Kim Stanley Robinson's ambitious exploration of alternative history in The Years of Rice and Salt poses the daunting question "How would our world have developed without Europe?" (Or, rather, without European culture?) When the scouts of the Mongol leader Temur the Lame (Tamburlaine) enter Hungary in 1405, they find only emptiness and death. Plague has swept Europe off the gameboard of history.
The centuries that follow are initially dominated by expanding Islamic nations and the monolithic Chinese empire. It's a grand chronicle of rising and falling cultures, with individuals forever struggling to make a difference to the slow-motion landslide of events. Extra continuity is given by a touch of fantasy as the Buddhist wheel of reincarnation brings back the same characters (coded by initials) again and again with varied roles, relations and sexes. Their stories are touching and very human.
Episodes of our own history are artfully echoed. America is discovered by Chinese ships from the west, with fateful effects for the native tribes and the "Inka" theocracy further south. The scientific ideas of da Vinci's Renaissance are reflected by the Alchemist of Samarkand, reluctantly devising fresh weapons of war. New forms of government arise. Islamic splinter groups move into empty Europe and in that softer climate develop dangerous notions like feminism. A First World War eventually comes, later than we'd expect but horribly prolonged.
Then Muslim scientists begin to see the implications of the mass-energy theories of a savant from the Indian subcontinent:
Invisible worlds, full of energy and power: sub-atomic harems, each pulsing on the edge of a great explosion...There was no escaping the latent violence at the heart of things. Even the stones were mortal.
This immense tapestry of history that never happened is constantly illuminated by the small comedies, tragedies, romances and triumphs of memorably real individuals. The Years of Rice and Salt is a brave new landmark in alternate history, deservedly shortlisted for the British SF Association and Arthur C Clarke awards. --David Langford