Posts Tagged ‘alternate history’

Laurent Binet: Civilisations

June 6, 2021

     Here is a fascinating alternative history: in nutshell, the Viking settlement in Greenland does not die out; instead, contact is made with pre-Incan civilisation in the Americas; Columbus fails to discover the Americas; the Incas and later the Aztecs discover and conquer and partition Europe between them; Cervantes and a fellow artist (the Greek, so El Greco?) find themselves exiled to the Americas…

It’s a four-part story, carefully structured to add credibility to the vision. So the first section is vaguely styled like a Viking saga, chaotic, murderous and linking into many of the stereotypes we hold of the Vikings. Cohabitation and then alliance between them and the early North American civilisations is forged through the efforts of a powerful Viking queen whose intentions are peaceful rather than warrior-like, and who is disturbed at the realisation that her people have brought with them illnesses that decimate the local inhabitants.

Columbus’ tale is marked by his cupidity, stupidity and obsession with imposing the Catholic faith on everyone he encounters. He is unsuccessful in skirmishes with the inhabitants of the Americas who have metal-working skills acquired from their encounters with the Vikings several centuries earlier, and so better weaponry; they also have horses, acquired the same way. The Europeans are outwitted by the Incas or the Aztecs – we don’t know, partly because Columbus isn’t interested enough to find out. He dies alone, last of the Europeans in America.

When we meet the Incas, they are beset by internecine feuds and capable of random acts of bloodthirsty cruelty. A small army of renegade Incas do a ‘reverse Columbus’, and sail East, helped by those descended from the Vikings and who defeated Columbus and his men a few decades previously. They land and establish themselves in the ruins of a Lisbon which has been flattened by an earthquake and tsunami, and take things from there. I did find myself wondering how, suddenly, and with no apparent prior experience, the Incas had become quite skilful navigators and pilots…

Columbus’ adventures meant that Atahualpa’s princess understands Spanish, and can converse with the Queen of Portugal: communication is established. The Incas enjoy as much luck in their conquest of Europe as Pizarro and Cortes and their men did in reality, in their conquest of the Americas. This is the central and most interesting section of the novel, and the way that Binet weaves in various characters from history is skilful and enlightening: there’s a fascinating, imagined exchange of letters between Thomas More and Erasmus on the subject of Inca sun-worship…

The final section is the adventures of the Spaniard Cervantes, which includes a lengthy stay with Montaigne in Bordeaux before he ends up being sent across the ocean to work in the Americas, for the Incas and Aztecs have need of artists and writers, areas in which they have limited experience.

It’s an alternative history, a piece of total fantasy, as are all novels of this kind; it’s a ‘what if?’ which reminds us of the chance nature of a good many developments in our world. It entertains, as well as makes the reader think, and it showcases an excellent imagination. Binet has conceived the work well, and for me the open, incomplete nature of the four-part structure, and the use of associated styles and mannerisms, added a vitality and a sense of conviction (if that makes sense!) to the novel for me. Thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking, and I’m really pleased to see it has been translated into English now…

Gibson & Sterling: The Difference Engine

June 18, 2019

819+mIobt3L._AC_UL436_ I’m a serious fan of alternate histories; I like to imagine all sorts of ‘what if?’s. Here’s quite a famous one from the early days of steam punk. I’ve read it several times, but not for about ten years so it was time to take another look.

Gibson and Sterling create a convincing and fascinating alternative Victorian Britain deftly though the use of lots of details, in a similar way to how Philip Pullman builds his alternate Oxford in His Dark Materials. The industrial revolution is in full spate, powered by steam, but Charles Babbage’s difference engine has succeeded in permitting computerisation, mass communication and surveillance, again all steam-driven. However, the cost of all this has been a massive increase in pollution: the great stink of real history in Victorian London is far worse here.

Politically the initiative has been seized by radicals who have abolished the aristocracy and established a meritocracy; they are, however, still opposed by anarchists and Luddites, and further afield the territory of the United States has not coalesced into a single nation, but remains a number of smaller states with different interests, and Britain plays for power and influence there, and the statelets are also playing their own games over here. Palaeontology and evolution are at the forefront of contemporary science.

The characters are mostly well-rounded and most of them convince, as does the technology, which is probably the main delight of this yarn – the mechanised transport, card payments, mass surveillance and instant communication of our age translated to the 1850s. Victorian London comes to life as vividly as it does in Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and the central episodes of total anarchy set against the background of pollution are a tour-de-force of nastiness, menace and impending doom: revolution really does seem to be brewing…

It’s a good read, but this time I did find the plotting rather loose and unclear at times, with the action shifting somewhat disjointedly between different locations and groups of characters. Didn’t spoil the story, though.

%d bloggers like this: