The years of rice, salt and science

Among the books I’m reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a fictional alternate history of modernity premised on the Black Death wiping out Europe completely so that Islam and China rise to dominance instead. It’s a good book in many ways but I was struck for present purposes by how Robinson gets science to happen. Like in all good alternative histories he’s trying to figure out what differences make a difference; for reasons peculiar to this particular history he’s also trying to figure out what sames make the same.

So expediently but interestingly, he restaffs yet recapitulates the developing experimentalism of Galileo, Grimaldi and Boyle et. al. pretty exactly, but in an environment in which the global context and intertext are far more explicit. That is, his story reads much more directly as a dynamic assemblage of existing elements than the usual heroic individual string-of-pearls discovery tales of triumphal Western Progress. For narrative purposes it’s all compressed into a single place/time (the khanate of Bokhara, 1020 AH) and group of people, but here are some of the factors:

*A Silk-Road nexus teaming with travelers and books from across Greater Asia

*A catastrophically-failed and disenchanted Arab alchemist whose day job is armory and gunpowder engineering

*A Tibetan fellow-alchemist and glassblower who has no reason to be impressed with Aristotle

*A self-absorbed khan with predatory enemies on all sides and a pragmatic principal advisor more interested in useful military technology than orthodoxies

*A well-established scholarly madressa community, including mathematicians, philosophers and Sufi mystics

The regional-military practicalities create one kind of enabling constraint, the failure of alchemy another, the Muslim theological-philosophical system a third. It helps a lot once the alchemy fails that the Tibetan guy is there to decenter Aristotle and that as a craftsman he’s of an empirical bent. His glassblowing enables lenses and vacuum vessels without too much need for suspension of disbelief. But all of that had been around there from time to time ‘forever’, we might say. What Robinson shows elegantly is that it took a particular configuration of those elements under particular dynamic stresses to create a new system, which quickly became self-organizing and expansive. All of the parts did their parts by doing their parts, but what they did was repurposed, with the radically-empiricized former alchemist as the catalyst.

So having invented the barometer, against the Aristotelian speculations of the Arab philosophers the emergent scientist grumbles

As if stones or the wind could want to be someplace or other, as a man does…. Things fall because they fall, that’s all it means. Which is fine, no one knows why things fall…. All the seeming cases of action at a distance are a mystery. But first we must say so, we must distinguish the mysteries as mysteries, and proceed from there, demonstrating what happens, and then seeing if that leads us to any thoughts concerning the how or the why.

Clearly this is the hero of the linear progress-of-science metanarrative, but Robinson doesn’t leave it at that. To get the right ferment, or alchemy so to speak took more than this, including the irrelevant or counterproductive stuff the new scientist was pushing against, like his son-in-law’s Sufioid handwaving about the universal force of love:

The Sufi scholars were still inclined to extrapolate from any given demonstration to the ultimate nature of the cosmos, while the mathematically inclined were fascinated by the purely numerical aspects of the results, the geometry of the world as it was revealed. These and other approaches combined in a burst of activity, consisting of demonstrations and talk, and private work on slates over mathematical formulations, and artisanal labor on new or improved devices.

This is where I stopped last night. I’ll update in the comments if necessary as I read on.

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