'The Years of Rice and Salt' by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is a counter-factual novel that I bought in hardback (rare for me) new, in 2002 at a book launch by the author. It envisages a world where the Black Death has wiped out about 99% of the population of Europe though has had much less impact on the rest of the world. Adopting Hindu and Buddhist views on reincarnation it follows the lives of three of people who form a group that keeps being reincarnated in close proximity to each other and interacting, though they sometimes switch sex and even become animals. This approach allows Robinson to look at the development of the world from 1405 to 2002 CE, though the dating systems used in the book are Muslim or Chinese because these are the dominant cultures in the world without large European states. I look at the counter-factual aspects in an upcoming posting about the Black Death and so here will concentrate on the literary aspects.
I was irritated by the whole reincarnation aspect of the story and would have preferred Robinson to simply have a series of vignettes showing the world at different stages in its history. Many of the sections seem aimless and even if you feel that with each passing life the trio are trying to improve themselves by the end you feel that even those efforts are utterly pointless. I was also disturbed by the casual brutality shown. The castration of a young African man in the first section almost led me to abandon the book. Later the cutting off of the right hand of an alchemist based in Samarkand is similarly unpleasant and also seems to go against Robinson's line of argument that technology would have developed to a modern stage, even beyond what we know, as he keeps showing societies interesting in suppressing invention often through the use of violence. He makes a clear blunder when talking about the Amerindians as he shows them scalping people. Scalping was only introduced to North America by European settlers whereas North America in this novel is settled by the Chinese and later Muslim powers and people from Travancore a region in southern India. Many tribes in North America 'counted coup' meaning that in conflicts between tribes touching an opponent was sufficient. Thus, again out-of-step with the tenor of the novel, Robinson sees scalping and associated violence as indigenous to North America when, in his world, in fact it would largely be absent from that continent. Fair enough he could have had Chinese, Japanese or Muslim forms of violence/punishment but the one he picks is wrong for the set-up he has adopted.
I have read some analysis of the book: http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2007/02/reincarnations-for-years-of-rice-and.html and people talk about re-reading it because they are uncertain how to perceive it. I am far more discontent with the novel, even though counter-factual really engages me. I think I dislike the aimlessness of so much of the writing and the weakening of the drive of the book with Robinson trying to insist technology would have still advanced and yet repeatedly showing societies that would be inimical to such development. I would not bother with this book and read 'The Gate of Worlds' envisaging a pretty similar path, instead.
'Is Heathcliff A Murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction' by John Sutherland
I enjoyed this book more than I had anticipated. It is a series of essays about a wide range of 19th century novels that was published to accompany the The World's Classics series of versions in the mid-1990s. I had read a few of the novels discussed but Sutherland writes in a way which allows you to engage with the debate even if you are unfamiliar with the novel discussed. In looking at a range of questions, some of which had been discussed a great deal, some of which have received far less scrutiny, he draws out three fascinating perspectives. First in sections like 'Mysteries of the Dickensian Year' and 'The Missing Fortnight' of 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins he shows the challenges for authors of making everything work in a novel, especially in the days before wordprocessors. However, convincingly he also shows that elements perceived as 'errors' can be intentional on the part of the author but misunderstood by snide readers, for example 'Apple Blossom in June' regarding 'Emma' by Jane Austen, 'On A Gross Anachronism' in 'William Esmond' by William Thackeray and 'How Old is Kim?' about the Rudyard Kipling novel 'Kim'. These essays are excellent in raising our view of the author as even cleverer than we might have thought and subtly using narrator techniques.
Other essays give us a valuable perspective on the requirements of the readership for which the books were written rather than ourselves. The discussion of effluent on London streets in ' Bleak House'; the use of mesmerism in 'Oliver Twist' and 'Jane Eyre'; the non-electric animation of Frankenstein's creation in 'Frankenstein'; how pregnancies and incest are portrayed in work by Trollope and Eliot and in a Sherlock Holmes story and the ambiguous endings required as a result of the burgeoning subscription library readership of the 1850s are fascinating aspects of social history too. Overall, an enjoyable book that is great to dip into. I look forward to reading the sequel soon.