As long as I've been an SF and fantasy reader, I don't think I've read a passage as eloquent and inspirational as the following: "This is what the human story is, not the emperors and the generals and their wars, but the nameless actions of people who are never written down, the good they do for others passed on like a blessing..."
The Years of Rice and Salt is a sprawling, sumptuous fantasy novel about civilization, set against an alternate-historical backdrop of a world in which the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out almost the entire European population (in reality it took about half of it). This has effectively brought Christianity to a halt, allowing Islam to rise to prominence as the world's major religion, Buddhism and Hinduism bringing up the rear. Given the political climate prevalent in the west following 9/11, it's a fascinating and possibly risky premise for a novel, particularly in light of the fact that Robinson's depiction of Islam is entirely benign, having in effect rid the world of its primary competitor (and antagonist). Sure, we get to see our share of pompous caliphs and malicious viziers, but there is a nobility to the common people who make up the meat of this enormous, episodic story.
An important element of the novel is Robinson's literal inclusion of fantasy elements like reincarnation as a means of unifying the ten novella-length sections of the story. I find it interesting that other critics have brushed off or in some cases ignored the fantasy elements, preferring to look at the novel solely as a speculation on the possible course human culture might have taken without Christianity as part of the picture. That's a core theme, to be sure. But it seems to me that the fantasy elements were essential to Robinson, even if only as a possible out in the event his historical speculations met with far too much criticism — either from academics who might think Robinson's scenarios are hopelessly wide of the mark, or political conservatives still hopped up on demonizing Islam who might trash the book as an anti-western, anti-Christianity polemic. Which is most assuredly is not.
Still, I think this is a novel for a specialized, very sophisticated readership. Your average Joe well most likely find The Years of Rice and Salt too intimidating and inaccessible, and, well, too damn foreign in its sensibilities and its way of posing questions about fate, destiny, and the choices we make.
The principal "characters," if that's even an appropriate term to use, are a couple of souls (there are actually more than that, but the stories principally focus on two) caught up in the endless wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. Robinson shows what I can only assume (having not studied them in-depth myself) is a remarkable comprehension of the metaphysics of eastern religions, and he incorporates these beliefs into a unique and fascinating fantasy setting unlike anything I've read before. Mind you, this is not a religious novel. Robinson is storytelling, not proselytizing. He has simply found in eastern religions some wonderful mystical concepts to employ in fantasy. Few western fantasists have seen fit to set their novels in the east, perhaps only for the colossal research that would require. But Robinson has never been a writer who minded doing his homework.
The individual stories that take the novel from the 14th to the early 21st centuries (though of course, they don't use the Gregorian calendar in this book) are compelling, even captivating at best. The novel truly is an extraordinary journey through time to one exotic locale after another. Now and again, as was perhaps inevitable, Robinson succumbs to the seriousness of it all; "Warp and Weft," in which a displaced Japanese warrior finds himself among American Indian tribes, is stultifyingly dull, but mercifully short. But for the most part, I found myself enthralled by the scope of Robinson's vision and his clear passion for his subject.
Had they been published individually, many of the book's chapters would be award-worthy novellas. "The Haj in the Heart" is an engrossing love story that begins when a Muslim cleric is paradoxically rescued from near-death by a tiger, who is later killed by frightened townspeople. When the cleric is exiled from his homeland years later, he undertakes the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he meets a young princess in whom he seems to recognize the spirit of the tiger who once protected him. He then joins her retinue as her husband moves into western Europe and founds a new city upon the ruins of one abandoned since the plague. In "The Alchemist," these two spirits are reunited years later in Samarqand, in the persons of a disgraced alchemist and an expatriate Tibetan, who together make the first discoveries in physics. One absorbing tale follows another, and they are all bridged by short scenes in which our characters meet in the "bardo," a purgatory-like afterlife where souls are prepared for the next go-round.
It's not for nothing that Robinson was considered a leader in the 80's "humanist" movement in SF, which was often viewed in sharp contrast, sometimes even adversarially, to what the cyberpunks were doing. (Which it should not have been.) Robinson's stories can always be relied upon to have richly sympathetic characters and a great deal of heart.
I found Robinson's historical speculations fascinating, though, as I'm neither a professional historian nor anthropologist, I can't critique whether or not they're completely reliable. I'll leave those kinds of analyses of this book to real experts. Predicting social trends seems to me a dicey business because you can never really anticipate that wild card variable (a Napoleon or Hitler). Critic Nicholas Whyte has pointed out that Robinson might have been inspired to write this novel as a response to Jared Diamond's remarkable Pulitzer Prize winner Guns, Germs and Steel, which explains how western European culture came to be so much more influential than others. That's a valid observation, and whether or not Robinson's alternate history would have really played out this way had Europe and Christianity fallen by the historical wayside isn't so important, I don't think. What matters most is that the story that's been told here is an exceptional one. And the bold, literal depiction of fantasy elements like gods, spirits and reincarnation could be seen as Robinson's way of reminding us that, in the end, The Years of Rice and Salt is first and foremost a story. And it's one of much beauty, by a writer truly in awe of life's rich pageant.