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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

“The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been”, edited by Robert Cowley

827 pages, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0399152382

Now THIS is more like it. If you want to see how alternative history should be done (as opposed to how it should not be; see my post below) then pick up The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. The counterfactual treatments of 45 turning points in history presented in this volume are the combination of two previously published volumes, What If? and What If?2, the first treating military questions alone, the second both military and non-military. The factual account is presented in each case, which is instructive by itself, but the “what if” part teaches even more about the dynamic complexity of military conflicts, politics, and other human behaviors that shaped the way things turned out. Even seasoned history buffs will find some eye-opening stories here and will make one wonder why counterfactual literature isn’t used in history classes.

As this is a compilation, the quality of each essay varies depending on the author and the subject matter. All of the essays go into great detail regarding the actual history of each event and how they were pivotal in forming the world we know – but while many essays dive into some intriguing speculation as to what would have happened had the counterfactual event taken place (say, had the Confederates forced the Union to accept succession, or had Jesus been spared crucifixion), others spend a short paragraph or less at the end of their essay on what really happened to say something along the lines of “had it worked out differently, things would have changed a lot”, giving very short service to the whole “what if” theme of the book.

For all that, the overall quality is very high, with the best of the essays being truly thought provoking while the worst are at least accessible to the general reader. I consider it a strength that most emphasize actual history and limit speculation to immediate and plausible alternatives; as the editor notes, this book is not historical fiction nor is it filled with frivolous counterfactuals of the sort that speculate about “what would have happened if Hannibal had possessed an H-bomb” or “what if Napoleon had stealth bombers.” A great book for getting you engaged in thinking about history in a new light.

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