Alternate History Book Club: Agent of Byzantium

We've reached the middle of the month, so it's time for a new discussion thread--this time for Agent of Byzantium, by Harry Turtledove. If you have a book or story you'd like the Alternate History Book Club to read, feel free to post it in the main thread.

As this is a discussion thread, spoilers are to be expected.

And as for discussion, here are some questions to get people started. Answer any or none of them, as it suits you!

0. Did you like the book? Why or why not?

1. How plausible did you find the alternate history elements to be, given the POD of Mohammed's conversion?

2. Are there any allohistorical details you found particularly interesting? (Manchus on the Danube, etc.)

3. Agent of Byzantium was originally published as a series of short stories. Given that they were originally intended to be stand-alones, is there one particular story/chapter that you thought worked better from the others, either as literature or as AH?

4. What characters did you like, dislike, or find especially interesting--and why?

5. Do you have any speculation regarding what the rest of this world might look like?

6. If you were to write your own work using the same or similar POD, what might you emulate or do differently?

7. Are there any other elements (AH or otherwise) that you found interesting or noteworthy?
My, the energy level on this book club seems to be dropping precipitously.

1. It's episodic of course, being a fixup from shorter stories. But it is one of the first AH stories I read, back when it first came out, and I recall that fondly. I still sort of liked it: it has a lot a travelling around and seeing different parts of the world Turtledove has created, and his experience studying Byzantine history makes this seem a bit more fleshed out and realistic than some of his more recent offerings. But the way the starring character somehow stumbles across all the elements of modernity (telescopes, the printing press, gunpowder...) and puts them in the Empires hands wildly stretches probability, and the fact that he also seems to be essential to the solution of the ancient pro-and-anti-icon dispute: well, one awaits his invention of the Byzantine empire's first zeppelin.

2. Not very: given the serious doctrinal clash between the capital and much of the East (particularly Egypt and Syria) there is an excellent chance that the empire would fall apart sans Islam's help, and even if a smart emperor salvaged the situation by bringing religious doctrine in line with that of the majority of his subjects, Byzantium successfully retaking and holding Italy and Iberia while holding off the Sassanids seems a bit iffy...

3. Yeah, why the Jurchen? In the 1300s, they've been overrun by Genghis Khan's bunch - presumably their period of rule over North China has been butterflied away, but what is going on with nomads and Chinese off on the other side of the Steppe? The fact these Jurchen haven't sacked and burned their way through the Balkans yet seems to indicate they're a less menacing bunch than the OTL Mongols (there's a bit where they're working to keep the Mongols from invading through a pass in the Caucuses. Why not go by the north shore of the Black Sea, like pretty much every _other_ nomadic invader?) Frankly, I find the notion of Persia Eterna more interesting than Byzantium Eterna. (Is that a sin here on And the bit about unions and so on in Egypt is amusing: just the first steps towards the United Roman Soviet Socialist Republics... :)

4. All seemed a bit 2-d to me... :)

5. I do wonder what is happening with a China the Mongols presumably haven't overrun. And what of Russia? Was it mentioned at all? I wonder if the Russian Orthodox civilization never arose because the various nomadic groups that came through Afghanistan, Iran, etc. between the 600s and the 1300s were deflected west by the big-ass Persian Empire and chewed up Russia and Eastern Europe (there's no mention of Poland and Hungary either, IIRC). Zoroastrianism seems to have become a more solidly established and ideological faith, partially supported from the Persian Femme Fatale's tendency to argue religion with Basil, and also from the simple fact it has lasted another 700 years. One wonders if the Persians are doing missionary work in India, or conversion through conquest?

6. Might have an Arab Eruption even without a religious motivator: Arab armies were clearly well able to fight on a level with Persian and Roman ones. Also, I might try to do something with Christian North Africa: I've noted that even when the POD involves no Islam, the Christians of Mauretania, Numidia, etc. don't get much screen time. In maps and such we often see European Christian powers conquering Christian North African states: why not the other way around? Where are the great Numidian/Mauretanian empires?

7. What did _You_ find interesting? :)