French author Laurent Binet’s third novel Civilisations (translated by Sam Taylor) is an alternate history of the world that takes Jarred Diamond’s theories in Guns, Germs and Steel and turns them on their head. The book considers what might have happened if the Incans and Aztecs had conquered Europe rather than the other way round. As a result, Civilisations is more thought experiment than novel, exploring larger social movements rather than a deep consideration of character.
Civilisations is divided into four distinct sections. The first, which provides the set up for this scenario, finds a Viking band heading well south of Vinland (a North American settlement). They land in Cuba and then go further into Central and South America. In doing so they teach the locals how to make iron, leave them with horses, and infect them with diseases which they would not otherwise have come in contact with for hundreds of years. Fast forward five hundred years to the voyage Columbus who finds native peoples of the America’s armed to the teeth, riding horses and not susceptible to European diseases. Forty years later, the Incans find their way to Southern Europe. The bulk of the book is then taken up with the takeover of Europe by Incan power and ideas, an advance that is only stemmed by the arrival of the Aztecs, allied with some of the Incan’s European rivals. The final section is a fantasy on the life of Miguel Cervantes. This section allows Binet to assay to longer term impacts in Europe but also to consider what might have happened to the novel itself, a form not pioneered by Cervantes in this version of his life.
The set up allows Binet to start with a 16th Century Europe that is well known and understood and completely deconstruct it. In particular he sets the Incans up as bloodthirsty but enlightened, who eliminate the persecution of minorities and level the taxation system. Plenty of famous Europeans get mentions or walk on roles including Thomas Moore, Francisco Pizzaro, Lorenzino de-Medici, King Henry VIII (who throws over the Catholic Church in favour of the Incan religion to England so that he can take multiple wives).
There are plenty of alternate histories out there but Civilisations is up there with the best of them. Binet uses his what-if set up to consider issues of colonisation, power, religion and fate. He effectively draws out how a small change to history could have had major ramifications and that it is in some ways only chance that set world history onto its current path. But he also has plenty of fun doing it. and while you certainly do not need to go into this knowing much about this period of history, Civilisations is full of what can only be described as historical Easter eggs, fun house mirror reflections and reimaginings of actual events from history.