Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bardo bard

Recently finished another great book by Kim Stanley Robinson. Okay, so it's taken me more than a month - I took it along to AAR and Thanksgiving. But there's so much there, it's so smart, at so many levels at once. As he described it when visiting Lang, his work - whether science fiction or alternative history - explores "histories we can never know," works from whose vantage you can reflect powerfully on important moral questions.

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) imagines how world history might have unfolded had the Black Death taken out all of Europe, and Christianity with it as a player. Central Asia, where Islamic and Buddhist cultures meet, is where much happens (maybe Robinson wrote this book just so he could refer to what we call the Middle East as the Midwest!). The Americas are colonized, but from the Pacific side, by Chinese and Japanese - Yingzhou and Inka are the continents' names; eventually the world's greatest city winds up close to where San Francisco now is - though on the north edge of the "Gold Gate." By a clever plot device most of the Plains Indians are inoculated against Old World diseases, are able to keep the Chinese confined to the west and the Muslim colonists from Firanja (Europe!) to the east coast; they develop the most promising model for peaceful coexistence of peoples (taken up by South Indians liberating themselves from the Mughals), and on it goes. Robinson's stories are always well-researched and very scientifically literate - he's a great science fiction writer, after all - so nothing here happens capriciously. Everything is an inspired reflection of events, tensions, potentialities in our world history. Each is in a style appropriate to the time and place. And, most important, his characters are intriguing, engaging. Their joys thrill, their tragedies devastate.

Robinson's figured out a great way of telling a story encompassing the whole world over centuries: his characters are reborn, passing through the Bardo (from the Tibetan Book of the Dead) on their way, which changes aspect as times change. The same set of characters, known as a jati, appear in each chapter, recognizable by the first letter of their names but also by certain traits of personality. If it gets a little wearisome after centuries, the characters are the first to say so. Rebirth loses its charm eventually.

In the final section, corresponding to our present, scientific discoveries lead to secularization, at least among scientists and intellectuals. Buddhism and Sufism have long since come to an understanding (in the absence of nasty Christian crusaders, it's non-Sufi Muslims who are this book's villains) so the form secularization takes is skepticism about reincarnation. How the author handles that is indicative of his gifts. He has people discuss various views of the shape of history, all of which have, in one way or the other, animated his narrative (some are the work of characters from past chapters). The discussion winds up being about the importance of storytelling, of teleological "dharmic" vs. nihilistic "entropic" history. A wise character recommends:

I suggest that as historians, it is best not to get trapped in one mode or another, as so many do; it is too simple a solution, and does not match well with events as experienced. Instead we should weave a story that holds in its pattern as much as possible. It should be like the Daoists' yin-yang symbol, with eyes of comedy and tragedy dotting the larger fields of dharma and nihilism. That old figure is the perfect image of all our stories put together, with the dark spot of our comedies marring the brilliance of dharma, and the blaze of tragic knowledge emerging from black nothingness. (736)

This would be precious if it came early and unearned in the book, but coming at the end it adds another level of knowing pleasure to the remarkable achievement of the book. And there's a twist at the end (consistent with the approach attributed to the "Samarqandi anthologist Old Red Ink" on 739), as a character whose name starts with B, like our first protagonist long before, seems to be coming gently to the final - earned, enlightened - end of his last (and perhaps only) life... I won't tell you: read the book!

I read the The Years of Rice in Salt, having devoured his more recent 2312, in part as prep for China. It's also one of those death-wish books - like Leslie Marmon Silkoe's Almanac of the Dead - where one contemplates the possibility of his nonexistence. Would it really have made such a difference? Or so little? An interesting challenge religiously, too. As in his more recent 2312, there's a lot of religious questioning in this book (most extensively 141ff and 573ff). I'd love to find a way to use one of his books in a class...

No comments: