Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those rare breeds in SciFi today, he writes what is traditionally called “hard” science fiction but he differs from the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Greg Bear and Peter F. Hamilton in that there is a great deal of focus on the fundamental changes in society that new technological advances bring. In this way, he is very much like Ray Bradbury.
This is a departure from Robinson’s hard scifi though as he branches out to explore the realms of alternative history; but the quality of the narrative does not suffer for the change in genre. This is book that explores and perhaps, gives us a clear indication of Robinson’s personal philosophies. I wasn’t surprised to discover later that Robinson is a Buddhist. Hinted at increasingly through his “Mars” series, this is the clearest indication yet.
Europe has been ravaged by the Black Death far more than it was in reality, so when travellers from the east reach western Europe they see devastation from which the European powers would never recover and the few remaining survivors are reduced to barbarism.
With Christianity and its influence on Europe (and eventually the New World) seemingly dead, we witness the rise of Islam, Buddhism and other eastern religions across the world unrestricted. We follow what at first I thought were the same families through history but are actually the same people reincarnated over and over again (hence his Buddhist beliefs). Far from feeling bludgeoned by his beliefs, Robinson is trying to write the novel as though the world he has created actually happened. Free from Christian traditions and mythologies, this is a world where the major faiths are Islam and Buddhism fighting literally or figuratively for dominance in the world.
The nations that develop go through pretty much the same events from our history: the discovery of the Americas, the enlightenment, reformation in Islamic Spain, world wars, female emancipation, atomic technology, a cold war and the global economy.
This is a heavy going novel considering the subject matter covering over 600 years of alternative history in ten books (chapters set in different time periods). Not for the feint of heart, but a rewarding and enlightening experience nonetheless. Robinson tried the alternate history experiment a second time in Vinland: The Dream