By Alex Wallace
It always interests me, if with some trepidation, whenever someone of a literary bent attempts alternate history. At best, such attempts can bring with them a finesse to the writing and the characterization that the genre press sometimes neglects. At worst, they display no respect for the history of the genre, treating the very notion of allohistorical speculation as a novel thing of which they are the first worthies to actually make an attempt at such. It was this cocktail of emotions I felt when I cracked open Laurent Binet’s novel Civilizations, published in 2019 in its original French and translated by Sam Taylor in 2021.
(Before you ask - no, so far as I can tell, Sid Meier or his associates had nothing to do with this novel, although there is a certain similarity in the underlying philosophy)
What is so striking about the writing style of Civilizations is how it is essentially a long-form textbook-style alternate history in a manner that would have fit in easily with Sea Lion Press’ various offerings. Binet is clearly thinking on a grand scale, and he has chosen a medium that allows him to indulge in that scale. Binet is a reporter on French politics, and I suspect that that background informed this book in the way that Robert Sobel’s background in economics informed For Want of a Nail; there’s a certain journalistic tone that can be felt in some parts of the narrative.
The narrative, in terms of its historical focus, is one that is quite unique in the genre. It starts with Viking ships making landfall in the Americas, and their crews travel ever southward. Through what appears to be technological diffusion, this leads to the Inca creating a fleet of ships that is sent to colonize Europe when the Reformation is in full swing. Binet dares, and mostly succeeds, in the task previously undertaken by Kim Stanley Robinson and Arturo Serrano and Yasser Bahjatt in inverting traditional narratives of colonialism; I am, however, more than little off-put by the fact that such a change among non-Europeans is because of the intervention of European travelers.
The longtime reader of alternate history will be mildly amused at the extent of convergent evolution here. The textbook style is the most obvious, but there is clever usage of historical figures like Martin Luther; I particularly enjoyed what Binet did with Henry VIII of England. The whole shebang feels like a good timeline on alternatehistory.com eight to ten years ago, and that is a compliment.
Had Civilizations been released in 1991, or 2001, or even 2011, it would have been absolutely transformational in the genre. In the genre of 2022, however, it is but another entry in the reimagination of alternate history that is currently ongoing. That is no bad thing; the genre could use the new blood. Civilizations heralds the coming of something truly magnificent, and, through it, the genre may well have a real cultural victory on its hands.
Alex Wallace is the editor of the 'Alloamericana' Anthology