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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2011-10-05 05:49
Subject: [books] The Years of Rice and Salt
Security: Public
Tags:books, klog, reviews

Last night I finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt Powell's | Barnes and Noble ]. Interesting book for a number of reasons, but also one of the most misleading matches of jacket copy and internal narrative I’ve seen in a while.

The online squibs and jacket copy market Robinson’s book as alternate history, which it certainly is. But that misses the overarching theme and content of the book completely. This is, for want of a better phrasing, Buddhist science fiction. That it’s playing out over an alternate history story arc is close to incidental to what I perceive the book to be doing. There’s a lot of philosophy embedded here, a lot of lengthy infodumping, even some metafiction, all presented wrapped in very deliberative storytelling about transmigration of souls and spiritual ascendancy that falls well outside the usual action-militaria focus of alternate history.

That isn’t a criticism. I enjoyed the book a lot. But it made for strange reading, because my expectations as set by the marketing were so mismatched to the internal reality of the book. I realize that “Alternate History” is a much better marketing tag than “Buddhist SF”, and why Spectra ran with it, but still, it seemed odd.

How important is that external marketing to you? We do, after all, judge books by their covers.

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

Post A Comment | 9 Comments | | Link






fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2011-10-05 12:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Tibetan Buddhist SF, as they keep returning to the Bardo.

TYOR&S is one of the finest AltHist novels ever written, in my estimation.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2011-10-05 13:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Like I said, I liked the book a lot. I'm still not sure how good I think it was, that I'm mulling. (For me, liking a book and admiring a book aren't necessarily congruent.)
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Twilight: Bright Outlook
User: twilight2000
Date: 2011-10-05 13:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Bright Outlook
For me, liking a book and admiring a book aren't necessarily congruent.

THIS. David Levine just posted a short that I admired but thoroughly disliked (very depressing) - but loved sharing because it was so well written (and no, i can't remember the name of it at the moment - bad writer!)
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fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2011-10-06 00:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That makes sense.

TYOR&S, for me, makes a serious effort to look at history without the West, and, in the main does a really good job of it.
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2011-10-05 13:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I find this interesting - and I haven't read TYOR&S yet although my brother adores it and my Mum and others have recommended it to - because from all the descriptions and discussions I've heard about it, the "alternate history" aspect seems pretty important, and the Buddhist transmigration of souls etc could easily be interpreted as a handy storytelling device.

I'm sure it's a lot more than that, by the way, and after all you've read the book and I haven't yet :P And I know KSR is fascinated in Buddhist philosophy, if not perhaps convinced of the metaphysics(?)

In any case, my other reason for posting is that I'm not convinced by the action-militaria focus of alt. history. I guess I'm just emphatically uninterested in military fiction/sf, but I hear people conflating hard science fiction and military sf as well - or space opera and military sf - which is quite misguided IMHO.
I know that people like Harry Turtledove and the Baen folks are strongly associated with alternate history, I just think counterfactual - what if things happened this way rather than the way they did? Or, what if the world was different in this or that way? Ted Chiang's Victorian science as fact, Paul McAuley's industrial revolution in the 16th century...

Well, as I try to think of examples, there's no doubt there's a lot of military stuff out there, but it's sad if that's what's implied by "alternate history".
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Twilight: WriteInspirationPen
User: twilight2000
Date: 2011-10-05 14:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:WriteInspirationPen
Since history is so often turned by some war or other, it's not surprising that a lot of alt histories would choose those watershed events to change history - and that often leads to a certain amount of military in their alt history.

It strikes me as harder (and more interesting) to write an alt history where little things change and it leads to an entirely different outcome.
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Twilight
User: twilight2000
Date: 2011-10-05 14:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I tend not to hear much "marketing" - but if I go into a book expecting spaceships and rockets and get dragons and faeries, I am likely to be disappointed ;>
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Alice Bentley
User: alicebentley
Date: 2011-10-05 15:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I had a fond conceit of a publishing idea (years ago, when I was doing more of that sort of thing) of launching a line of SF reprints that would be printed with no cover art, title, author, or anything. As a reader you open to the beginning of the text and that's all you started with.

I had actually worked out how to market the concept, and still feel that it could be a financially viable experiment, where subscribers must rely on their trust of the series editor. Not something I'm prepared to bankroll at the moment however.

Ebooks present some of the same limiting input - excellent books with amateur cover art, limited "jacket copy" and no sense at all if what you just downloaded is a slim wisp of a novel or a virtual doorstop.

I read Years of Rice and Salt as a review copy, so was spared the input of the marketing department.
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zyzyly
User: zyzyly
Date: 2011-10-05 16:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Buddhist Science Fiction" is a good description. I read the book after reading a review of it when it first came out. I can put down a book after reading it and almost immediately forget what it was about, but not this one--it's one of those stories that have stayed with me since I read it.

I don't put much stock in external marketing when I choose a book. I rely more on reviews or word-of-mouth. I sometimes wonder, though, if I'm missing the best book I would ever read, because I haven't heard about it.
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