Written: May 27, 2015
Weeks of Reading The Years of Rice and Salt
I haven’t reviewed books in a while for the simple reason that I’ve been stuck reading this 750-page monstrosity including ten stories of ten people throughout ten different times of Earth, but it’s not our Earth, it’s an alternate Earth where the Plague has wiped out most all Europeans and it is the rest of the planet that dominates Earth instead of the Europeans. So I wonder, how long should a book be? Movies are simple. It’s however long you can take it in one sitting which is between 1.5 and 3 hours. How long should a novel be? 250 pages? 350 pages? When books get too long, they get broken up into series. This could have been a trilogy. The problem with very long books is that you want to get to the end. You want closure. You want a conclusion, a big moral to the story. Something like this at 750-pages takes excruciating patience. And it’s not made easy when a lot of stories seem to meander and get lost in the details. It’s more of a journey than an end, but a meandering, indirect journey, and a long one. Also, 750 pages about one person’s story might be way too boring, so the ten stories does break it up, but it’s also a single story about history minus Europeans.
Book 1, the first story is about a traveling Mongolian who is kidnapped and enslaved. He meets up with an African boy who is turned into a Eunuch. They both are sent off to China and eventually serve the royal court. Book 2 was mostly forgettable. Book 3 is the best, a tale of Chinese sailors who set out for Japan but wind up in what I surmise to be the San Francisco Bay area and then in a twist of history, encounter the Mayan Empire. I started skimming and getting lost after that. There’s a story of a scientist who works on rifles and cannons. There’s a story of a Japanese guy who goes to North America and tries to warn everyone of the coming Chinese invasion. There’s a story of a woman who hints at an atomic bomb. In the very end, my interest was renewed, perhaps because it was the end, perhaps because it became more philosophical. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say the Chinese and Muslim world become engaged in a big war.
A narrator offers four perspectives of life. One is that we’re striving for Nirvana, struggling and learning, so we can get to this paradise or heaven with peace and harmony eternal. Another is nihilism. Our struggles are futile, perhaps meaningless, perhaps there is no meaning outside our struggles. But we all wind up screwed in the end. This is the yin and yang. Perhaps life is both, the yearning for something greater and better and the cynicism that there is nothing greater or better. But then the narrator adds that there is also tragedy and comedy, the dots inside the yin and yang symbol. Life is a tragedy for the individual but a comedy for society. Society goes on, and all those individuals struggling for its betterment are hiccups and comic bits. But for the individual, when they invest their entire life in struggle and don’t achieve anything for themselves but do achieve something incrementally for society, their life is a tragedy. They become that de-motivational poster, “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”
I read a book once about human evolution, and it said that our mutations were not so much an attempt for us to overcome the macro-environment. That is, the primary force of natural selection was not our individual strength, height, sociability, beauty, etc., but that the primary force was our resistance to life-threatening bacteria, viruses, and fungal infections. Our high rate of mutation results in babies who are deaf, blind, mute, autistic, mentally challenged, one-legged, seven-fingered, etc. because our genes are constantly mixing it up for the possibility of creating humans resistant to the latest mutant strain of bacteria, virus, or fungi. In this case, the lives of all those people who are disabled or disfigured are not worthless and mere mistakes but rather, their lives are necessary so that possibly one mutant human does have resistance to the latest micro-environmental threat and carries the entire human race forward.
The book also posits that we may all be one too. Instead of countless separate lives, what they estimated at 40 billion human lives since we became a distinct species, we are actually one organism with 40 billion stories. It is only an illusion that we are 40 billion separate lives or beings. This seems to be what the novel is about. It doesn’t matter if Joe or John ran into you on Sunday at 5 PM, one way or another, the human race goes on, but for you, your individual story is changed. If you met Joe, you might go drink with him, get drunk, walk into the road, get hit by a car and die. If you met John, you might go drink a coffee, get motivated to finish your novel, sell it, become famous, and live a life of wealth and fame. It doesn’t matter to the human species, but it does matter to you. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if the European race succumbs to the Black Plague and gets wiped off the face of the Earth, nations still go to war, overpopulation still occurs, pollution still occurs, technology still advances, etc. In the novel, it is not the Europeans who conquer the Americas but the Chinese. It is not Europe that goes to war or America and Russia but the Chinese and Muslims. The story of the human species is the same, but the individuals, the nations, even entire races are just different. But then you get the old story of the sand dollar. Someone keeps throwing sand dollars back into the sea, and someone else asks him, why? He can’t possibly save them all. He replies, no, but for each sand dollar, he saved his entire world. Back to the yin and yang. We like to simplify and over-generalize. A while back when I read a textbook on Criminal Justice, I realized that at least in social sciences, the simplest explanation is not the best. The explanation that incorporates the most factors is the best. The 70’s crime surge was the result of numerous factors including the Baby Boomers entering their 20’s when they are most likely to commit crime, the economy, discrimination, urban sprawl, concentration of poverty in inner cities, etc. Likewise, perhaps our lives are not a simple matter of becoming one with the universe or meaning nothing at all, but rather both. We are both individuals and part of something greater. Our lives are both individual tragedies and societal comedies. We are both immortal and mortal. We are both the most meaningful thing in the universe and utterly meaningless. But how is that possible? Think of a pyramid. To a creature in 2-dimensions, they see either a square or a triangle. But to a creature in 3-dimensions, they see a 3-dimensional pyramid. We simply don’t have the capacity to see in the necessary dimensions to realize that we are both individuals and everything, that our lives are both tragedy and comedy, that our stories are both the most meaningful thing in the world and meaningless, that there is both life after death and the end to our lives.