that is a part of it, albeit a very small part.  I missed the whole let's rewrite global history as if the Plague breakouts in the 1300s had killed almost everyone Western Europe, instead of only one third of them.  And I definitely had no idea about the strong Buddhist bent to the plot.  Not that any of that is a bad thing, but I rarely go into a book so off course as to what I was about to read!  

This one lies pretty solidly in that grand science fiction tradition of using alternate worlds and/or histories to question how society operates.  The author is compared to James Michener, too, since both have written epic fictionalized histories that follow generations (not quite generations in this case, but the effect is similar). I realized that it's been quite a while since I've read something in either of those veins.

So, this one was hot and cold for me.  There were parts that were frankly just beautiful, but more and bigger parts were a slog.  I had 15 pages left last night to finish this entire 700+ page book and couldn't do it.  That, like, never happens.  Some of the issue comes from the difficulties of covering so much time relatively quickly - the pace gets very uneven.  Some of it comes from the extended discussions, which were really mini-lectures, on the fabric of religion and civilization, although actually many times those were interesting to me.  

There are 10 books, I most liked Awake to Emptiness and The Widow Kang.  For a long time I thought the book's title had no specific meaning, but Widow Kang has a wonderful explanation.  The discussion of reincarnation in the last few pages of the book is both amazing and wickedly clever.     

Maybe most troubling is that I'm not sure what the big picture is.  The book seems to make judgments about particular religions/civilizations, but some of them don't seem correct, even within the context of the book.  But I think I would need more time than I'm willing to commit to untangle everything. 

Final call:
I wouldn't say that this book has broad appeal, but it's also pretty approachable.  If you feel like walking on the philosophical wild side, give it a go.

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