Short Review: Civilizations by Laurent Binet

The Short Reviews Series

Civilizations by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

French writer Laurent Binet’s newest novel, Civilizations, is the rare attempt to write alternate history as it happens, meticulously, day by day. It takes formal licenses by imitating literary styles contemporaneous to the time period in which it is set—between 1492 and the early 1600s—and follows a popular trend in alternate histories that sees the real-historical “losers” triumph over the “winners.” Binet is relatively new to the Anglophone literary scenes. A young French writer with two other novels under his belt, Binet has distinguished himself as an author who brings literary experimentation to popular genre forms: historical fiction in HHhH and the detective novel in The 7th Function of Language. Now, in Civilizations, Binet takes on alternate history and asks “What if the Inca had subjugated Europe in the 16th century?”

A full review is out in Strange Horizons, available here. But in sum, this novel is stylistically experimental, written to read like a sixteenth-century historical chronicle of day-to-day events as history changes, which is quite impressive, but also can make for tedious reading. (The novel also has two preludes, one a Viking saga and the other a revised version of Columbus’s diary.) This book will I think appeal, truly, to only a small number of readers, but is nonetheless receiving wide attention in the press, likely because of Binet’s previous, and equally weird, novels.


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