This book is an alternate history that looks at the idea that Europe died out with the Black Death and it was up to Muslim and Chinese civilisations to take over the world. I had to admit that it sounded rather dubious, but I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Robinson’s Mars trilogy so I thought it’s be worth a read.
The first chapter was set up in the traditional Chinese storytelling style, with poetry interspersed and “if you want to know what happens next you will read the next chapter”. The main character was said to a reincarnation of Monkey King, which I found particularly odd as besides from mentioning this on practically the first page there was nothing about the character that was anything like Monkey and it never was brought up again.
The thing that I found most amusing about the Mars trilogy was the way they discovered the secrets of immortality (in an otherwise quite hard sci-fi book) so that the same characters would be able to survive the hundreds of years that it would take to terraform Mars. Here Robinson had the characters reincarnate (in a rather non-Buddhist take on reincarnation) so that the souls would continue. This device was played out with the characters from one story going to the next with the same letter starting their name, so you had B. K. and I. as well as a few more minor characters. Fortunately this wasn’t quite so annoying as it sounded.
I found the characters interesting, it was interesting to see the character development played out within and across reincarnations. K. was definitely my favourite character. It was also interesting that I became more important as the story progressed and B. less so. Despite all the flaws with the book I found that I did care what happened and got caught up in the action and enjoyed it despite myself.
The largest problem was that the events paralled European development too closely without any explanation for it. The two worst examples of this were the Chinese discovering America and being taken with all the gold there and using their firearms to terrify the local populace into submission. (With no explanation as to why gold was valued or where they had gotten their firearms). They were simply the conquistadors speaking Mandarin (another error). The worst example from the Arab side of the story was the alchemists discovering the scientific method and redoing renaissance Italy. The author totally failed to have any insight into Arabic culture or scientific thought and just had the characters duplicate the invention process of the west. I thought this was by far the weakest story. Towards the end things got a little better, though there was still the Arab civilisation where women were coming and doing their own thing, which was interesting and I was enjoying, until he mentioned they hyper inflation, caused because they lost the war, and their were references to “wheelbarrows of money” and I realised we were just back in Weimar Berlin. Terribly disappointing.
On the whole I enjoyed the Arabic/Muslim stories more than the Chinese ones. This was because I no so little about the history and culture I was less likely to see the glaring errors in the writing and could just relax and enjoy it more. Of the Chinese stories I think my favourite was Widow Kang, it was the only story that actually seemed Chinese. Though I totally disagreed with her husband’s definition of what history was, it felt like a story that could actually have happened. The chapter on “the long war” was very well done. It was impossible to tell whether they were actually fighting in the afterlife or still in the real world and it seemed to not matter.
I also felt that a lot of the interaction between civilisations was lost. India was almost totally ignored, and with both the Arabic and Chinese civilisations having a huge interest in India I felt it should have been much more important than it was, or at least mentioned. The same is also true for all the Central Asian civilisations that were mostly ignored. The history of interaction between the Muslims and the Chinese before the start of the book was ignored, and the two acted like the other didn’t exist until finally they did clash in a huge war.
It was a rather frustrating book for a historian, particularly a historian who focuses on one of the civilisations in question. But despite all the problems with it I found that it was enjoyable, I felt a connection to the characters and was moved by their troubles and wanted to know how it would all end. I’m not sure I’d recommend it though I would definitely say you should read his Mars trilogy if you like sci-fi. It was interesting and frustrating but overall I did enjoy it....Continua