Kim Stanley Robinson is a very famous SF author who’s won the Hugo several times (both for this work and a couple of volumes of the Mars Trilogy), which makes it a little strange that I’ve never read anything by him before. Well, I don’t have time to do everything. I started here because, as mentioned above, it’s a Hugo award winner, which is almost certainly a sign that something will be interesting, if nothing else.
After reading through it a bit, I checked the publication date against Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and sure enough it came out about five years later. I wouldn’t say that the two are related, exactly, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Robinson read Diamond’s book and took a little while to think through some alternate history. Of course, it could be totally unconnected for all I know, but at least I found it a little plausible. Guns, Germs, and Steel deals with the question of why European civilizations were the incubators for what we’d call modernity and exported it to the rest of the world, as opposed to the other way around. In Robinson’s book, that doesn’t happen, since they’re all dead right from the very first chapter.
In this novel, the Black Death was way more virulent than in real life (or perhaps Europeans were just a little more susceptible to it) and instead of 30-40% fatality rates it was more like 99%, essentially depopulating Europe entirely. Instead of a shock which took centuries to completely recover from, it was something so devastating that no recovery was possible. Some pockets of Europeans survived, but in nothing resembling modern nation-states and the populations were vulnerable to raids and enslavement. White people are extremely rare (one of the only “pure” populations are some Irish captives kept in a harem, and unless I’m mistaken no white character has a single line of understandable dialogue in the whole thing) and Christianity is a fringe sect with nothing resembling an orthodoxy, since the Christian populations surviving tended to be outliers anyway.
This leaves the world to be explored, and discoveries made, by other civilizations. Which they do.
The scope of the book takes place through the remainder of human history up until an alternate 2002 (although with the Christian calendar not in use that’s not a date that people in the book would identify). This leads to something of a narrative problem, namely, how one manages to have characterization in a 650-year narrative. Robinson solves this problem by applying Tibetan Buddhism and the concept of the “bardo”; there are four or so characters bound together in a jati, or collective of souls, and they meet up in the afterlife before reincarnation. In each incarnation they have the same basic personality and their names start with the same letter for ease of reference, I guess.
So you have B, who’s a basically gentle, practical go-along type of person; K, who is impetuous, hot-headed, and vengeful; I, who is something of a cold technocrat but means well enough; and S, who is a selfish jerk and causes more trouble than anything else. These four are reincarnated repeatedly and run across each other time and again in different guises and forms; sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies, sometimes as lovers (they tend to switch genders between incarnations) and sometimes as family. This is kind of a weird plot element, but as an approach to have some sort of consistent characterization throughout it’s probably a good solution. As a plot hook, frankly I find it a little weak, since it appears at times that something will come of all this time in the bardo, but it basically doesn’t happen; the characters constantly talk about the need to improve stuff in their next lives but they end up saying the same thing every time, I don't think they ever really manage to accomplish it.
So there’s sort of an overriding narrative arc, but the ten chapters are primarily self contained, and each one deals with events at a particular time and place. The first one is told in the style of “Journey to the West”, and deals with introducing B and K. In this incarnation B is a foot soldier for Tamerlane and ends up in slavery with K; starting a typical theme of the novel, K attempts to get revenge for something which was done to him and ends up making everything worse.
This chapter could have almost happened in real life, it deals with the appropriate Chinese emperors of the time period and other historical personages. As the text diverges farther and farther from the world we know, the tales become more and more unusual; for instance the third chapter deals with the Chinese expedition that first discovers North America, and the fifth describes how Japanese refugees from the Chinese conquest of Japan teamed up with the Iroquois League to industrialize and hold off the colonizing Chinese from the west and Muslims from the east. So clearly by that time we’re no longer in Kansas, or maybe we are but they don’t call it Kansas, or nevermind, you get the picture. Some alternate history has recognizable figures show up, but past the first couple of chapters that doesn’t happen so much. It’s a different world.
I really liked parts of this book, I can see what all the fuss is about. At the same time, I found other parts of the book bland and tedious, and some other aspects that were by no means bland were so raw and emotional that it was almost painful to read them. This sort of paradox may be inherent in the human condition but it isn’t necessarily enjoyable. Robinson really looks into the idea that life for most people throughout most of human history has been nasty, brutish, and short, and really gets into that idea by taking an unflinching look at it.
For instance, in the first chapter of the second section of the book, B and K have been reincarnated as peasant girls in India who are friends. K gets sold off into an arranged marriage at age fourteen and her husband’s family treats her as a combination of livestock and slave; B gets seduced by a cad who is related to K’s husband, then abandoned and dies in childbirth. K poisons her husband and the other guy to death for revenge, immediately gets caught, and the village executes her as a witch. Bam. Right back to the bardo for another try. For her actions K gets reincarnated as a tigress, then killed by villagers. Bam. Back to the bardo again. Only in the third reincarnation of the chapter does the narrative really kick off, until that point it’s just study after study of human squalor and misery. And then there’s still plenty of squalor and misery, or everything will be going pretty well and then suddenly there will be a political change, or an epidemic, or a natural disaster, and everyone will die horribly or get thrown into prison and die horribly there and that will be that. Back to the bardo. After one particularly galling chapter even the characters sit around in the afterlife bitching about how everything seemed to be going so well.
That’s also not talking about the treatises that start to populate the last half of the novel. The idea of a samurai leading a Native American resistance against the Chinese is pretty neat, but really it mostly involves him getting drunk at a lacrosse game and giving a long (long, long) speech about all the stuff that they need to do. Then the elders go off and say they’ll think about it. Cue a brief epilogue assuring us that all sorts of cool stuff happened to them after a full life, but that which we don’t really get to see. This also becomes a problem in the last couple of chapters which deal with an epic conflict between the world powers, and are described in a series of somewhat tedious academic lectures. By the last chapter, B is literally an academic and gives a bunch of lectures of the sort that any self-respecting sophomore would want to sleep through.
I’m also not entirely sure that I buy some of the things that occur; the world ends up in the alternate 2002 very similar to our world, albeit through different paths. I don’t know if it’s really that plausible that they had a similarly timed Industrial Revolution, or that they ended up with similar ideas regarding democracy and feminism through different routes. I guess it’s possible. I’d be more inclined to believe that things could have happened either faster or slower. In any event, the jati is involved in some of the changes, but by no means all of them, and some of my favorite parts of the whole thing are when they are living normal lives and just trying to get by.
As far as I can tell, the point of all the lectures is that it’s good to take care of the earth and leave it in even better shape for your descendants. Which I’m all in favor of. But I feel that Robinson’s trying to get some sociological points across that don’t necessarily get conveyed clearly despite all the page space devoted to them, which is too bad.
So basically this one novel contained parts that I really liked and parts that I really didn’t, although the very strong opening chapters were enough to make me not regret it. Therefore I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation, but it certainly does provide work outside the typical SF framework and it plays with some interesting ideas.