MORE WHAT IF
A Bit of a Book review!
Edited by Robert Cowley
Published by PanMacmillan Ltd
You have a choice with your summer poolside sun-lounger reading. For
example, there is the tried and tested doorstop-sized airport purchased bad
novel, or 'Bonkbuster'. This popular trash literary genre usually has an
Ambre Solaire resistant cover, an artfully drawn picture of the heroine on
the front, and loads of badly written subplots and weak characters with
insatiable sexual appetites, doing impossible things in bed to each other.
Sounds good? Well actually the effect is a lot less interesting than it
might first seem.
Or you can take a little time before you set off, and find something
interesting to read on holiday. So that's what I did, with a speculative
work called "More What if?"
Now I'm a bit of a history fan, and the title caught my eye. This turns out
to be a piece where a group of historians are let loose on their favourite
bit of the subject, to guess at the consequences if something in the normal
story had changed just a bit? The twists on the reality that we understand
could have been far-reaching, for some relatively inconsequential event
changes, at least that is how it would seem at the time.
This book covers all time periods. They manage to do us the favour of
avoiding obvious "what if?" questions. After all, any reasonably educated
person can work out what would have happened if, say, Hitler had won.
Prospects for most vertebrate life-forms not called Hitler would have been
pretty bleak indeed!
The further back it goes, the more subtle and far-reaching the changes
become. So we start off with a fairly heavy piece of "What if Socrates, the
famous greek philosopher, had been killed in battle before he started doing
philosophy?" This was based on a real event, where it seems that he was
fleeing from the scene of a lost battle, and had to literally hack his way
clear. The study of the consequences of an early death here, suggest that a
whole lot of other greek philosophy would not have even got started, and
even the nature of Christianity itself would be very different.
A couple more essays looking at the ancient classical period speculate
pretty far-reaching changes for relatively small changes too. The most
thought-provoking of them all, being "What if a certain Jesus Christ had not
been crucified?" A very well-written piece manages an overall conclusion of
a Roman empire surviving a lot longer than it did, with an early adoption of
Christianity as the state religion, BUT with classic Judaism, and the form
of christianity we know today being ruthlessly persecuted instead!
The victory of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings ("1066 and
all that") turns out to have had even further reaching consequences than the
ones we all know about. Without his cheerfully malign presence, England
could have been a key component of a mighty and prosperous Scandinavian
confederation, with active colonies in America, and places like France and
Germany only exisiting as feeble sidelined satellite states.
An optimistic "what might have been" for more modern times suggests that the
1870 Franco-Prussian War was the key event behind the tragedies of the 20th
Century. If Napoleon III had ignored Bismarck's provocation, the First World
War would have been avoided, and the second one stillborn. The events
flowing from WWI, such as the Russian Revolution would also not have
happened, and some trashy paintings would have been bought by the Tate
Gallery in London "that is the only reason why we know of the name of
A more sobering look at what would have happened if the pro-peace Lord
Halifax had become prime minister in 1940, instead of Winston Churchill is
worth remembering. This has Britain sueing for peace after the May-June 1940
conquest of France, and smugly sitting out the rest of WWII, but Stalin
eventually gets the lot! An obscure politician called Winston Churchill
gives a speech in which an "Iron Curtain has descended over Europe, from
Narvik in the north, to the Pyrenees in the south.."
There are a lot more like that, another favourite is a tale which takes the
very real possibility of China colonising the America's before Christopher
Columbus gets there. In the 1400's, they had an active and lavishly
resourced maritime exploration programme, but suddenly decided to abandon
this, even to the point of destroying their major shipyards and burning the
archives celebrating their voyages of discovery. The arrival of Europe as
top dog in the world from the 1500's on, was down to luck, not pre-destiny!
This book is fun, if you are the least bit historically inclined. The format
is ideal for holiday reading by the pool, as you can dip into a couple of
essays, then leave it for a while to top-up on your tan. The authors seem
also to have been well chosen for their ability to make the subject
interesting, and the writing is generally lively, rather than dry and
academic. This book is very readable, accessible to the intelligent part of
the public, and not just to fellow PhD qualifiers.
So I can definitely recommend this one, the only regret I had, was that it
had to end!
I ought to find out where the original "What if?" book got to, as this is
clearly a sequel.
9 out of 10
CiH, for Alive! Mag,Sept '02