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Friday, June 5, 2015

“Virtual History: What Could Have Been”, edited by Niall Ferguson

560 pages, Sterling, ISBN-13: 978-1435117143

Perhaps, like me, when you purchase a book with the title Virtual History: What Could Have Been it was because you wanted a book about…what could have been; y’know, every historian’s favorite pastime, explaining “counterfactuals” in history in which the past as we know it could have been oh-so-different in only THIS had happened or if only THAT hadn’t…and so on…Considering that this book was purported by the publisher and editor to be both a thought-provoking exploration of scenarios of alternate history and as a solid study of the art of history itself, it proved to be doubly disappointing; it is unfocused, academically arrogant, and barely even explores counterfactual history, except at an extremely basic and dry interpretation of the term (it is also very Anglocentric, and so a working knowledge of British history is a must).
This book gets off to a tedious start with Ferguson’s 90-page introduction in which he attempts to explore the nuances and importance of counterfactual history – instead, he delivers a tendentious and repetitive treatise on the study of history itself, which has little to do with the supposed focus of the book. A large portion of this intro is dedicated to “determinism” vs. predestination” in history, but this is historiography rather than an exploration of counterfactuals. This is also written in that dry and verbose academic style in which it is more important to endlessly pile on repetitive evidence in order to impress one’s colleagues than it is to actually enlighten the reader. Ferguson shows a sheer desperation to confound other historians who don’t think highly of counterfactuals, and in the process forgets that he is writing a book for the public. He also complains about researchers in his field not being taken seriously, but then insults people in other fields who are interested in counterfactuals, such as sociologists and fiction writers.

It doesn’t get any better as various historians contribute chapters on key episodes in history. With only a few exceptions, each author commits the errors of the introduction by failing to explore counterfactuals (which is supposed to be the point of the damn book!) and merely shows off his own historical knowledge in ever-more laborious ways, spending 95% of the essay describing what really happened in a straight historical fashion before briefly knocking off a few possible alternative scenarios without really exploring them (it is almost as if the editor forced each author to cobble together an alternative scenario as a price for showing off). In the end, this book can’t figure out what it wants to be, and you will be unable to figure out why you’re reading it: is it trying to comment on the study of history itself; present straight-up history with an intellectual twist; or explore counterfactuals? It tries to do all of these, with disappointing levels of success, and is only unfocused as a result.

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