An alternative history where all the Europeans die in the Black Death and the great civilizations of the world are Islam and China. Such an exciting premise. We follow three kindred souls through group reincarnations era after era. The way their essential inclinations and human potentials are encouraged or limited by the circumstances fate delivers them is my favorite part of the book and leads to some poignant moments. Details of the new Earth fire the imagination from time to time, like the terraced rice paddies along the valleys of California, or the survival of an Iroquois League state in the New World.
But most vignettes fail to engross in the unique developments or alternate directions life took. Instead there is a lot, just a whole lot of awkward dialogue that are essentially lectures to the reader, the main thrusts of which appeared to be three.
1. How little history can really be changed: Africans are still enslaved and brought to work the New World, WWI is still fought in the early 20th century with trenches and mustard gas. What is different often seems different by fiat.
2. The march of scientific progress is linear, inexorable and the true calling of mankind: the Galileo-type guy drops balls of the tower in Samarqand instead of Italy, a Tamil person discovers the theory of relativity, but there is nothing significantly different about the enterprise, including an arrival at a late 20th century benevolent positivism. (Although of course there are zeppelins.)
3. And the main obstacle religion: over a span of five hundred years, Islam does not get beyond (long, tedious, superficial) discussions about the need to Reject the Hadith and Lift the Veil, and as a consequence stagnates such that they fight WWI with camels and slave battalions while women are illiterate “cattle”, this despite the Muslim world spreading from the Congo to the British Isles to Central Asia.
The last chapter introduces some viewpoints on history that allow the book to be read a few other ways, but I found it muddled. In the end, I don’t see what this genre of alternative history accomplishes that isn’t accomplished by good history writing on the one hand (historical fiction, narrative histories, subaltern histories teach me more) or the unrestricted imaginary realms of hard sci-fi on the other. The Years of Rice and Salt didn’t really do it for me on either score.
[Inspired by a premise similar to the book, Nikolaj Cyon produced a GORGEOUS map of an uncolonized 19th century Africa that holds far more wonder and curiosity than the book delivered.]