The Years of Rice and Salt

A couple of people responding in the “Production of History” thread have suggested Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt for the week on time travel and alternate history. The suggestion is a great one, and I love the book.

As long as it’s on my mind, though, I’ll explore an issue it raised for me. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to counterfactuals is how to get beyond the kind of counterfactual built on the logic of “for want of a nail”, where a single discrete event is given a plausibly different outcome and then a different set of macrohistorical circumstances is derived in a linear causal chain from that outcome. E.g., Lee winning at Gettysburg, and so on.

The problem with this kind of counterfactual is that the further one gets away from the single contingent event, the more tenuously reasoned the argument becomes. Victory at Gettysburg becomes victory in the Civil War? Very possible. Then what? Two nations? Eventual negotiations for reunification on favorable terms to the South? (Isn’t that what ultimately happened after Reconstruction anyway?) Northern capital overwhelming the Southern economy anyway? Whatever your analytic framework for interpreting the Civil War itself tends to dictate what you think the consequences of a different outcome in the war might be.

This is the only way we know how to write a counterfactual essay or book, however. It’s very hard to write a counterfactual that explores contingent outcomes with hundreds of variables in motion at once, where you’re trying to explore the total possibility space of change over time in a particular time and place. You could argue that a study like Ken Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence amounts to an unannounced counterfactual of this kind, given that he is trying to write about a huge number of important variables in comparing China and Western Europe in the transition to modernity. It’s pretty tough to do.

Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt is one of the few works I’ve seen that tries to go beyond, “What if the South won the Civil War”? Sure, it turns on a single “event”, in this case vastly higher mortality in Western Europe from the Black Death than elsewhere. Robinson tries to keep a very broad perspective on the consequences, however. Much more so than Steven Barnes in his alternate history series (Lion’s Blood, Zulu Heart that deals with Western Europeans being enslaved in America by Africans and Arabs, I think, but both authors ultimately have the same problem, which is that they don’t know how to think sequentially through a history which is both alternate and alterate, e.g., in which a non-Western society changes over time without the dominance of the West.

This is a problem for more than Robinson and Barnes. One of my favorite examples that I like to raise in my courses is Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney’s mix of nationalism and Marxism requires him to argue that had Europe not underdeveloped Africa, it would have developed into a parallel form of modern industrial capitalism on its own. But Rodney also argues that Western domination of African societies, first in the slave trade and later in colonialism, was essential for the development of capitalism and modernity. So would African societies have had their own imperialism that would have allowed their parallel alternate modernity to come into being? Against whom?

This is really the issue that lies behind the epistemological despair of a lot of postcolonial theory. You can’t unthink the West, you can’t really imagine the systematic difference of non-Western societies in a counterfactual way, in terms of what they might have developed into. Barnes doesn’t really think about what African or Middle Eastern slave systems might have been had they been exported into an Atlantic world: he simply changes the color and names of the masters and slaves. He can’t really imagine what “Shaka” would have been had he been part of a dominant global civilization, save an angry militarist, can’t derive the full alternate history of “Zuluness” had it never been encapsulated within a British-dominated South Africa.

Robinson’s work is more ambitious by far, and strays more interestingly into trying to think about what a Muslim-Chinese global society would have been. But what’s interestingly is that in the end, that society essentially transits into modernity on roughly the same terms and with the same basic geist as Europe did. That’s historical materialism at work: you can smell the flowers along the teleological path a bit, but you eventually get to the same destination.

To write a counterfactual that took a non-Western society to a different telos is the imaginative equivalent of creating a plausibly alien extraterrestrial society. If you don’t hardwire in some kind of universality (human or sentient) into such an effort, you literally can’t do it: you’re trying to represent something that is by definition unrepresentable. Again, this is why postcolonial theory works itself into such an intricate state of intellectual constipation, because it assumes that the non-West without the West cannot be represented within the Western logos and yet deeply desires the capacity to make such a representation. I do think it’s possible to write an imaginative counterfactual, however, in which a non-Western society comes to something other than modernity with dark faces and different names. I think it would read something more like Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Arete (or Paul Park’s Celestis) than The Years of Rice and Salt, however.

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18 Responses to The Years of Rice and Salt

  1. Sarapen says:

    I liked it because as you said, it was more than just Americans with Chinese names. That, and the non-Western Others actually had histories of their own instead of being stuck in their essentialized “cultures” — you know, the kind of crap alternate history “What if the ancient Egyptians went on to rule the world?” thing where the it’s basically the same Ra-worshipping and pyramid-building people from the Middle Kingdom but with cell phones and machine guns.

    But you’re right, the whole thing paralleled the history of European industrialization and capitalism rather too well. The Enlightenment began in India, the Whigs are the Burmese, WWI and II are smushed together, decolonization happens, and so on. Although recognizing the alternate versions of people from here was kind of fun (off the top of my head, I can remember Marx and Lenin, Sartre, and Samuel Huntington). By the time of the Great War, I was already involuntarily imagining the characters in European clothing (Prussian military uniforms and such) instead of modified robes or wushu gear or something. I couldn’t help it, by that point everything was just so Western.

    And the whole Muslim unity thing was a bit hard to swallow. Actually, the central premise was itself ridiculous (a disease that only kills white people?), but I was willing to overlook that because the rest of the book was good. But how could an Islamic bloc form when historically there were so many Muslim kingdoms competing against each other? Sure, there was China to unite against, but one would think there would be Muslim rulers allying with the Chinese as well.

  2. Peter Erwin says:

    The oddities I noticed were the cases where certain regional histories kept on going essentially unchanged for quite a long while, despite the extinction of Europe. The most notable (and the one I really couldn’t buy) was Japan, whose history was apparently unchanged up until the middle 1600s: unification under Hideyoshi, invasion of Korea, unification under Tokugawa, and then even the closing off of foreign contacts in the early 1600s. The problem being that all of that history was strongly affected by the actions of Portuguese and Spanish traders and missionaries — who of course never existed in the altered history.

    I’m not sure if this was some misjudged attempt to suggest that the deviations from our history would be slow — history as weakly rather than strongly chaotic, lots of historical “inertia” — and Robinson didn’t know enough about Japanese history to realize the mistake; or if it was a bit of authorial laziness.

    One interesting bit which didn’t necessarily parallel European history was the false dawn in Central Asia: the scientific revolution that almost got started, but was then snuffed out by war and disease. I’m not sure there’s an obvious parallel to that in our history.

  3. Sarapen says:

    My copy of the book is in another province. Around what year in our calendar was the Chinese invasion of Japan supposed to have happened? I can settle for the century if it’s too much trouble converting.

  4. withywindle says:

    Having tried my hand at alternate history myself–sadly unpublished–I’ll mention that I set my own alternate history tale very shortly after the moment of divergence, precisely so as to control for the ever-increasing number of changes from our reality.

    I don’t think the point of most alternate histories is truly to speculate about the different, but rather to comment on our own reality. (Often to praise it, by pointing out the dystopian alternatives.) Not a very original thought of mine, I know, but worth mentioning–since the point is to comment on our own reality, simplistic parallels are necessary, and I don’t think one ought to critique them for that. One can critique them for doing this *badly*, but one ought to assume this is the/a goal of the genre.

    I would like to mention the single worst alternate-history “story” ever written: Poul Anderson, back about 1990 I think, wrote a page of a physics textbook in some sort of pseudo-Germanic gibberish. The End.

    And for SF conceiving the alien, and bending back to human history: that famous Star Trek episode, “Darmak at Tenagra,” where they make the parallel to Gilgamesh. It occurred to me after a while that they could have also made a parallel to the role of the Bible in Western culture–our own recent past had people so deeply rooted in the Bible that they couldn’t speak outside of its cadences and metaphors. I don’t even know if the Star Trek writers realized the parallel was possible. I think something could be said about how our own recent past (and, indeed, some of our own present fellow human beings) is so alien, that we (“we” being a Star Trek scriptwriter) can only imagine it in a literally alien species.

  5. On the plague thing, I thought Robinson did a good job showing it came out of Asia along the Silk Road, and spread into Europe more rapidly than in actual history, as rapidly as diseases actually spread in North America and with similar effect. Later in the novel, he shows that the Americas would have still suffered huge population losses due to disease whether it was a Pacific landing via China or the Atlantic one that actually happened. But his travelling Japanese samurai meeting the Iriquois Confederacy thing before the actual Chinese Imperial invasion and conquest thanks to disease is an interesting move. I see it as his response to Orson Scott Card’s worst novel, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christipher Columbus (I much prefer his Alvin Maker series for an alternate fantasy on early American history).

    Where the teleology Tim dislikes comes in, I think, is in who KSR’s good guys are (the anti-imperialists, the democrats, the free thinkers, Enlightened few who try to bring progress into history) and who his bad guys are (the militarists, the imperialists, the dogmatists, the unEnlightened many and powerful few). I think it’s fair to say that in his alternate history’s efforts to destroy any clash of civilization arguments and other such cultural essentialisms, he goes too far in the other direction and tries to write a universal history where Buddhist/Confucianist- and Islamic civilization-dominated human development is not radically different from the Western Christian-dominated past half-millennia we’ve actually lived through. BUt that is his point, after all–that human history can’t help but follow certain patterns. Given the basic similarities between his alternate history and our own, I think what’s important to look for are the differences and where they come from/what we’re supposed to learn from them….

    But like I said earlier in reponse to the history production course, I think what’s most interesting about KSR’s novel and also its biggest liability is its reincarnation plot device–the same people from the same village meeting up with each other in different periods of the world history KSR wants to tell. By the end of the novel, we find out that the philosophically-minded character (who’s been arguing for several centuries with his/her more impatient and volatile revolutionary friend) has a theory of the best way to write a history of the world (or at least of humanity)–which theory is the way TYoRaS is actually written.

    So seeing the novel as a meditation on the writing of history, as an attempt to write a fictional historiography, or a metahistorical fiction, is at least as important as figuring out KSR’s take on religion, science, imperialism, etc. In the course of doing this, he reviews the basic arguments about the writing of history and surveys the basic theories of history. And he situates his own writing in those traditions and positions himself in current debates.

    Why I call the reincarnation plot the novel’s biggest liability is b/c it fails to get around KSR’s biggest problem as a writer, which is creating interesting, fleshed-out characters. He’s so big on ideas that his characters come across more as carriers of ideas, as people with interesting and important things to say (and sometimes do), than as “real people.” (Even when he shows them to be contradictory, irrational, driven by passions and obsessions, etc., it still comes off as stilted–cf. the Mars trilogy.) This is a problem b/c he writes in the realist mode of the Victorian novel, but not as well as Rohinton Mistry in A Fine Balance (a good riposte to anyone who believes poco fiction only operates in the pomo/magical realist mode). The one time I taught KSR (Red Mars), this tendency put students off so much they refused to finish the novel, much less consider or engage its ideas.

    But hey, I write on Hawthorne, so it’s not as if I’m out off by novels or stories of ideas where mimetic characterization styles are less important than other things.

  6. Peter Erwin says:

    Sarapen — the Chinese invasion is supposed to have happened sometime around 1650, I think (maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later).

    withywindle said:
    I would like to mention the single worst alternate-history “story” ever written: Poul Anderson, back about 1990 I think, wrote a page of a physics textbook in some sort of pseudo-Germanic gibberish. The End.

    How odd — I quite like “Uncleftish Beholding.” Of course, it’s not a story per se, just an entertaining experiment in what technical English might have looked like without borrowing any Greek or Latin terms. (Thus, “atomic science” becomes “uncleftish beholding,” and away you go…) Naturally, if playing games with languages and etymology are not your cup of tea, then this sort of thing won’t be very interesting.

  7. withywindle says:

    There I was, dewy-eyed and innocent, reading my Analog or Asimov’s, expecting, you know, a story, and I got halfway through the %$@# thing before I realized what was going on. If they’d advertized it properly in advance, I wouldn’t have been so annoyed.

    Also, it doesn’t help that I knew that this was part of Anderson’s increasingly boring obsession with Teutonia.

  8. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    Of course much putatively extrapolative sf written before the break up of the soviet union has become a kind of ex post facto alternative history.

  9. cjlee says:

    At the risk of being disagreeable and/or posting a non-sequitur, my relative disinterest in counterfactuals as a historian is not that they are imagined (i.e. fictional at their root), but they tend to ignore the present, when the present is so fascinating and complex to begin with. This links to the last comments on postcolonial theory. I agree with much of what has been said on this topic (constipation, etc.), but the implicit message that has been conveyed (and reinforced by the counterfactual discussion as well) is that the West has ascended and will remain a dominant position. Is this really so? Perhaps from the 15th to the late-ish 20th century, but given what I see around me, I don’t think this will continue. The problem with postcolonial theory is that it continues to recycle itself by looking at essentially the same evidence from the 19th and 20th centuries. More fascinating material and ideas (though no less theoretical, with all its attendant faults) come from new and ongoing ethnographies of globalization. More de-centered and often counter-intuitive, if not counterfactual as such.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s a good point. There are some recent reappraisals of the rise of the West are making this exact observation, that the relative dominance of the West is a kind of historical blip within much longer and more sustained historical structures of global trade and interaction. Postcolonial theory definitely has a very short perspectival framework. Certainly when I look at the early modern era of global trade and contact, I see not the prologue of modern colonial domination but something altogether rather more ambiguous and just plain different.

  11. Doug says:

    Lay readers may not have to go as far as ethnographies of globalizationl. Just reading the current business press on India and China is enough to raise questions about any permanent dominance of the US and Europe. (For purposes of this discussion, is Japan part of the West?) (Also, where did the Chungkuo series diverge from our history? That is, if anyone here has read it.)

    On the far-counterfactual, is it possible that Wolfe is just a better writer than KSR? That is, Wolfe creates believable characters that are not just substitutes for the author or carriers of one idea or another. The characters’ believability strengthens Wolfe’s ability to portray a world different from our own. (I think that KSR used to better at this, as in the California trilogy, Escape from Kathmandu and Planet on the Table.)

  12. Sarapen says:

    Oh yeah, Chung Kuo. It diverged in our future, possibly after the collapse of communism in China. Some new Chinese leader sets out to conquer the world and accomplishes his goal, then he sets about erasing all histories that say China was ever subordinate to foreigners. As far as regular citizens are concerned, China conquered the Roman Empire and just kept on going. Kind of like Shih Huang Ti and how he set out to destroy as much of the history of the kingdoms he’d conquered as possible after first unifying what became China.

    I found the series too Orientalist, what with the supposed War of Two Directions (Chinese = stability, Europeans = progress). I don’t think I ever finished it, but it’s all too hazy to remember.

  13. God, I hated that Chung Kuo series. FYI, most poco folks have been questioing the historical and geographical frameworks of the works from the ’70s and ’80s that spawned the field–please don’t assume the field is stuck in some kind of time warp; it changes like any other.

    Given the length of China’s influence in world history, it’s quite possible the last 500 years will end up being but a blip. For an interesting look at a future dominated by China, check out Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang. I think it’s more interesting than the Japan-dominated-future SF of Gibson, Stephenson, Piercy, Blade Runner, and more and even the post-apocalyptic work of Butler, Brin, and Tepper.

  14. Doug says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on Chung Kuo; I missed it the first time around and probably will keep things that way. But I’ll pine for the four unwritten books of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Thanks also for the tip on McHugh; about the only lengthy thing I’ve read on China is Spence’s Search for Modern China, which is probably conventional, but that’s just what I wanted as a starting point.

    The Japan-dominate future was very much a product of its time. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers was the rage, and it looked like Japan was rising and the US was falling. That is if something didn’t go wrong and punch us into a timeline somewhere between Brin’s Postman and a nuclear winter. I’m sure you remember.

    Ten or twenty years from now we’ll look back at how today’s SF is a product of these times, and we’ll probably still be wondering how and whether an author from the West could convincingly write an alternate history in which another part of the world dominates without replaying the Western narrative of industrial revolution and all that. (Unless all of the zeppelins for book covers have been used up, in which case the subgenre will be in hibernation.)

  15. Peter Erwin says:

    Yes, China Mountain Zhang is quite good. It also has some brief meditations on the nature of historical development, posed partly as a contrast between chaos theory and classical determinism (the latter being, understandably, the dogma of the Marxist-dominated society in that novel).

    Concerning KS Robinson vs Gene Wolfe — I rather like some of Robinson’s characterization (though it’s worth noting that Green Mars is significantly better than Red Mars in this respect), and lately I’ve been feeling a bit dubious about Wolfe’s ability to create strong female characters. Ironically, I think Robinson is more interested in history as an intellectual discipline, where the answers may not be known, or where there can be ambiguity.[*] Wolfe is perhaps less open to this — at least, this essay has some rather odd ideas about the nature of medieval European society, and a curious tone of “I know what the past was like, and no revisionist historians are going to convince me otherwise.”

    [*] His novel Icehenge is a good example of this.

  16. Sarapen says:

    While we’re on the subject of China, anyone ever read The City Trilogy by Hsi-Kuo Chang? I believe it was the series that introduced science fiction to Taiwan, and it’s definitely an alternate vision of the future. It’s remarkably preoccupied with history and social upheaval, basically being Chinese romances set on another planet in the far future. The aliens aren’t actually essential to the main story, which involves ethnic conflict and rebellion against foreign occupiers. Now that I think about it, it obviously parallels Chinese experience during the Sino-Japanese War, but with great heroes and villains instead of banal bureaucrats and incompetent leaders. It gets kind of muddled near the end, but it’s definitely a look at something different from English-language sci fi.

  17. Bob Violence says:

    I haven’t read the Years of Rice and Salt, but a long time ago I read Robinson’s book The Novels of Philip K Dick, based on his dissertation (UCSD, 1982). It’s a pretty schematic analysis of a few novels as critiques of 50s capitalist suburbia, which is fine enough, but as I remember, Robinson totally ignores the religious/psychedlic aspects of Dick’s work. The whole thing came off as fairly doctrinaire and unreflective Marxism, so I’m not too surprised that he views world history through the lens of historical materialism.

  18. Wondering now if Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead might count as an alternate history/dysutopian SF novel that successfully subsumes Western history into a history of the world from an Americas-centric p.o.v….?

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