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Consider Phlebas is a good intro to the Culture universe. My favorite is probably 'Use of Weapons', followed by "Player of Games" and "Excession".
For demographic history (for example: did the peasants really starve after poor harvests?, what proportion of people could read and write?, who made wills, and what was in them?), Peter Laslett's "The World We Have Lost: Further Explored" is a classic.
Regarding the Roman Industrial Revolution debate, I find your counterfactual thought experiment to be weak, consisting of an expression of incredulity with no details as to mechanism. How exactly would a civilisation without access to fossil fuels refine many kinds of metals, some necessarily in large quantities, and make high quality glass in sufficient quantities, to enable it to carry out a research and development program that would allow it to use nuclear power? (PV and wind are non-starters here - the level of technology required to take advantage of them at sufficient scale is way above that required for nuclear. You don't need to think in nanometres to have a working nuclear reactor.)
I look forward to you buttressing your argument with details as to why coal + ready availability of many ores (and high quality sand) + cultural institutions that permitted experimentation (such as a commitment to widespread literacy, the rule of law, and passive support for commerce) + military/geopolitical pressures (France was the European superpower before the IR)--that path dependence that Bret mentions--are not necessary preconditions.
Or if I'm misunderstanding you, where else could the IR have taken place? Germany was created, and modernised its government, in response to pressures partly arising from the IR (and its coal is not the right kind); Italy likewise; France's ancien regime was all about land; the Ottoman Empire, Russia, China, Indian states, and the American colonies also. Sweden is a possible candidate, I guess, although it didn't have a great variety of high quality ores ready to hand.