Another book by Kim Stanley Robinson. This author is not for the young reader or the weak reader. Nothing particularly violent or sexual. He's just really hard to read at times. But this is one of his easier books.
This is a book in the alternative history genre. Instead of a simple "What if the South won the Civil War?", "What if Hitler won WWII?", and "What if we lost the Revolutionary War?" this book asks "What if the Black Plague wiped out 99% of Europe instead of just 30%?" and covers history from then until the near future. It tells the story in 10 novellas with each covering a different point in history.
A scout for an invading Mongolian Khan discovers eastern Europe is devoid of life. The villages are all empty. Upon reporting the plague the Khan tries to have him killed so he can't infect the army. He flees and gives us a tour of Europe down to the Mediterranean where he's captured by slavers. He's taken around to China where he meets up with a black slave. Together they escape, find work in a palace, and are eventually executed together. They meet up again in the afterlife and are reincarnated.
These two are the connecting thread that connects all the stories. Sometimes it's clear who they are and other times it's not.
We attach ourselves to a guy whose life is saved by a tiger. What with one thing and another he leaves his home and goes to wander the world. He finds work with royalty, he's fingered by former friends who are now rebels, he is sent to Medina, and eventually finds himself with a group going to colonize Europe. In Europe they try to establish a multi-faith community that follows the laws of the Koran as they're written instead of how they're interpreted by tradition.
Having just fought off an invasion from Japan, the Chinese launch an attack on Japan. As is typical, the weather doesn't cooperate. Instead of a storm the wind just dies. The ship eventually lands in what seems like San Francisco. They meet the natives, train a young interpreter, and accidental give the natives smallpox.
Very apologetically they leave and head south. They go along Baja California, cross the equator, and end up in Peru. They meet the Incas who try to sacrifice their young interpreter friend. They return home.
This book covers mostly the scientific revolution in the Middle East. Optics, gravity, the scientific method, anatomy, ballistics, metallurgy, and much more. This is cast in front of a background of an impending invasion from China.
Japan having been thoroughly beaten a Ronan (Samurai without a master) has fled to the new world. We find him in the New York area. He's warning the natives of the threat from China. They're not the friendly traders they've seen. When there's enough they'll try to own the land and make the natives obey their laws. So the Ronan teaches them to make guns and immunize themselves against smallpox by rubbing smallpox scabs on wounds.
A more philosophical chapter. This covers more of the faiths, interfaith conflicts of the age, and efforts to make a more uniformly acceptable faith.
India has the great technological advantage. They've harnessed steam. They're the closest, in the old world, to gender equality. They're the most American nation. They have trains, steamships, and hot air balloons among other stuff. Then they send people into China to try to stir up revolution.
World War 1. It's hard to figure exactly when it starts, but it seems to be between our own two world wars. It then lasts 67 years since there was no Spanish Flu to end it.
Late 20th century/early 21st century. Nobody really won, but the Muslims have lost worse than others. Nobody is happy with how things sit. But scientists are figuring out Uranium and the danger of a bomb made of it. An international coalition of scientists unify to standardize weights, measures, the length of years, make sure nobody makes the bomb, and work toward peace.
Some hints about what happened in the Americas.
Sort of a wrap up chapter. It takes place not long from now. History, philosophy, and the meaning of life.