THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT *

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam. 658 pp. $25.95

THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD

By Ursula K. Le Guin

HarperCollins. 362 pp. $24.95

APPLESEED

By John Clute

Tor. 337 pp. $25.95

New forms of representing the new are not common under the sun, and science fiction (always a more conservative genre than it admits to being) almost never makes a radical break with its past traditions. "No science fiction novel published at the end of a century of science fiction could stand alone," as one of the authors reviewed here observes in an afterword. The three books before us each embody a familiar mode of 20th-century sf -- alternate history, "future history" and space opera -- and its authors are in their fifties, seventies and sixties, respectively, which neglects the younger end of the spectrum but does offer a broad-range look at a genre that boomed with the Boomers (and is now being shouldered aside by various flavors of Fantasy).

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt begins in the Islamic year 783, 1405 by the Christian calendar, with a scouting party of the Mongol conqueror Temur crossing west through the Moravian Gate to discover a land decimated by plague. Forbidden to rejoin the Golden Horde for fear of contamination, the party disperses and Bold, an aging campaigner, flees through a desolate landscape that makes clear that the population of Europe has been almost wholly wiped out.

The 10 sections of Robinson's very long novel move from that year to the late 21st century of a world radically different from our own. Europe is slowly resettled by Muslims, who also colonize Africa and much of Central Asia; China eventually conquers Japan and the Incas, while the Hodenosaunee League in North America loses the East and West coasts to encroaching foreigners but holds onto the interior. The developments we associate with the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution take place in different periods, under very different conditions.

Alternate history is by now an established commercial publishing category, with a ready audience for books that describe the new course history takes after some implausible event -- hey, what if Robert E. Lee had been supplied with Kalashnikovs by South African time-travelers, or a shower of giant meteorites had destroyed the rivals to the British Empire and the Raj prospered into the 21st century? Alternate history plainly appeals to politically truculent readers who seek fictitious validations of their personal ideologies, and to military-history buffs who enjoy reading exotic variants of their favorite wars. This readership has given the subgenre an artistic vitality that falls somewhere between that of a role-playing game and a chat-room screed.

Robinson's novel is insistently unlike this, although its opening sections offer vivid tours of the transformed world that seem (at first) fairly conventional. But its sections are unified by an unusual device: The main characters of each are reincarnations of the same souls, whose continuity is easy to trace because their names over the centuries begin with the same letter. The soul who is Kyu in the first story (and Kokila, Katima and so on thereafter) is combative, imprudent and prone to getting himself (or herself) killed; while Bold (Bihari, Bistami, etc.) is more comfortable in the world, meliorist and optimistic.

The reader immediately notices that the hierarchical and essentialist metaphysics of the reincarnation theme is profoundly at odds with the rest of the novel, which presents a world that is secular, contingent, uncentered and driven by economic forces. The system of coding souls by the initial letters of their mortal selves' names is even more peculiar; Robinson can't actually "mean it"; a novel constructed along such lines must certainly be an erected folly.

And indeed, parts of the novel contradict or undermine other parts, which is surely a fault if you believe that alternate history (or fiction generally) should offer a vision of adamantine seamlessness and "inner" consistency. Robinson does not, and his novel's willingness to dissolve boundaries it has earlier set up, or step outside its confines and comment on itself, shows it to be indeed a folly, which Robinson has come to praise.

At one point relatively late in the novel, two characters are discussing whether history is cyclic or linear. The cyclic model invariably adopts the seasons of the year as metaphor. "But what if they are nothing at all alike," asks a character, "what if history meanders like a river forever?" The image of history as a river -- specifically of unpredictable change manifesting as rising waters, and problematic revolutionary energies erupting in the breaking of a dam -- appears throughout Robinson's work, and perhaps someone will write a thesis on hydrology as synecdoche in the political imagination of Kim Stanley Robinson.

If so, they had better retain an appreciation of the droll. Robinson's novel is essentially comic, for all that it dramatizes many appalling events, and Robinson's willingness to peep around the side of his puppet theater and wink at the audience (there are half-hidden quotes from Karl Marx, John Fowles and others, plus a faintly deprecating discussion of the "device" of giving a soul's successive incarnations names that begin with the same letter) stands as an implicit but thorough rebuke to the kind of war-gaming determinism that most "alternate histories" embody. The Years of Rice and Salt is Robinson's richest, most subtle and moving novel, a meditation on history and humanism that abjures easy answers and ends up (unlike most alternate histories) knowing more than it tells.

Six of the eight stories collected in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Birthday of the World belong to her future history concerning the interstellar Ekumen, while one might as well belong to it, and the last -- and longest, which stands outside the pattern of the other seven stories -- is a tale of a generation ship's centuries-long journey. Written over the past eight years (about the same period as last year's Tales of Earthsea), the stories are set on seven different worlds, but Le Guin doesn't differentiate between them in terms of gravity, atmospheric composition, axial tilt or any other particular: They are mostly indistinguishable from Earth. More than ever before, her particulars are the stories' people.

The first story, "Coming of Age in Karhide," is a first-person account of a young Gethenian (a hermaphroditic native of the world Le Guin dramatized in The Left Hand of Darkness) growing into puberty in a clannish community where sexuality is not an issue except for a few days a month, when sex is an imperative and any non-relative a potential partner. The story proceeds smoothly -- abjuring all the conflicts and resolutions of conventional plot dynamic -- from ignorance to experience, and the protagonist's account of the sensations and misgivings (s)he experiences is at once recognizable and strikingly unfamiliar. The reader's inability to draw a line at the point where the one becomes the other -- that is, the story's ability to confound any reader's attempt to parse it -- is vivid evidence of its imaginative power.

Le Guin at her best is always undermining the borderline between categories, which is good because she has something of a weakness for them. Universality vs. individual experience, nubby particularity vs. general truths, are forever attracting Le Guin, who yearns to reconcile such oppositions in what a character calls "the body's obscure, inalterable dream of mutuality" but finally pulls back, knowing better. This tension often threatens to pull her stories apart, but seems actually (at least in her best work) to hold it together.

A critic once spoke of Orson Scott Card's stories as coming from either "Nice Orson" or "Nasty Orson," and one can venture (very provisionally) to see in Le Guin's work the hand of a Good Ursula and a Bad Ursula, the improving moral instructor and the scapegrace artist who capers outside the other's judiciously ruled lines. A model that attempts to account for a writer's resistance to modeling is a pretty shaky thing, and the most immediate problem with this one is the readiness of Good Ursula and Bad Ursula to switch roles when you're not looking. This readiness is nowhere more evident than in Le Guin's long interest in patterns of sexual politics, a subject (increasingly central since her 1991 volume Searoad) that has driven her at times to the precincts of the counsel of despair.

Le Guin's invocations of sexual violence, the destructive powers of religious orthodoxy (almost always masculine in nature), and men's susceptibility to militarism lead her time and again to the verge of concluding that there is something irredeemably destructive in the male psyche. Every story that touches this point, however, immediately reaches offstage to produce an exception, an example of a good male. This is Good Ursula, recoiling from dogma and being fair. It is fascinating to see how Bad Ursula immediately undercuts this, showing -- with real subtlety and rhetorical power -- how this good male really isn't very different from the rest after all. Good Ursula may scruple at making such judgments, and Bad Ursula not hesitate or care, but there is no question which figure is more imaginatively alive.

If "Coming of Age in Karhide" is purely wonderful, and the next story, "The Matter of Seggri," scarcely less so, the rest seem (with the exception of the penultimate, title story) to march steadily downward in quality, which is troubling because Le Guin seems to have arranged them in something close to their order of composition. "Paradises Lost," the generation STARship novella, is full of sharp observations and lovely moments, but gives us a devious religious cult too plainly tailored to merit the reader's scorn to possess any imaginative reality. The natural world with its discomforts and dangers is proven superior to an artificial environment; uncertainty and openness superior to serene dogma, especially when it's sneaky. Too tidily categorical, the story undermines only its own straw men. Bad Ursula does better with real targets.

The inhabited galaxy of John Clute's Appleseed seethes: with people zipping through vast artificial structures, starships popping through wormholes, tractor beams and laser weapons and other sci-fi hardware flashing across space. But mostly it seethes with the movement of data, AIs (here called Made Minds) as ubiquitous as the electronic devices in the kitchens, home offices and living rooms of Clute's 21st-century readers. The protagonist's ship is named "Tile Dance," and the tiles suggest both the computer chips of our own era, the tiny colored tiles that constitute figurative wall designs (the Portugese art of the azulejo is repeatedly cited), and any flat surface -- a screen, a sheet -- that can offer a vista onto distance realms. On every page, they dance.

Radically transformed environments are inhospitable to description via familiar language, and Clute's first novel in 25 years employs a prose style that fuses neologisms, old-fashioned slang and various arcane terminologies into a dense kinetic impasto: "For several Heartbeats, within Klavier, where a trillion trillion axons had begun to find each other again across the commissural link forged by Tile Dance, the wound of Vipassana's passage through muscle and tendon of the heartwood burned like a white-hot poker caught between teeth. A trillion tongues burned to ash." Readers used to a diction that holds to a high (or low) style, or who balk at mixed metaphors, may have trouble getting a grip.

Clute's tale of the complications that envelop the captain of the Tile Dance when he accepts a job transporting cargo to an unfamiliar planet is fast-moving, crunchy in its gnashing complexities and suitably cosmic in implication; a sequel may be needed. A turbo-charged space opera that shows considerable fondness for its earnest predecessors (it was Clute who made the remark about the influence of a century of sf), Appleseed has seemingly little in common with The Birthday of the World. Yet each shows a painful awareness of the dichotomies between embodiment and abstraction, between ravening male and abiding female; each expresses -- in very different ways -- a yearning to locate a state of true center, where incompatibilities can be balanced if not reconciled, and authenticity, a dream that haunts both books, can body forth distinct from the imitative and the unreal. *

Gregory Feeley frequently reviews fantasy and science fiction. He is the author, most recently, of "Spirit of the Place."