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Alive 6

           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 
Adolf Hitler."

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

Alive 6