Posted by on Feb 5, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

I’m hoping to do a series of illustrations based around the chapters of one of my favorite novels of all time, The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I am rereading this month. This project is partly to give me a little bit of a break from SNitLoE, which for some reason has been bogging me down a little bit, and partly to introduce myself to new art techniques, like the ink-wash used here. I also want to practice the “illustration-a-day” ethos of Benjamin Dewey, where the point is not for an illustration to be be perfect in every way, but for it to be completely finished in a day. This drawing took me about three or three and a half hours.

The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history novel which speculates how the world would have developed without the influence of European Christendom. Some time in the 14th century, a mutant strain of the plague kills 99% of Europeans (instead of the historical 30-60%), effectively eliminating them from history, and leaving China and Islam the dominant powers on earth. The novel traces humanity’s progress over the next seven centuries, all the way up to the Islamic year 1423 (which would be 2002 on the Christian calendar).

But Kim Stanley Robinson, very characteristically, never spells this all out. (Amazingly, KSR is often accused by other sci-fi writers of being prone to “infodumps,” but I think this charge is ridiculous.) Instead, he tells the new history through the eyes of his characters, ordinary and extraordinary people who are only barely figuring it out themselves. The central character of chapter one, “Awake to Emptiness,” is Bold, a Mongolian raider under the conquering Temur Khan in what would be the very early 15th Christian century. Bold takes a wrong turn and heads out into the Magyar plain (present-day Hungary), where he finds villages and entire cities completely depopulated by the plague, their buildings and cathedrals still ghostily in tact.

(Fearing that he has been exposed to plague, the Khan orders Bold’s execution, but Bold flees. He works his way through deserted eastern Europe alone, down through Greece, where, on the brink of starvation, he is captured by Arab slave traders. He journeys with them down the east coast of Africa, where he forms a deep bond with another enslaved person, an African boy named Kyu. They are taken on the magnificent trading fleet of Admiral Zheng He (a real historical figure) to Hangzhou, where they are employed in a restaurant, until Kyu gets the idea… well, I won’t spoil it.)

By the way, I haven’t forgotten about the “alternate history” that’s happening RIGHT NOW. Here’s my 3-minute warm-up sketch of a man whose power-grubbing would give ol’ Genghis a run for his money, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: