The Years of Rice and Salt

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I’ve recently finished The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, also the author of the Mars trilogy from the early 1990s. The Years of Rice and Salt is a what-if about Earth’s history with the premise of “what if Europe had been nearly wiped out by the Black Death.” With the loss of Europe as a center of power China, India and Islamic controlled territories alternately rise and fall in power as the tides of time and war waft over each of the peoples. The tales are told from the perspective of a small group of people that, upon their death, find themselves in the Bardo, the afterlife, awaiting their rebirth in a new life on Earth to continue the story. Each time they are reborn, they seem to be inextricably destined to find each other in their new lives, even without the memories of their past lives.

At one point, the story started to take a bit of a turn when the souls managed to find a way to avoid forgetting their pasts before being reborn, but, strangely, very little came of it directly in the tales told on Earth. This was an interesting set of tales, but not enough to keep me reading the book straight through as I put it down for several months and read through other material instead.

The concept of reincarnation is an interesting one that many religions have had, either as a core concept (Buddhism) or as an aspect of events within it (Christianity), and having read through this work of fiction, a small thought struck me. Why does reincarnation only work going forwards in our limited, linear time of existence? When the Dalai Lama dies, they search for kids born a certain time or later after his death to find him again in the new generation. What limits the soul to the same sense of time that we mere mortals suffer through in our daily toils? What if the soul could be born to someone of a previous time, or a much later time, or even to other worlds (Minbari and humans in Babylon 5)? Maybe we feel this connection with each other because, really, we’re just connecting with ourselves. Everyone we meet, every plant we grow, eat, prune, give away, is just another life for the very soul that we also carry inside ourselves.

It might seem odd at first. How can the soul that is currently residing inside yourself also be in someone else at the same time? Would this mean that we really have no free will since a past or future version of our self is already occupying something else at the same time that we’re here, meaning that the decisions we make have already been made? Or maybe the soul isn’t so small and singular that it can only occupy one thing at a time. The universe exploded into being from a ball of near infinitesimal size to become everything that we see today. Maybe what we think of as the soul is just a small piece of that everything spending its time in as many different forms so as to experience all that there really is in this universe. Each little fragment reforms into the whole and carries with it everything that it experienced so that when the universe finally dies at the far end of time the whole of it will carry with it all the possible experiences that could have been had.

Everything seems to circle back around to something that Carl Sagan touched on in his essays, and talked about in ways on the original Cosmos. “We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

The very atoms that make up each and every one of us were forged at the birth of this Cosmos and made into larger matter in the greatest of the forges that anyone has ever seen, the very stars themselves. Everything we find here on this barren, rocky world was forged in the life of a star, then scattered into the universe in the violent death throws to become new stars with new worlds around them from which new things, including life, could spring forth, live and then die, like a brief candle in the grand time of the universe. I believe that Sagan is the origin of a discussion in Babylon 5:

Capt. John Sheridan: I wish I had your faith in the universe. I just don't see it sometimes.

Delenn: Then I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.

Delenn: The universe puts us into places where we can learn. They are never easy places, but they are right. Wherever we are is the right place and the right time. The pain that sometimes comes is part of the process of constantly being born.

Maybe the guide that puts us right where we are supposed to be is ourselves. Reborn into a new life with a hidden sense of what has and will come to be, so that each of us can serve our purpose in our limited time in this incarnation.

In another episode of the same show, G’Kar gave an impassioned speech about life and finding the meaning of existence.

G'Kar: If I take a lamp and shine it toward the wall, a bright spot will appear on the wall. The lamp is our search for truth, for understanding. Too often we assume that the light on the wall is God. But the light is not the goal of the search; it is the result of the search. The more intense the search, the brighter the light on the wall. The brighter the light on the wall, the greater the sense of revelation upon seeing it! Similarly, someone who does not search, who does not bring a lantern with him, sees nothing. What we perceive as God, is the byproduct of our search for God. It may simply be an appreciation of the light, pure and unblemished, not understanding that it comes from us. Sometimes we stand in front of the light and assume that we are the center of the universe. God looks astonishingly like we do! Or we turn to look at our shadow, and assume that all is darkness. If we allow ourselves to get in the way, we defeat the purpose; which is to use the light of our search to illuminate the wall in all its beauty - and in all its flaws. And in so doing better understand the world around us.

In trying to search for meaning in life, we see that which most reminds us of ourselves. Gods look and act very much like we do, simply because that is what we can understand and comprehend. In trying to see outside of our current understanding, we instead see nothing but the darkness and obey the primitive in ourselves fearing the unknown. Think of all the tales told that involve the night, the dark, etc… Even the familiar becomes terrifying without the light to guide us. So does our search for truth. Most hide from what they don’t understand as that is easier and simpler than trying to understand the new or unknown.