The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This one's going right in the category of OMG this is epic SF of a very serious nature and scope.
It goes well beyond the "normal" subgenre of alternate histories to throw us into a vast and very impressive exploration of China and India as they completely dominate the culture and space of the entire world under the slight alteration: that most of the Caucasian world died off in the Black Plague.
It's really gorgeous and it flows really well. Expect many short novellas giving us snippets of time from the plague and progress it forward until we have a fully technological world. Christianity is a footnote. Muslims are dominant, as are Buddhists, but what really fascinated me was the poetry, the history of science and different terminologies, the odd similarities to our own history, including population pressures, various warcraft and a world war, the suffrage of women, medicine development, and so much more.
But what works best for me was a really brilliant thread of reincarnation. As in, tying all the novels together in a later scholarly work that reconciles a few great souls from incarnation to incarnation through history. We get the lives of those characters in the whole novel, and it really is gorgeous. A Buddhist SF that not only focuses on being self-referential and consistent, but it does it in a very detailed and academic way that feels almost too gorgeous for words.
Brilliant doesn't really do the work justice.
I'm not going to say it doesn't get slightly overburdened by the science bits as if it was just a vehicle for some particularly juicy fundamental discoveries, but I also like that kind of stuff. I didn't mind. It did make the text a bit large, however. :)
I was reminded very favorably of some other epic SF tomes like Poul Anderson's Boat of a Million Years. We have all of Time to work in and the idea exploration is breathtaking.
This one might become one of my favorite KSR novels. Easily.
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