Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Second Look: Civilizations by Laurent Binet

 A second look at Civilizations by Laurent Binet. 

In October 2021, my colleague Arturo Serrano reviewed Laurent Binet’s alternate history novel Civilizations here on the blog.[]. He did not find much favor with it. As I will be deeply engaging with that review, I recommend you read that review so you can get some details I am not going to repeat here and to get a general sense of context.

Back? Great. Let’s dig in.

Since Serrano’s piece, the novel has garnered some critical acclaim, including the Sidewise Award for best Alternate History, 2021, where it is that it came on my radar.  I decided, especially urged on by a colleague who was very interested in my opinion on the book, to give it a try and see for myself what I thought of it. And so here we are.

So this is not quite so much of a review as a reaction to the book, and thinking and interpolating the thoughts of friends and colleagues, and using them, and my own history, in coming to terms with the book, and ultimately where do I think it sits. 

Alternate History has been a power chord for me ever since coming across stories such as “Sidewise in Time”, Lest Darkness Fall (which is a time travel creating alternate history), “Delenda Est” ,and of course the works of Harry Turtledove. But the alternate history book I want to talk about here, because this work feels very much in conversation with it to the point that I think that, if you can find it,  you might want to read it before reading Civilizations is For Want of Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga, by Robert Sobel. ¹

Sobel’s book is not a novel, and does not even pretend to be, even though Civilizations has ambitions to be a novel or at least sits closer to the novel format. Sobel’s work is a sweeping look at an alternate history of North America and the world, with one change: the British win the battle of Saratoga and end the American Revolution. He then spins out two hundred years of alternate history. Hamilton and other failed leaders of the American Revolution wind up in Texas, and use that as a springboard to eventually take over all of Mexico and rule it Caudillo style. The story of the 19th and up to the mid 20th century is the rivalry between the British possessions in North America and Mexico. 

But the point is, there are no characters, there are no plots, it is really just a textbook of ideas, reflections, thoughts and historical review and analysis of the events being written about in the book. The historical author has opinions, and is clearly writing (until the “modern day”) from a historical perspective of hindsight, and a political and social point of view on those events.

So, thus, although with more narrative drama, runs Civilizations.  Civilizations, unlike Gaul, is divided into four parts, although dominated by one narrative, and three shorter ones. The major narrative is the most Sobelian in nature, being told much more like a history book than a straighforward narrative, and I will talk about it further in due course.

The first narrative comes across as an attempt to write a Viking Saga, in telling the story of an Viking expedition that winds up exploring down the coasts of North and Central America. This is Binet’s point of divergence, since this voyage solves three of the historical weaknesses that Native American civilizations had in facing the Europeans: the Columbian Exchange of diseases, ironworking, and horses. If you have read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, you will recognize that Binet is substituting horses for gunpowder in his formulation.². I do see Binet’s point here. Gunpowder and guns were initially far less impactful on the 16th century contact between Europeans and Native Americans than you might think. It was horses, and steel and a lot of luck that helped Pizarro and Cortez.3

The first second gives way to a shorter second section, however, and further to set up the pieces on the chessboard for his major third section, this section is a story of an alternate Christopher Columbus.  The aforementioned Viking saga and timeline divergence (the Vikings never returned) did not affect European history in the slightest, and so Columbus’ voyage happens on exactly the same time frame and starts off in exactly the same way.

The first portion of the novel was told as a Viking Saga and in the style of a Viking Saga. This second portion is found footage, pieces of the journal of Christmas Columbus.⁴. Binet is using the real journal as a model, as a guide as a framework for the reader.   It is when Columbus lands on the islands, that we see the changes between the texts, even given the more fragmentary nature of the journals produced within Binet’s book.  Without the Columbian exchange to quickly sicken the natives, and with iron, and being aware of horses, the local inhabitants are much more of a challenge for Columbus than in our own timeline. It is here that Binet plays the gunpowder card, but his point seems to be that gunpowder alone is NOT enough. The Native Americans do not have it, but it alone is not enough of a technological edge (especially given the size of Columbus’ force) to save him. Columbus fails and falls. 

One reason for this interlude, in addition to introducing the natives to gunpowder, is perhaps one of the thinnest reeds in the alternate history in setup for the third portion. Even given the Horses, Germs and Steel, and now the beginnings of firearms, one can see how he sets up his Native Americans to be on a footing much more equal with Europe. But for his true tour-de-force portion of the novel, the third, he needs a way to get the Inca TO Europe.  Columbus’ captured ship is the answer to that dilemma. I think it is the thinnest of reeds, but let’s continue for the moment and talk about it some more momentarily.

With Columbus’ fall, the third and the bulk of the novel is the Sobelian piece--the story of the Incan invasion of Europe. Without the Columbian Exchange, Binet has to invent a reason for , Huayna Cápac, the Incan Emperor, to die and have it fall to his two quarreling sons, but with this managed, Binet shows that with Steel and Horses, war in the Incan empire is a very different affair than in our timeline. Atahualpa, instead of grinding out a slow victory against his brother, instead, elects to flee with his supporters and followers. He eventually winds up in the Caribbean where a still seaworthy ship of Columbus is there to carry him east, away from his brother, to find a Fifth Quarter to rule as his own. 

As mentioned before, this is all told in a Sobelian manner, with events skipped over, dramatization sometimes strong and sometimes weak, and all with a looking backward approach to it. As for example:

"Later the scene would be immoritalised in a famous Titian painting: Athahualpa, young, handsome, imperial in his dignity, a parrot on his shoulder, his puma on a leash, surrounded by his wives...At the centre of the image, a Levantine, sitting cross-legged, naws at a bone, his lips drawn back, in front of a hrrified priestess of the Sun. Another, curious, reaches out to touch the ears of an impassive Inca Lord...of course Titian wasn't there to witness the scene and it didn't actually happen in precisely that way"

Once the Inca (Quitonians) are in Portugal, just after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1532⁵, they go through trial and tribulation in order to attain political and temporal power. There are resonances here with our own history, basically putting Charles V, Emperor of Spain, in the role of Athahualpa, winding up a prisoner, hostage and negotiating chip to Athahualpa in his bid for power. It’s a precarious climb to power, just as it was for Pizarro in South America, but with terrain and characters that will likely be much more familiar to the reader. This IS the part of the novel where the cameos and walk on roles from this time period fly by, and sometime become very plot relevant. 

Binet has a lot of fun with this. Pizarro winds up becoming the servant/man of Athahualpa. Machiavelli gets mentioned a couple of times. In the course of events, Athahualpa (who becomes Holy Roman Emperor) winds up encountering and alternatively working with and clashing with Martin Luther. Athahualpa’s political naivete comes off very weird here, not understanding the conflicts swirling around him.

The other thing that Binet decides to do is to have a religious conflict, having the Inca as being religious tolerants in a Europe that is starting to splinter over the ideas of Martin Luther and his contemporaries. The idea of Sun worship being such a tolerant belief feels a lot like wish fulfillment than anything from history, quite frankly. Athahualpa, too in his beliefs and approaches feels much less than being steeped in Empire and power as he doubtless was. The reforms and policies he puts out (including the aformentioned religious toleration) does feel like wish fulfillment on the author’s part. He does stir the pot with the arrival of the Aztecs on European shores, taking advantage of the political and social chaos by Athahualpa’s arrival to get a piece of the pie for themselves.⁶ The Incan and Aztecs do not, in the end get along anything but uneasily. Again, Binet is doing a thing here, reversing the European drive for Empire and influence over peoples and nations around the world by having the Europeans be the ones on the receiving end.  As Serrano notes in his review, the Aztecs (that is to say, the “Mexicans”) impose a ruler on France and the French, in a reversal of our own 19th century history.⁷

The last portion of the book ends on, for me a whimper. The Adventures of Cervantes tells an alternate story of the writer Don Quixote. In real life, he had amazing adventures that were not quite his literary creation’s, but close enough, winding up in battles, acting as a spy, sold as a slave, and even more. The Cervantes in this book goes through a number of the same events as the Cervantes of our timeline, but there is one fundamental fear and difference in this timeline that Cervantes fears to face--the Aztecs. In the main section, the Aztec use of human sacrifice is definitely not tempered down from our history, and anyone captured by the Aztecs or an ally of the Aztecs would rightly fear. But Cervantes crossing “the Ocean sea” is the inconclusive ending to a story that does feel like Don Quixote. The chapters have the old style sort of foreshadowing of events in their titles, which gives the chronicle an antique feel. Perhaps I know little about Cervantes as a person to really judge or connect with this final section of the book and after the Inca section, it feels like an unnecessary coda to the entire book, in my opinion. The book, in end, does not land on the strongest of notes. 

As such, given this essay, I do not think that a rating is warranted. I will let my thoughts above serve the reader in that regard.

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Reference: Binet, Laurent [author], Taylor, Sam [translator]. Civilizations [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021].

¹The book is out of print, and out of print copies are expensive. I find myself, with my many books, wondering just where MY copy is (I bought it over 20 years ago. Did it survive my many moves??) 

² Charitably, Diamond’s work is problematic in many ways. 

³ I am reminded of Fred Saberhagen’s Mask of the Sun, where the protagonist winds up in the Incan Empire just before Pizarro and his merry gang show up, and his marching orders (and to stay alive) he needs to figure a way to defeat them. He is far more concerned with the Spanish Cavalry than their guns, and his focus in defeating the Spanish is to try and figure out how to handle them. 

⁴Which you can read at the Internet Archive.  I remember reading some of this in Junior High in history class. Given this was the early 1980’s, it was not very critical of Columbus at the time.

⁵My suspicion is that Binet saw the temporal convergence of the Incan Civil War, and this earthquake and may have built the book so that the Inca would be in a position to take advantage of it. 

⁶Again in Mask of the Sun, the intertemporal timeline conflict eventually reveals itself to be between rival Aztec and Incan Empires.This does make me think that Binet read Mask of the Sun as one of the inspirations for this book.

⁷ A book I recently read on this is The Last Emperor of Mexico by Edward Shawcross.