Posted by on Feb 13, 2011 in Blog | 1 comment

Click to read my explanation of what’s happening here.

Here’s my illustration for chapter four of The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. “The Alchemist” tells the tale of Khalid, a Samarqandi armorer whose right hand is chopped off by the Khan when his demonstration of transmuting lead into gold is discovered to be fraudulent. He is rescued from spiraling depression by his son-in-law, the Sufi-minded Bahram (center), and Iwang(right), a mathematically-minded polyglot. They gradually launch an Islamic Renaissance in Samarqand (in the Muslim 1050’s, our 1640s), eschewing the conjectures of the Ancients and constructing a method of empiricism that quickly leads to many discoveries in diverse fields, theoretical and practical. (Of course the Khan is only interested in weapons).

In the scene I’ve depicted, the three of them are walking home one night after a vailiant but failed attempt to measure the speed of light, slightly drunk. When Bahram asserts that the purpose of life is to “make more love,” Khalid (whose scribbly notebooks designate him as a sort of alternate-history Leonardo Da Vinci, with a touch of the martyred Galileo) concedes but adds that it is our duty to Allah to understand His world, in order to love it. Iwang, meanwhile, envisions a mathematics that would measure “the speed-of-the-speed.”

It’s a great chapter, where KSR’s strength for writing that is intellectually stimulating, and not just a relentless emotional roller-coaster, really shines. Sure, there are some beautiful moments of character development, but the most engaging passages are where we witness an old discovery or invention (vacuum pumps, barometers, the telescope, calculus, even nasty things like mustard gas) being made again in a novel way. It reminds me of middle school, when science was in my hands, not in the hands of distant, corporate-funded lab technicians; when science was fun. It’s a chapter I think my scientific-atheist friends could really appreciate, despite the heavy Muslim/Buddhist overtones.