Everything happens only once

My exploration of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre is proceeding in a kind of pincer movement, reading books alternately from either end of his writing career, and closing in on the midpoint. I didn’t start right at the beginning, having read several of his earlier novels already, but with Antarctica, published in 1997, and I’ve just read its successor, The Years of Rice and Salt. I was surprised to discover that this book doesn’t appear to be in print in England, or available as an e-book; I suppose that even a writer as well-known as Robinson has to accept that some of their work won’t stay in print forever, but it still seems odd. My guess is that the book is a victim of genre prejudice. It’s not science-fiction, as most of Robinson’s novels are, but an alternate history story. However, like all of this thoughtful and humane author’s work, it needs no special pleading to stand alongside any other novelist’s work, and if publishers and critics (and readers, for that matter) could get rid of their prescriptions regarding what a book should or shouldn’t be or have in it, I’m sure all of Robinson’s work would be in print, and he’d be widely acknowledged as one of the English language’s finest storytellers.

The Years of Rice and Salt has a conceit that I bought into hook, line and sinker as soon as I heard it. The majority of Robinson’s work is not like this, basically because it’s so ambitious. His books often take a single large, complex object, such as Mars, or Antarctica, or the next forty years of human history, and explore it in depth through every imaginable dimension: scientific, economic, political, social, psychological, cultural, and philosophical. Such a conceit, written down in a sentence, is something of a blunt instrument, and tells you very little about the story you’re about to read. The conceit of The Years of Rice and Salt is roughly as follows: the Black Death of the fourteenth century, rather than killing two-thirds of Europe’s population, killed 99% of it; world history thereafter is dominated by the Chinese and Moslem empires, as well as by the southern Indian kingdom of Travancore, and a federation of North American peoples; that history is related, from the fourteenth to twenty-first centuries, through the lives of a group of characters (and two in particular) who are reincarnated together, time after time, in the manner described by Tibetan Buddhism.

These characters are easily identified by the reader, as their names begin with the same letter in each incarnation, and their attitudes to life remain roughly equivalent. They are surrounded by a supporting cast, other members of their ‘jati’ who are reincarnated with them, and associate with them in life after life. This whole process is depicted with some humour, particularly the when they are back in the bardo, and can recall all of their different incarnations—leading to various squabbles among themselves and revolts against the celestial order. From the perspective of the bardo, nothing that happens in the illusory material world really matters that much, and it can be apprehended with a bit of distance, but when his characters are in the world, Robinson does not shy away from tragedy. In fact, the whole narrative conceit creates a certain tension in the reader, as you’re never quite sure that everyone isn’t going to die suddenly and arbitrarily in the next paragraph. The tragedy-comedy dichotomy is explicitly discussed at points in the text, with the characters concluding that the world’s story is a comedy, characterised by incremental improvements, while each individual’s story is always tragic, ending as it always does in death. This idea of incremental improvement, and of generational labour, inherited and passed on along with life, culture and all the rest of it, is a recurrent theme in Robinson’s work. ‘Go on’ is one character’s dying exhortation to his close companion in the book’s closing section, and that’s exactly what he does, in the extraordinary ordinary way that human beings of good conscience always do. This is exactly the same notion of going on which is evoked at the conclusion of Robinson’s most recent book, The Ministry For the Future: no heroes are going to appear and fix everything, and the expectation that they will, that such special, uniquely capable individuals exist, is one of the most damaging myths that we hold onto as a species. Good is done, progress is made, only by the cumulative efforts of many small and ordinary lives, whether they are the lives of prominent individuals or completely obscure ones. It is done in the ordinary middle years of ordinary lives, the getting up, doing the work, and going to bed, the caring and child-rearing, the home-keeping, the life-sharing, the years of rice and salt as they are called in some Chinese women’s writing. This theme is one of the connecting threads which run through all of Robinson’s work that I have read so far, and I have to say that of all the writers I know, Robinson is probably the most thematically consistent, across the twenty-eight years that separate Red Mars (the earliest of his books I’ve read) from The Ministry For the Future.

Another thread is the deep and broad knowledge that underpins each of his novels. In the Mars trilogy it is not just areology and rocketry that he explores in detail, but genetics, political philosophy, psychology, economics, horticulture and more. In The Years of Rice and Salt he displays a thorough understanding of Chinese and Islamic culture and history, Buddhism, Native American culture, and diverse other topics which clearly represent a lifetime of study, rather than simply the research that one might put in before writing a novel. Being an expert in none of these areas, I’m unable to second guess his representations, but I can tell a coherent and humane understanding when I see one, and I’m quite ready to trust Robinson—perhaps because his worldview is apparently so consistent with my own. To the more informed reader I’m sure there are a myriad of referential asides and in-jokes, although they’re never necessary to an appreciation of the narrative. I didn’t spot many, but I enjoyed some of what Robinson had to say about the region that is known in our world as Northern California. The San Francisco Bay is a sufficiently distinctive geographic feature that it was easy enough to tell when he was describing it; in his world, the Chinese and Japanese colonial city that stands on its shores is north of the water, and he has one character reflect on how insane it would be to have sited the city on the peninsula, with its winds and fog. This character, Bao, who is a historian and teacher, goes to live in a settlement around a hundred li inland from this city, a place that once hosted a farm associated with the region’s teaching institutions, which then became a college in its own right. This is a completely unequivocal description of Davis, California, where Robinson has lived since 1978. Robinson is making a joke here, not suggesting that things would turn out so exactly the same irrespective of the starting conditions, but he is inviting anyone who spots the parallel to think about historical determinism. Of course he issues the same invitation at many points during the book, overtly or covertly, since that is really its central theme: what happens if you swap out one of the big structural members of world history? Robinson’s answer is, as you would expect, nuanced. He does indeed believe that many things would follow similar patterns. The Moslem world and the Chinese Empire would be equally capable of producing despots, rebels, scientists, engineers, libertarians, feminists, artists and all the other shapes that people bend themselves into. But he clearly does not believe that the difference doesn’t matter: the particular is central to his sense of value. Getting out of bed on one particular day, doing some ordinary but also unique things, enjoying the particular experience of walking through the woods in a particular place, or whatever else someone might do, is what’s really important: ‘everything happens only once’, as one of Bao’s students insists.

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