Imagine, for a moment, that western civilization not only did not evolve as we know it today, but that, in fact, it never existed at all. This intriguing speculation is the underlying premise of a novel which forces the reader to rethink all the assumptions with which we habitually evaluate the past--the "givens" through which we interpret events. Robinson presupposes that virtually all the inhabitants of Europe were wiped out by a plague in the fourteenth century and the continent left uninhabited. But this was not the end of the world, nor was it the end of learning and "progress." Life continued, but all the intellectual developments arose out of the Muslim states, China, India, and eventually the North America of the Native Americans.
Alternating workman-like prose with prose "poems" and, occasionally, stories and legends, Robinson crafts a fast-paced history of a different world, creating two characters who appear and reappear in different incarnations from 783 a. H. (after Hegira), roughly the late 14th century, to the present day. Keeping basically the same personalities, regardless of their incarnations, Bold Bardash (Bihari, Bistami, Butterfly, Bahram, etc.) and Kyu (Kokila, Kya, Katima, Kheim, etc.) travel through time, experiencing life under the Mongols, Indians, early Chinese emperors, Muslim leaders, and Japanese sailors during their discovery of the New World.
Some episodes are much more vivid, and ultimately more enlightening, than others, and as the cultures are brought to life, along with their different views of man's place in the universe, Robinson shows how the desire to impose one's own religion or beliefs on the outside world is the basis of some of the cruelest violence throughout history. Ultimately, the Great War, lasting sixty-seven years and costing one billion lives, pits the rulers of Dar al-Islam against the Travancori League (India), China, and the Hodenosaunee League (Native America).
While it is intriguing to contemplate alternative history, Robinson's goal--the alternative history of the entire world for the past six hundred years is an enormous subject, one which, because of its breadth and scope seems to lose focus and pace as the book progresses. And while the reincarnations of Bold and Kyu help to bridge many gaps and avoid some problems of character development, the device becomes a bit tired by the end. Still, in showing us how all aspects of our current knowledge might have developed in other societies if western civilization had not existed, Robinson goes a long way toward reducing intellectual arrogance and increasing empathy for other cultures. Despite the book's limitations, Robinson succeeds in creating an alternative history which offers much food for thought and considerable narrative excitement. Mary Whipple