The Long View: The Years of Rice and Salt

 N = 1

N = 1

This book review is the source of one of my favorite cocktail party theories: a number of seemingly well-established sciences are built upon an n of 1. In a grand sense, geology and biology fall into this category, since the big theories like plate tectonics and evolution depend on one big sequence of inter-related events. In a micro-sense, you can see if similar things happen in different times and places, but the overall development of life on earth, or the development of the earth itself, only happened once, and we lack the capacity to conduct meaningful experiments about such things. Of course, the universe itself, the subject of the grandest of all theories in science, also falls in this category. Perhaps that explains the need to invoke the multiverse.

I don't have any complaints about the way these sciences have been pursuing, it just strikes me as funny that some really big scientific ideas aren't actually amenable to experiment. We can conduct experimental programs that build up the foundations of such ideas, but we can't wind the universe back up and set it down and see what happens the second time, which is the foundation of all experimental philosophies of science. Maybe that is why I like alternative history and science fiction: this is how we try to acknowledge our weaknesses here.

The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Paperback 2003
(Hardcover 2002)
763 Pages, US$7.99


This review appeared in the
Spring 2006 issue of
Comparative Civilizations Review


Once upon a time, a course in science-fiction writing was offered at Rutgers University. The grade was based on stories written by the students, but the instructor offered an exam option as a joke. It included this memorable question: “Describe the influence of the papacy on medieval Europe.” The question posed by this novel is actually more ambitious: what was the effect of post-medieval Europe on world history; or more precisely, what would the world be like if there had never been a European modernity? In the course of answering this question, Kim Stanley Robinson has written what may be the finest example thus far of Alternative History: historiographically sophisticated, with plausible characters, the book is essentially world history made readable as a series of biographies. Best of all, at least from the prospective of an admiring reviewer, the book presents a model of history that is both demonstrably and instructively false.

The premise of the story is that the outbreaks of plague in 14th century Europe were far more deadly than they historically were. The whole continent, from Britain to Constantinople, and from Gibraltar to Moscovy, is wholly depopulated. The action starts around 1400, when a deserter from the horde of Timur the Lame gets an inkling of the disaster as he wanders through the deserted landscapes of Hungary and the Balkans. He is enslaved by Turks; he is sold to the treasure fleet of Zheng He, who happened to be in East Africa on one of his famous oceanic expeditions. Eventually, the deserter dies as an innocent bystander at a court intrigue of the early Ming Dynasty.

In the course of this man’s adventures we meet pretty much all the people we will be meeting for the next 700 years. The conceit that holds the book together is that people are reincarnated, in much the way contemplated by Tibetan Buddhism, and that they normally progress through time with the same companions. In “The Years of Rice and Salt,” the principal companions are the Revolutionary, the Pious Man, and the Scientist; the Idiot Sultan puts in several appearances, too. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are set in the bardo state, between incarnations. Depending on the period in which they most recently lived, the companions take these interludes more or less seriously. During one such incident, the Revolutionary becomes exasperated with the Pious Man’s spiritual and historical optimism: “We may be in a hallucination here, but that is no excuse for being delusional.”

Macrohistory in this scenario differs from that of the real world more in detail than in broad outline. The 15th century discovery of the Americas is cancelled, for obvious reasons. Less than a century later, however, a Chinese fleet sent out to establish a base in Japan discovers the Inca Empire. Not long thereafter, the oceanic explorers from Firanja, a Europe resettled from North Africa, discover the east coast of the western continents. These penetrations from Eurasia are slow enough, however, to allow the politically ingenious people around the northern continent’s great freshwater lakes to adapt to the new diseases and to organize defenses. In later years, their model of democratically representative federal government would become the best hope of mankind.

The parallels continue. In Samarqand, in what would have been the late 17th century if anyone were using that reckoning, an alchemist notes that different weights of the same material fall at the same speed; soon there is a mathematics to express acceleration. Move forward another century, and we see scholars in the fracture area between China and Islam trying to reconcile the intellectual traditions of the two. The result is the beginning of a secular, enlightened science of humanity. A noble passage from their work runs thus:

“History can be seen as a series of collisions of civilizations, and it is these collisions that create progress and new things. It may not happen at the actual point of contact, which is often wracked by disruption and war, but behind the lines of conflict, where the two cultures are most trying to define themselves and prevail, great progress is often made very swiftly, with works of permanent distinction in arts and technique. Ideas flourish as people try to cope, and over time the competition yields to the stronger ideas, the more flexible, more generous ideas. Thus Fulan, India, and Yinzhou are prospering in their disarray, while China grows weak from its monolithic nature, despite the enormous infusion of gold from across the Dahai. No single civilization could ever progress; it is always a matter of two or more colliding. Thus the waves on the shore never rise higher than when the backwash of some earlier wave falls back into the next one incoming, and a white line of water jets to a startling height. History may not resemble so much the seasons of the year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes to a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time.”

The hopes of this period for universal reconciliation are shattered by power politics; the power in this case coming from the steam engines of the trains and warships of southern India, whose Hindu regions were the first to master mechanical industrialization. These techniques soon spread universally, however. In the earlier parts of the book, it sometimes seemed to the characters that China would take over the world. This fear performed the minor miracle of uniting the huge and fractious Islamic world, which in turn posed a threat to China and India. Thus, in the closing decades of the decrepit Qing Dynasty, the Long War began, which essentially pitted eastern and southern Asia against the Middle East, Firanja, and northern Africa. It went on for 67 years, killing perhaps a billion people all told. Even in the middle of what would have been the 21st century, the world had still not recovered from it psychologically, however much social and technological progress had occurred.

In some ways, the postwar parts of the book are the most fun. In western Firanja, disgruntled intellectuals chatter in cafes about the history of everyday life and the perennial oppression of women. A musician takes the name “Tristan” and becomes a sort of one-man Solesmes, resurrecting the plainchant of the vanished Franks. There is a subplot about how physicists collude to avoid building an atomic bomb. There are conferences of historians in which the author gets to critique his own devices. A panel on the nature of the plague that destroyed Europe comes no closer to explaining what happened, perhaps for the excellent reason that the real Black Death was probably the worst that could have happened. We get a discussion of reincarnation as a narrative device and, better still, of narrative structures in historical writing, particularly in narratives of historical progress.

The book ends peacefully, with an elderly historian, the Pious Man, settling into semi-retirement at a small college in a region that is not called California. In a way, he had achieved the era of perpetual Light that people like him had always hoped for, but the eschaton is more like that of Francis Fukuyama than of any of the great religions. There was really only one way that history could go, we are led to believe. In the closing sections, children in his campus village hunt for Easter eggs in springtime, but of course they don’t call them Easter eggs.

The speculation in "The Years of Rice and Salt” presents the same sort of issue that Stephen Jay Gould addressed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the latter work, Gould considered what would happen if biological history were begun again. Would it follow the course of the history we know, and arrive at something like our world? Gould answered “no.” His principal evidence, an interpretation of the Burgess Shales, collapsed a few years later when better preserved fossils from the same period were discovered. His larger contention is still open to debate; the matter can be decided only when we can compare the evolutionary history of Earth to that of another earth-like planet. At this point, it seems to me that Gould was probably wrong: evolution does tend toward certain solutions. I would say the same about human history, and so, apparently, would Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, however, the most remarkable effect of the deletion of the West is that there is no effect. This is almost surely wrong.

Consider a few of the notable figures in this alternative history: a Chinese Columbus, an Uzbek Newton, an Indian Florence Nightingale. They not only perform roughly the same historical functions as their real-world counterparts; except for the Columbus figure, they each do so at roughly the same time as each of their real-world counterparts. It is hard to see why this should be. The West did not decisively influence the internal affairs of the two greatest non-Western imperia, China and the Ottoman Empire, until well into the 19th century. There is no particular reason why sailors from Ming China could not have discovered America. For all we know, maybe a few did. Even if that discovery had become well-known, however, it would have made little difference. For internal reasons of cultural evolution, China was no longer looking for adventures. Similarly, there is no reason why the physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been discovered in Central Asia in the 17th century, if all that was necessary was cultural cross-fertilization and a frustrated interest in alchemy.

There are in fact good reasons for making India the site of an alternative industrial revolution. Its patchwork of states, so reminiscent of Baroque Europe, might well have offered both the intellectual sophistication and the political license to develop a machine economy. The problem is that no such thing seems to have been happening when the English acquired control over most of the subcontinent in the 18th century. There was considerable Indian industry, of course, but it was not progressive in the way that European industry was in the same period. It was not just a question of technique; industrial development requires financial sophistication and acceptable political risk quite as much as it requires engineering. India was kept from developing by the government of the Idiot Sultan, and he was wholly indigenous.

Toynbee defined civilization to be a class of society that affords an intelligible unit of historical study. The nations or other units that comprise a civilization could not be understood in isolation from each other; the larger ensembles to which a civilization might belong are accidental or not constant in their effects. Toynbee modified his ideas in later life, but this definition is helpful here.

We see even in the dates in this book that something literally does not compute. Most numerical dates are given in the Muslim reckoning; actually, it is easiest to find your way around if you keep a chronological list of Chinese emperors handy. Even though there is a very sketchy timeline at the beginning of the book, there are still occasions for confusion. Because of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, a Muslim century is (if memory serves) only about 97 Gregorian years. The omission of the Christian calendar, however necessary because of the book’s premise, makes the world history the book seeks to describe almost inconceivable.

There is a sense in which Columbus, and Newton, and Florence Nightingale were world-historical figures, but if we are to discuss them as a group, we must start with the fact they were all products, indeed characteristic products, of Western civilization. The line of development that led from one to the other (or from the social milieu that produced one to the social milieu that produced the other) was a process within Western civilization. There had, perhaps, been figures parallel to these great names during the pasts of other civilizations, but the parallels were not chronologically simultaneous.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as world history. Another of Toynbee’s notions is helpful: the idea that civilizations appear in generations. The most ancient civilizations, those of the river valleys, were local affairs, however widely their influence spread. The “classical” civilizations of the next generation, of Rome and the Han and the Gupta, were regional. The third generation, including the Islamic cultures, post-Tang China, and the West after the Dark Age, are all third generation, as indeed are other societies, notably Japan and Hindu India. What Islam, the West, and China, have in common is that they are all, in principle, universal. During their great ages, Islam and China both reached just shy of global influence before consolidating their activities to certain broad regions. The West finally did achieve global scale, in the 15th century, and so created the possibility of a genuinely ecumenical society.

This is the gospel according to Toynbee, and you can take it or leave it; as we have noted, “The Years of Rice and Salt” includes a quite sophisticated discussion of metahistory. Nonetheless, the incontestable fact is that, whatever malign influence you might want to ascribe to European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other great civilizations during early modern times were simply not efflorescent in the way the West was. Without too much speculation, we can make a good estimate of the course of the world’s major civilizations in the absence of the West.

China was winding down from its Song climax; the Ming and Qing Dynasties would have followed much the same course with or without Western influence. The result would have been another minor dark age in the 20th century, as after the Latter Han in antiquity. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, the greatest of Islamic states, was losing control of North Africa and the hinterland of the Middle East before the Europeans ever became a factor. The empire would probably have unraveled in pretty much the way it did in our timeline, perhaps with the exception that the caliphate might have survived as a venerable anachronism. As for India, it is a commonplace that the English stepped into a vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. Doubtless other forces would have stepped in if the English had not been available, but there is no particular reason to suppose that the new situation would have been discontinuous with earlier Indian history.

There would still have been dynamic societies in the world, of course. Japan’s social evolution has its own internal logic; Western contact in the mid-19th century was an opportunity that Japanese elites chose to exploit. During the same period, Burma was literate, mechanically ingenious, and of an imperial turn of mind; only annexation by the British Empire prevented what might have been a new Buddhist civilization from forming. Anything at all might have happened in the Americas, but for the time being, it would have been of only local significance. The “classical” generation of American civilizations would still have been in the future.

On the whole, Earth by the middle of the 20th century might have seemed like a planet with a great future behind it. However, there have been general breakdowns of civilization before, notably at the end of the Bronze Age. Even in the barbarous early Iron Age that followed, however, techniques and ideas spread from land to land. Similarly, in the third millennium, it would have been just a matter of time before one or more societies wove the new ideas into a civilization with universal potential.

That history would have taken another 500 to 1000 years to reach the state of things that we see from the college in the land that is not Calfornia. A book about it would have to be very good indeed to compare to “The Years of Rice and Salt.”

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson