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The Years of Rice and Salt  
Cover of first UK hardcover edition, published by HarperCollins in 2002.
Author Kim Stanley Robinson
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Alternate history novel
Publisher Bantam Books
Publication date 2002
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 660 pp
ISBN 0-553-10920-0
OCLC Number 47894803
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 21
LC Classification PS3568.O2893 Y43 2002

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) is an alternate history novel with major Buddhist and Islamic religious elements written by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, a thought experiment about a world in which neither Christianity nor the European cultures based on it achieve lasting impact on world history. It won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2003.[1]


Plot summary

The book is set between about A.D. 1405 (783 solar years since the Hegira, by the Islamic calendar used in the book), and A.D. 2002 (1423 after Hegira). In the eighth Islamic century, almost 99% of the population of Medieval Europe is wiped out by the Black Death (rather than the approximately 30-60% that died in reality). This sets the stage for a world without Christianity as a major influence.

The novel follows a jāti of three to seven main characters and their reincarnation through the centuries in very different cultural and religious settings. The book features Muslim, Chinese (Buddhist, Daoist, Confucianist), American Indian, and Hindu culture, philosophy and everyday life. It mixes sophisticated knowledge about these cultures in the real world with their imagined global development in a world without Western Christendom.

The main characters, marked by identical first letters throughout their reincarnations, but changing in gender, culture-nationality and so on, struggle for progress in each life. Each chapter has a narrative style which reflects its setting.

Within the novel's re-imagined world, many places are given unfamiliar names, mostly of Chinese or Arabic origin. For example, Europe becomes Firanja, Great Britain and Ireland become the Keltic Sultanate, and Spain becomes al-Andalus; while the Pacific Ocean and Australia are called by Chinese names Dahai (大海) and Aozhou (澳洲), respectively, and North America becomes Yingzhou, a land from Chinese myth.

The world of The Years of Rice and Salt in 1423 a.H. (2002 A.D.)
     I. Yingzhou      II. Inka      III. Firanja      IV. Maghrib      V. Sahel      VI. Zanj      VII. Ingoli      VIII. Botswana      IX. Skandistan      X. Iran      XI. Arabia      XII. Greater Japan      XIII. China      XIV. Indian League      XV. Burmese League      XVI. Mindanao      XVII. Aozhou      XVIII. Maori

The ten chapters are:

  • Book One - Awake to Emptiness - A plague in Christendom, Zheng He's explorations, feudal China.
  • Book Two - The Haj in the Heart - Mughal India and the colonization of Europe.
  • Book Three - Ocean Continents - The discovery of the New World by the Chinese military.
  • Book Four - The Alchemist - An Islamic renaissance in Samarqand.
  • Book Five - Warp and Weft - Native Americans align with Samurai.
  • Book Six - Widow Kang - The Qing dynasty meets Islam in western China.
  • Book Seven - The Age of Great Progress - Beginnings of industrialism in Southern India; Japanese diaspora to North America.
  • Book Eight - War of the Asuras - A worldwide "Long War", fought for over 60 years in trenches with pre-atomic weapons between the nations of Islam and an alliance of Chinese, Indian, and Native American nations.
  • Book Nine - Nsara - Science, urban life and feminism in Islamic Europe's surviving post-war metropolis.
  • Book Ten - The First Years - Globalization and sustainability, and recovery from the Long War.

Several historical figures make appearances in this world, including Tamerlane, Chinese explorer Zheng He, Akbar the Great, and Kampaku Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The first chapter is written in a style reminiscent of the Chinese classic, the Journey to the West. In the last chapters the book becomes increasingly reflexive, citing fictional scientists and philosophers introduced in previous chapters as well as referring to Old Red Ink, who wrote a biography about a reincarnating jati group.


Themes of the novel are multiculturalism; progress and science; alternate history; philosophy, religion and human nature; politics; feminism and equality of all humans; the quest for freedom; and the struggle between technology and sustainability.

Not only because of the long time scale, but also because of its frequent reflections about human nature, The Years of Rice and Salt resembles Robinson's Mars trilogy.


The Years of Rice and Salt won the Locus Award in 2003,[1] was nominated for the British Science Fiction Award in 2002,[2] and received nominations for both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards in 2003.[1]


External links



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