"The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it," Oscar Wilde said, and few have taken that imperative so much to heart as Kim Stanley Robinson does with his latest novel, "The Years of Rice and Salt." In this epic tale, he asks what the world would be like if Europe's people and culture had perished in the plagues of the mid-1300s. The book, which covers 700 years, from what we'd call the Middle Ages to 2091, describes a planet different in many ways from our own but in its essentials surprisingly similar. China and Dar-al-Islam (the conglomeration of Muslim nations) have become the predominant global powers, with a progressive Indian League and a confederation of the Hodenosaunee (Native Americans) filling out the map.
For the most part, what a novelist tries to do with any given book is far less important that what he or she actually manages to accomplish, but it's impossible to read "The Years of Rice and Salt" without stopping now and then to contemplate the vastness of the task Robinson has set himself. Think of the challenges in writing a novel that ranges over seven centuries and most of the globe -- then imagine having to concoct all of the history for it as well, each year building on the events of the year before and taking Robinson's conjectural world further from the one we know. Creating a credible depiction of 10th century Beijing may seem relatively easy, but as time rolls on how will exploration unfold, civilizations bloom, technology and ideas evolve in a world where Christianity is a mere footnote and the great campaigns of Western colonialism have never taken place?
After having cut out so much cerebral work for himself, Robinson could hardly be blamed if he lost track of more intimate matters in this book. But perhaps what's most remarkable about "The Years of Rice and Salt" is the way it hews so closely to the lineaments of the human heart even as it fans out across such a mammoth stage. To carry us over many years and to many lands, Robinson uses the device of reincarnation; the novel is divided into 10 "books," each one set in a different part of the world at a different point in time, yet the central characters are fundamentally the same, even if sometimes they're men, sometimes women and once, memorably, one is reborn as a tiger. To help the reader find her way, Robinson makes sure that in each new incarnation a soul's name always begins with the same letter.
The players are: K, a classically choleric type who first appears as a young African boy sold as a slave to a Chinese merchant fleet and castrated by imperial eunuchs (bodily mutilation is a recurring theme in K's incarnations); B, a compassionate and gentle individual, initially a Mongolian horseman who witnesses firsthand the plague-stricken ghost villages of Europe; I, a scholar of omnivorous intellectual appetite who we first meet as a Hangzhou restaurateur who acquires an encyclopedic knowledge of China's fabled cuisine. (There are some other recurring figures as well, but these three are the main ones.) After their deaths, the characters meet up in a place between lives called the "bardo" where the gods preside over the judgment of the dead. Only in the bardo do they fully recognize each other and grasp their eternal identities.
"We always meet in the bardo," B explains to K during one of these extraterrestrial interludes. "We will cross paths for as long as the six worlds turn in this cycle of the cosmos. We are part of a karmic jati" -- that is, a "subcaste, family, village." This device provides an elegant solution to the challenge of making the book's plot hold together across 700 years; although it could easily feel belabored (I shudder to think of what Salman Rushdie would do with it), it makes perfect sense in a novel that places the East at the conceptual center of the world. In fact, the East, here, isn't east at all; one of Robinson's sly jokes is to have the characters refer to what we'd call Switzerland as "the Midwest."
Europe is eventually resettled (by Muslims from northern Africa) in a book where B appears as a Sufi who joins the entourage of an idealistic sultan intent on building a new, more egalitarian society. In this life, K is the sultana, a beautiful, fiery proto-feminist who refuses the veil and finally pushes her people's tolerance of female leadership too far. Like one of her later incarnations, the sultana can expound at length on how the Quran has been twisted and misrepresented by various mullahs and caliphs into an instrument of patriarchal tyranny. "When you see faces you understand better that we are all the same before God," she says. "No veils between us and God, this is what each Muslim has gained by his submission."
Submission, however, is not this character's forte. Each of the novel's three main figures must play a part in honing his or her shared destiny. "The dharma is a matter that can't be shortchanged," B says. "You have to work at it step by step, doing what you can in each given situation. You can't leap up to heaven." K will have none of this, and after an incarnation as a Chinese admiral who discovers Latin America, he becomes so enraged at the "evil unjust absurd and horrible deities" that govern the universe that he takes a sword to the goddess Kali (not a good idea). K's difficulty in diverting such rebellious impulses into constructive channels leads to an incarnation as a tigress and some of the novel's most sinuous, captivating writing. B, on the other hand, must move past a simple desire to "keep love at the center" and learn that the effort to bring justice to the world can't be left to K and I. I's role is to convince the other two to "forget about the gods. Let's concentrate on doing it ourselves. We can make our own world."
The world they make has its scientists and great thinkers, much like ours. K lives one life as a Galileo-like former alchemist who, with I, ignites a mini-Renaissance in Samarkand. B returns as part of a Japanese diaspora that harries the fringes of China's empire and teaches the Hodenosaunee how to fight off the would-be colonizers of Yingzhou (America). A kind of Enlightenment blossoms under K's charismatic rule in southern India, along with the promise of a world with "no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more qadis or mullahs or ulema."
Eventually, though, there comes the "Long War," a conflict that grinds on for 60 years, with the entire jati serving as soldiers and an eerie, nightmarish passage through the mountains of Tibet during which B suspects that the whole human race has fallen into the bardo and is serving as cannon fodder for the asuras (gods):
"Never had it been so clear to Bai that they had gotten caught up in some bigger war, dying by the millions for some cause not their own. Ice and black rock fangs touched the ceiling of stars, snow banners streamed on the monsoon wind away from the peaks, merging with the Milky Way, at sunset becoming asura flames blowing horizontally, as if the realm of the asuras stood perpendicular to their own."
Years pass, humanity begins to recover, and then the world has its own version of the '60s, a countercultural efflorescence in the coastal city of Nsara (in what we'd call France). B, in this life a young woman who has run away from her strict Muslim family in the Alps, meets up with K, an incendiary teacher who helps to lead an uprising against a military dictatorship. B's café-frequenting bohemian crowd even features a musician who revives the exotic music of the lost Franks in long concerts enhanced with opium and the stylings of "scent artists." During all of this I, again a scientist although considerably constrained by being born a woman, secretly works with a group of physicists, pursuing discoveries that frighten as well as exhilarate her.
It's only here, in the home stretches of "The Years of Rice and Salt," that Robinson's utopian inclinations wrest the novel away from his storytelling ones. The writing often becomes regrettably expository, weighed down by long, stodgy passages about economic and political developments. In a way, it's impressive that this element doesn't manifest earlier on, given how much information the reader needs in order to figure out what's going on. Robinson can work it in deftly enough at times, by making the characters teachers or philosophers, but at the very end, alas, it takes over.
Some of Robinson's historical revisionism seems unduly Pollyanna-ish. Would it really be possible for an international confederation of scientists to block the development of nuclear weapons? How, exactly, do the Hodenosaunee manage to become a world power without, it seems, adapting the social structures that industrialization seems to require?
Nevertheless, "The Years of Rice and Salt" is for the most part a magnificent and endlessly fascinating book. Setting himself the Scheherazadean labor of holding his readers through a chain of tales, a series of endings and beginnings in which we must let go of one story and then quickly be caught up again in the next, he pulls it off with a trapeze artist's grace. There is also something uncannily prescient about the novel's deep, subtle examinations of the divided nature of Islam -- does it offer a perfected covenant with the one true God that will guide his people to a better, less hierarchic society, or is it the creed of "ignorant fanatical disciples of a cruel desert cult, promised eternity in a paradise where sexual orgasm with beautiful houris lasted ten thousand years, no surprise they were so often suicidally brave, happy to die, reckless in frenzied opiated ways that were hard to counter"?
It is as hard to answer such questions in Robinson's invented world as it is in the real one. That, perhaps, is the most enduring impression that "The Years of Rice and Salt" (for all the progressive uplift of its conclusion) leaves. It is a novel in which chance and human nature intertwine in countless ways, producing an alternate history that provocatively intersects with and departs from our own. It offers a vision of the world in which what shapes our fate, in the end, are the raw materials of humanity -- our brutality and selfishness, yes, but also our curiosity, our capacity for sympathy and our stubborn persistence in muddling our way to a better life.