The Years of Rice and Salt is a novel consisting of 10 distinct stories linked by the reincarnations of six recurring characters, three of whom consistently reappear as protagonists. Although described as an "alternate history" set in a world in which the Black Plague erased the vast majority of Europeans - thus rendering Europe largley irrelevant in world affairs- Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt draws heavily from actual history.
Just as this alternate history centers on cross-cultural exchanges and international relations between non-Europeans, the real world history that inspires it is very much the story of people of color outside of the West warring with each other, learning from each other and loving from each other. The interracial relationships and cross-cultural exchanges that shape this alternate world (as well as the real world) take place between non-Europeans.
The driving relationship behind this story is the karmic bond between an aging Asian warrior and an inland East African boy, both sold into slavery and trafficked to China. Bold, son of a Mongol father and Tibetan mother, first meets Kyu on the East African coast when they are both bought by Chinese eunuchs under the command of the admiral Zheng He. Bold at first appears to be the dominant figure in the relationship, taking a fatherly interest in Kyu during their trip to China and caring for the boy after Kyu was castrated by the eunuchs. But the power balance of Bold and Kyu's relationship quickly reverses when the young Kyu demonstrates uncanny intelligence and ruthlessness, leading Bold on a journey for personal revenge against the Chinese Emperor.
Although this short story might be considered problematic in terms of its racial implications - the literal castration of a black male character - it should be pointed out that there are many eunuchs mentioned in the story, all of whom are in positions of power. Zheng He, the influential eunuch Admiral, is also an ethnic minority from China. In the story (and in the period of real world history that inspired it) people were subjected to castration regardless of ethnicity; in fact some men even sought it as a stepping stone to employment in the palace. Despite his emasculation, Kyu grows up to be a tallm handsome and able Inner Palace politician who is extremely popular with the ladies of the Emperor's harem. Kyu, despite his young age, proves to be a much more powerful personality than the older, more experienced warrior Bold.
In this story, Bold has been reborn as Bistami, a Sufi scholar from Sindh (in modern day Pakistan) and Kyu as Sultana Katima, a charismatic queen from Islamic Spain. Bistami joins Katima and her followers on a quest to establish a colony in depopulated France. After Katima is widowed, Bistami becomes her confidante and advisor. An unspoken attraction exists between the two.
The third story continues the theme of multicultural individuals negotiating transracial and international relationships. The protagonist is Kheim (Kyuu/Katima's reincarnation). In this life he is an Annamese serving as an admiral in the Chinese navy. Despite his foreign status and unpopularity with the Chinese bureacrats, Kheim is trusted by the Chinese Emperor and the Chinese mariners under his command.
Kheim's fleet accidentally drifts to the Northern coast of California, where they encounter the native Miwok people. When Kheim realizes that the Asians have unintentionally infected the natives with pox, he tries to minimize the damage by ordering his fleet to leave. The Chinese physician I-Chin, however, has become attached to Butterfly, a Miwok child. He brings her along on the voyage so that he could provide care for her.
Butterfly eventually recovers from pox and is venerated by the Chinese sailors as an incarnation of Tianfei, a Chinese goddess.
Not all of the Chinese left the Miwoks, however. One sailor Peng jumps shipped to be with his Miwok lover and her people. A later tale in the series reveals that Peng somehow made his way from the West Coast to the East Coast, by which time he had figured out a way to inoculate the natives against the pox. The story does not cast Peng as a great hero worshipped by the natives, unlike how some fiction by Western authors promote the idea of a "great white savior" bringing salvation to grateful brown people too ignorant to save themselves. Peng's contribution is forgotten by later generations of natives, its significance unrecognized. His deed is only brought to light through the spiritual vision of a later Asian visitor who simultaneously acknowledged that progressive developments in native political organization during and after Peng's time were solely the result of indigenous innovation.
This story is set in the cosmopolitan city of Samarqand (in modern day Uzbekistan), a center of science and trade visited by caravans from all over the Asian continent. Samarqandi alchemist Khalid shares a close friendship and professional collaboration with Tibetan expatriate Iwang. They spend their time discussing subjects such as the mathematics of India and the medical science of China.
Iwang's immigration status as a non-Muslim foreign resident in the city becomes problematic in the eyes of some authorities, but soon Iwang, Khalid, and their associates are faced with even more threatening and far-reaching issues...
Basho, a Japanese samurai, flees from China-occupied Japan to North America. Making his way across the continent, he is eventually adopted by the Hodenosaunee (aka the Haudenosaunee or the Iroquois Confederacy) after the Senecas, members of the Hodenosaunee Confederacy, rescued him from his Sioux captors. Though a foreigner, Basho is eventually nominated for chieftainship because of his contributions to the Confederacy and his respect for native customs.
The modest and unassuming Basho defers to Iagogeh, a respected elder among the Iroquios women, allowing her to choose a marriage partner for him. But while they celebrate the present, Basho foresees that invaders from the Asian continent will cross the ocean to threaten the Americas...
Interracial marriage and bicultural individuals are a central theme of this story set in Qing Dynasty China. Two middle-aged intellectuals - a Chinese woman Kang Tongbi and a Persian Muslim man Ibrahim - meet under unusual circumstances and sense a strange bond between them that goes back beyond the present life.
When Ibrahim proposes marriage to Kang, the widow hesitates. But her Persian suitor wins her over by emphasizing their similarities over their differences. Ibrahim, though born and raised in Persia, has a Chinese mother. He mentions an even earlier era in Chinese history during which Muslim foreigners in China were encouraged to marry local women. (This actually happened in Ming Dynasty history.)
Although their union is unconventional becase of the age of the couple and because of the somewhat scandalous issue of widow remarriage in Confucian China, Kang and Ibrahim form a dynamic partnership, challenging each other with scholarly debates and independently authoring seminal books that are passed on the later generations.
Armenian doctor Ismail, former court physician to a Turkish sultan, leaves the Ottoman Empire for India at the invitation of his professional correspondent Bhakta. Abbess Bhakta, head of a hospital in South India, has invited Ismail to share his knowledge in an environment in which Chinese, Greek and Egyptian medical sciences are all respected. The Indian Buddhist hospital where Bhakta works is staffed by locals as well as expatriates Buddhists such as refugees from Japan.
The non-Buddhist Dr Ismail, arriving with different values and methods, starts out as a misfit but eventually comes to share some of the social ideals held by the South Indians. In this era, South Indians have emerged as major players on the international scene, spreading their progressive political system around the world in the form of the Travancori League.
The interconnected web of Asians of different nationalities eventually links Ismail to Kiyoaki, a young Japanese laborer in the area called Northern California in our world. In this alternate history, North America, known by the Chinese name of Yingzhou, has been settled by Japanese refugees and then by Chinese colonists. The Japanese settlers, retreating from the newcomers, meet some of the surviving Californian natives with whom they join forces to resist the Chinese occupation. Kiyoaki too wants to work for the cause of Japanese independence from China, a venture advised by Dr Ismail on behalf of the Travancori League. An unlikely ally appears in the form a young Chinese woman Peng-ti, whom Kiyoaki rescued during a flood.
Although the narrative sometimes takes on the perspective of the characters, including their racial prejudices and cultural biases, The Years of Rice and Salt avoids demonizing any particular nation or over-extolling the virtues any specific culture by constantly reincarnating the key characters as people of different nationalities and races. Kiyoaki, who works for the pro-Japanese (anti-Chinese) movement in the previous book is now reincarnated as Kuo, a Chinese major at the forefront the destructive war between the Muslim and Chinese empires. By this time, Kiyoaki's cause had succeeded; a conversation between Kuo and his comrades reveals that the Japanese had slaughtered every single Chinese in Japan during Japan's war of independence. But now, in a marriage of convenience, the Japanese are allied with the Chinese against the Muslims in a war in which both sides use bombs and chemical weapons.
Major Kuo's comrades, the Tibetan Iwa and the Chinese Bai, survive the Muslim forces' shelling of Tibet's tallest peak, pushing west to join their Indian allies. Together, Indian, Nepali, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist soldiers pray at the sacred Bodhi tree in a rare moment of shared faith and common humanity...
Set in Islamic France, a land from which native Europeans have disappeared, a land now populated by the descendants of Muslim immigrants from Asia and North Africa, this story follows a young Muslim woman's move from a small town to the large cosmopolitan city of Nsara. Nsara, a modern Islamic coastal city, hosts communities of Indian Buddhist clergy, Chinese ambassadors, and Hodenosaunee expatriates.
This is a world in which the main languages of international scientific discourse are Algonquian, Persian, Chinese, Tamil and Arabic. Dine archeologists and South African scholars all make their appearance at an international conference in Iran.
Meanwhile, the Hodenosaunee of North America (North America is called Yingzhou in this alternate history) emerge as a player in world politics. When the government in Nsara is toppled by a military coup, Hodenosaunee warships arrive in the port, ostensibly to uphold the will of the international community concerning democracy in Muslim Europe. Through this bloodless show of foreign force, the military dictators are apparently driven from power and the local people's elected government restored...
Set in the 21st century, the last story in the series spans both sides of the Pacific, beginning on the Asian side with the legacy of Zhu, a man of Chinese and Japanese descent. Zhu, in his capacity as a Chinese governor in occupied Japan, chose to avoid casualties on both sides in Japan's war of independence from China by ordering the retreat of his forces from Kyushu.
Although Zhu was denounced as a traitor, his ideas of "communal creation of value" proved popular with young Chinese revolutionaries, including Bao (who appeared as Bold in Book 1, and then as subsequent reincarnations such as Bistami, Butterfly, Bhakta etc).
The young activist Bao becomes a diplomat after the Chinese revolution, eventually marrying a woman from Yingzhou (North America), for whom he moved across the Pacific. Bao's North American wife Pan, a reincarnation of Bold's former comrade Psin, is of Japanese and Chinese descent in this present incarnation.
After a long marriage, Bao is widowed. But as fate would have it, the aging academic is reunited with Kyu, his old companion in previous lives, now reincarnated in the form of Kali, a student from South India.
Even taking into account that alternate histories are by definition "not the way things are in real life", some of the cultural practices and naming conventions in Robinson's alternate history do not quite accurately reflect how things are done real world cultures, and may give some readers the wrong impression about certain cultures and histories. (For instance, in actual history, Otttoman harem life was not a sultan's self-indulgent orgy depicted in the book, but a carefully-regulated process controlled by the sultan's Queen Mother, to whose authority the sultan was subject when within the harem.) 1
However, it should be acknowledged that Robinson's task as an 'outsider' researching many different cultures that are located on no less than four continents was by no means an easy one, and he did an excellent job seamlessly integrating incidents in actual world history into his imagined universe, an exercise that raises the possibility that even in real world history, the impact of Western civilization on the lives of many pre-modern non-European civilizations may have been rather negligible. For instance the Persian scholar Ibrahim and the Chinese widow Kang conducted their interracial love in China with no thought or care for white Europeans. Ibrahim and Kang lived through the upheaval of Muslim sectarian riots in Northwest China during the Qing Dynasty. The regional unrest, as described in Robinson's fiction, quite easily matched the description of events in actual history books.2
It is natural for humans to be egocentric, and by extension ethnocentric to the degree to seeing 'our culture' as the center of the universe, something that is as indispensable and 'normal' to other peoples as it is to us. We think, "The rest of world wants to be like us," or "The rest of world can't live without us", or "The rest of world can't be happy until it learns to be like us," while at the same time secretly believing "the rest of the world can't be us, even if they tried." But studying real world history beyond our own ancestral cultures and beyond ethnocentric lenses shows that the rest of the world hadn't needed, nor wanted to be like us, and they were getting along just fine without us. Robinson's work of fiction, as far as it helps to open people's eyes to actual non-Western history and alternate history possibilities, can help us take a broader, less narcissistically self-centered view of the world.