Robert Cowley (ed.), What If: Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been
Pan, 2001, 395pp, £7.99 ISBN 0-330-48724-8
Reviewed by L. J. Hurst
"Counter-factual" historians come in two varieties, those who study the big possibilities, but restrict themselves to the rivalries every one knows, and those who recognise that some of these Points of Division are not recognised today.
Swedish schools teach that the Viking Age ended on a certain date. No one outside
of Scandinavia has an idea of what it is, though Swedes become annoyed when
other Europeans assume that they are all the descendants of berserkers, in that
same way that Australians deny their forebears' unhealthy attraction to other
people's sheep. Sometime after the Vikings had passed Sweden was growing into
a major European power, and then in the fourteenth century that just faded away.
No one mourns the loss of the Swedish empire in the way that they mourn the Dark
Ages following the collapse of Rome, but no one wonders why.
Robert Cowley's collection, WHAT IF? offers essays covering the earliest times to
the latest - a long, disproportionate essay on the American Civil War is the only
evidence of this volume's origins. The contributors include British historians, and
other authors, including Caleb Carr, the author of the THE ALIENIST. Carr's short
contribution makes interesting reading: asking what would have happened if
Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo, he looks at Bonaparte's politics
controlling his demands at the Congress of Vienna.
But just consider that Swedish example: it is mentioned as a throw away reference
to one of Arnold Toynbee's examples in A STUDY OF HISTORY. While Niall
Ferguson's 1997 VIRTUAL HISTORY (reviewed: VECTOR 195) had a similar throw
away reference to Gibbon describing the Battle of Tours, it was massively
contemptuous of the earlier man, as Ferguson was to too many other authors. Now
Barry S. Strauss has returned and shows how correct was Gibbon's appreciation.
However, the contributors to this volume clearly appreciate other historians, and SF
authors of alternate history - Geoffrey Parker's discussion of the Spanish Armada
starts with an analysis of Keith Roberts' PAVANE.
No volume like this can be complete, but WHAT IF can be recommended. If the
other author's knew Ross Hassig's account of Hernan Cortez's close brush with
death they could not have sat comfortably in their American homes as they wrote.
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© L J Hurst 2007