There’s the fictions that follow as closely as possible the events that change history as we know it—fictions of the Jonbar hinge (the old-school SF term for the point of divergence between two realities). These alternate histories tend to focus a great deal on the details of history, the how of how things happen and don’t happen; Jonbar fictions draw a great deal on their authors’ and readers’ (assumed) knowledge of “real” history to make the alternate history enjoyable, almost like a detective novel wherein readers are expected to notice the differences between two pictures. Yet they also tend to paint history in big strokes. A character does a thing, and all the changes fall into place; how does not matter, they just do, and so on.
The other kind of alternate history explores how things are different but at some remove from the Jonbar hinge. This is the more commonly trafficked approach to alternate history writing, largely because Jonbar fictions require so much attention to the historical details that characters tend to become secondary, whereas fictions set some time after “the change” are able to explore the shifted sociohistorical dimensions while telling character-driven narratives and often blending in other generic elements (most commonly, the detective novel).
French writer Laurent Binet’s newest novel, Civilizations, is the rare attempt to write alternate history as it happens, meticulously, day by day. It takes formal license by imitating literary styles contemporaneous to the time period in which it is set—between 1492 and the early 1600s—and follows a popular trend in alternate histories that sees the real historical “losers” triumph over the “winners.” Binet is relatively new to the Anglophone literary scene. A young French writer with two other novels under his belt, he has distinguished himself as an author who brings literary experimentation to popular genre forms: historical fiction in HHhH and the detective novel in The Seventh Function of Language. Now, in Civilizations, Binet takes on alternate history, and asks “What if the Inca had subjugated Europe in the sixteenth century?”
Without a doubt, the two most popular alternate history scenarios are those in which the Confederate States win the American Civil War and the Axis powers win World War II. This is because both wars were major geopolitical moments in the Anglophone world, when the stakes of global power shifted dramatically. From these popular scenarios emerges a general theme in much of alternate history: authors deal with Big Stakes, often at the geopolitical level, to look at histories in which the losers are the winners. Often, these fictions serve to tell us how much worse things could have been, presenting a sort of nightmare scenario of history. Sometimes this trope is used to critique those who did win (e.g., Matt Ruff’s The Mirage ). A minor trend is alternate histories with an Afrofuturist bent, such as Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain (1988) or Maurice Broaddus’s Buffalo Soldier (2017), or show worlds in which Indigenous peoples were not decimated by colonialism, like Stephen Graham Jones’s The Bird Is Gone: A Manifesto (2003), Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex (2005), or Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy (2010–2011).
Binet’s Civilizations is clearly a play on the generic trope of “losers” “winning.” But whereas most of these fictions do not take pains to demonstrate how things changed—that is, what social, economic, and political forces in the pre-Columbian Americas and Europe shifted globally to allow the Inca (and Aztecs) to rise to transatlantic power, make Europe the zone of colonial extraction, and the outskirts of a massive multi-continental empire—Binet is hyperfocused on the day-to-day, year-to-year progress of history. Civilizations is written for the most part in the form of a historical chronicle and proceeds (from the reader’s perspective) as if working out what could have happened differently to actually produce the scenarios that other writers tend to deal with decades or centuries after the Jonbar hinge. It is a grand undertaking, a worthwhile allohistorical experiment, and a half-decent literary accomplishment.
Broadly speaking, Civilizations takes place during a period that popular historian Patrick Wyman calls “the verge,” the years between 1492 and 1530 when Europe underwent massive economic, political, and social change in just four decades. Among these sea changes were the “discovery” of the Americas and the early expropriation of their wealth, the rise of religious turmoil via the Protestant Reformation and the decentralization of the Catholic Church, and the blossoming of new artistic and scientific knowledge in the Renaissance, particularly within the humanist movement. Into this Europe, fraught with intra- and inter-state power struggles, not to mention a great deal of religious strife and considerable social stratification, strides the exiled Inca emperor Atahualpa, looking for a new land to rule.
The novel begins with two brief asides before Atahualpa takes the stage. The first is a Viking-style saga of a partially fictionalized Freydís Eiríksdóttir, a retelling of the Vikings’s first excursions to North America and encounters with Indigenous peoples there. Freydís was a real person remembered in the Saga of Eirík the Red, wherein she castigates the Viking men for fleeing combat with Indigenous people and scares off their enemies by baring her breasts and slapping her sword against them. Binet takes this further, making her into an exuberantly violent murderer, who is exiled from Greenland and so takes Vikings not only to Vínland (the Viking term for where they stopped in North America, today the east coast of Canada) but down the eastern seaboard all the way to central or northern South America. The novel doesn’t do much with this later, except note that the cult of Thor was incorporated into Indigenous South American belief systems and that there are red-haired descendants of these Vikings living across the Americas, from today’s Cuba to Peru. The second is a retelling of Columbus’s journey to the Americas, which goes disastrously wrong and sees his three ships taken or destroyed by the Taíno, and his crew killed. He dies alone, at an advanced age, forgotten in Europe and an enslaved curiosity among Taíno royals, among them a young girl who will later become the consort of the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa.
The novel proper begins in the 1520s, with Atahualpa losing a civil war against his brother Huáscar, who was appointed emperor by Cusco’s nobles on the death of the brothers’ father, Huayna Capac. In real life, Atahualpa defeated Huáscar and reunited the Inca empire, known as Tawantinsuyu; he was the last Sapa Inca (sovereign of the Inca) before the empire was usurped by Francisco Pizarro in the 1530s. In Civilizations, Atahualpa escapes his brother with an army and royal retinue, and flees into Central America, where his party reaches Cuba in small boats and become guests of the Taíno, who learned how to build seafaring ships and to use guns from the spoils of their conflict with the Spaniards under Columbus. There, he befriends Anacaona, a famous figure of Cuban and Haitian history, and takes her daughter, Higuénamota, as his lover. As a girl, Higuénamota had known and cared for the odd Spaniard Columbus, and she had learned his language and much about Europe. She shares this knowledge with Atahualpa, who discerns that Europe will become the Inca’s Fifth Quarter (traditionally, the Inca empire was divided into Four Quarters or regions), with him as the one true Sapa Inca of this new land ordained to be his by his ancestor, the Sun.
The novel follows in chronicle style, then, as Atahualpa, Higuénamota, and their Inca retinue build ships and guns, sail to Europe, impress the petty nobility with their wealth and grandeur (gold is cheap to these Inca), learn of their internecine conflicts, and exploit them. Atahualpa manipulates events to become King of Spain by deposing and killing Charles V and using marriages between his retinue and European nobles to secure control over much of the Holy Roman Empire (Spain, the German states, the Low Countries, and parts of Italy). He embraces the Protestant Reformation, meets with and mocks Luther, and proposes a new Cult of the Sun (i.e., worship of the Sapa Inca and his ancestors) that catches on with fervor. Much of Europe flocks to his side, though the Pope and pockets of Catholicism resist. This is achieved by and large peacefully, thanks to marriages, religious proselytization, and an overhaul of the serfdom-based land tenure system that results in a much more humane means of supporting the empire through labor-based taxes. All of this is funded by a new banking elite in Germany, and the debts repaid when Atahualpa makes peace with his brother and the two agree to rule separately these two separate spheres of the Inca empire, allowing the transatlantic trade to blossom without the development of a slave trade in Africa. Eventually, the Aztec empire gets in on European colonization and brutally subdues France.
The main portion of the novel ends with Atahualpa’s assassination in Italy. But the Fifth Quarter of the Inca empire in Europe lives on, as the epilogue—a lengthy play on Don Quixote, but in fact a biographical account of its author, wherein Cervantes himself ends up enslaved in the Aztec empire—suggests the long-term influences of Inca colonization of Europe. Things are forever changed, even as much stays the same.
All of this is told in generic turns that mimic early modern historical chronicles and letters between famous personages (Atahualpa even writes his own version of the 95 theses), often with the knowing embellishment of facts to make history seem providentially bequeathed to the victors, to cover up blunders and failures. Moreover, the whole book reads as an edited document compiled some time after the events described, probably by more than a century, since there are occasional references to the scenes in question being immortalized in the art of painters or composers living in the Enlightenment period. Binet calques the tone and flavor of Viking sagas, of Columbus’s writings, of Spanish conquistadores’ and priests’ writings about New Spain, and of Don Quixote. Binet exudes an obsession with the day-to-day of history, taking us through events as they happen, a day or a week at a time. Occasionally, Binet skips forward a few months or a year in the chronicle of the Fifth Quarter, but this is rare and often only to cover up sweeping changes in agrarian or diplomatic policy that would, frankly, bore most readers. Already the novel verges on boring in its exuberant observation of early modern writing style, but Civilizations also holds a strange fascination. If you’ve ever had to read primary source documents and contend with the liberties they take with regard to fact, to read them as a historian does, then Civilizations is something of a marvel; a real history of no history at all. It’s simultaneously fascinating and tedious.
Civilizations is an inventive novel, to say the least, and one that relies on its author’s deep understanding of historical events during the period in question, not only at the local level, but geopolitically. This is a novel that sees the whole world system in scope at the very moment of its historical formation: the beginning of the sixteenth century following the “discovery” of a New World. Only, in Binet’s novel, the discovery is reversed, as is the ethical weight of everything that followed in world history from the advent of modern settler-colonialism.
Civilizations is not particularly enjoyable for its characters, its scenery, or its plays on language and literary flourishes, all of which are rather flat and easily forgettable, subsumed so wholly to the style of the source material that Binet draws on and recreates. It provides a different kind of enjoyment, that of the historical schema, an inductive scaffolding of how things might have changed, proceeding year by year until the scope of the historical events begin to snowball such that larger-scale assumptions about historical change can begin to be made.
More than any other SFF subgenre, I love alternate history. I’ve taught several college courses on it, I tend to gravitate toward it when I select books to review, and I think some of its most prolific practitioners are underrated geniuses of contemporary SFF. Binet’s Civilization is one of the most inventive and daring alternate history novels I’ve read, willing to sacrifice craft for style, experimenting with how a real alternate history might have been written, and pushing against the confines of the novel as a long-familiar genre. If this is your niche, you’ll find yourself at home. Otherwise, reader, beware; you have been fairly warned.