THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT
Having revolutionized the novel of planetary exploration with his Nebula- and Hugo-winning Mars trilogy (Red Mars, etc.), Robinson is attempting to do the same to another genre with this highly realistic and credible alternate history. It's the 14th century, and the Black Death has swept through Europe, killing not 30% or 40% of the population but 99%. With Europeans now no more than a historical curiosity, the empires of China and Islam spread rapidly across the world. India, caught between superpowers, struggles to maintain its independence until, fueled by a scientific renaissance, its forces besiege and conquer the great city that in our world would be called Constantinople. The New World is discovered by the Chinese, who rapidly settle the west coast, while an Islamic fleet lands at the mouth of the Mississippi. Eventually, the enlightened Indian nation of Travancore comes to the aid of the beleaguered native people of the New World. New technologies appear as the centuries go by and, as often as not, are applied to military ends. Adding a mystical balance and a human note to this counterfactual history is a small cast of recurring characters who live through each episode of the book as soldiers, slaves, philosophers and kings. Dying, they spend time in the afterlife, only to be reborn into the next era, generally with no knowledge of their past lives. Robinson, who has previously demonstrated his mastery of alternate history in the classic short story "The Lucky Strike" and his Three Californias sequence, has created a novel of ideas of the best sort, filled to overflowing with philosophy, theology and scientific theory. (Mar. 5)
Forecast:The restrained jacket art, not at all typical of SF, suggests the publisher is aiming to attract intelligent mainstream readers as well. Certainly the depiction of how a moderate or even a liberal Islamic state might evolve couldn't be more timely.