For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, then the horse, then the battle, then the war, or so it has often been said. Laurent Binet’s new novel plays intriguingly with this conceit, postulating what kind of world we’d be living in today if a few tiny things had been different. In his counterfactual experiment, 10th-century Viking explorers (well, criminals on the run) travel a good bit farther into the so-called New World than they historically did, all the way to South America. The figurative horseshoe nail they leave behind consists of the knowledge of iron-working, legends of a hammer-wielding thunder god, recessive genes for red hair, and most important, early exposure to European diseases. So armed, the indigenous Americans are later able to resist Columbus’s insignificant, harebrained incursion. Within decades, it is instead the Incan emperor Atahualpa who is the first to mount a successful cross-oceanic expedition. Before long, thanks to astute military and political machination, indigenous American culture comes to dominate a Europe riven by sectarian religious conflict. The story, told in the form of of various pseudo-historical documents, is equally fascinating and plausible, decorated with glittering possibilities—a painting by Titian of the Incan discovery of Lisbon, Henry VIII rejecting both Luther and the Pope in favor of the sun god who permits polygamy, and so on. Civilizations is a feast for fans of audacious fiction, but also for straitlaced adherents of Guns, Germs, and Steel who need to loosen their collars.
—James, Madison Books, Seattle, WA