Book Review: What If? 2 edited by Robert Cowley (2001)

I have always been a big fan of what would become known as counterfactual history; why, to this day, I have a large collection of Marvel What If comic books, wherein Uatu the Watcher examines alternate realities in which pivotal events in the Marvel Universe turned out differently than they did in the actual comic books. This volume, a sequel to a book I haven’t read, does the same with actual historical events, where historians and other people who write about history imagine what would have happened if history had gone another direction than it did.

Essays within the book include musings on what would have happened had Socrates died in battle (written by the blogpular Victor Davis Hanson, whose name isn’t even on the cover), what if Antony had won, what if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus Christ, what if France had defeated Haiti, what if Lincoln hadn’t issued the Emancipation Proclamation, what if the Chinese had discovered the New World, and a number of what ifs revolving around World Wars I and II.

To sum up, in most of the essays not dealing with Socrates or World Wars I and II, the sum result is that the United States wouldn’t exist as we know it. Either it would be the eastern part of the Chinese empire, or part if a Caribbean/French empire, or anything but the oppressive regime it is. The book was written before September 11, 2001, and before chimphitler got re-elected, so I am sure that some of these writers have other what ifs in mind to cry into their lattes.

To illustrate how some of the speculation slightly skews anti-American, take the example of the essay “The Chinese Discovery of the New World, 15th Century”, wherein Theodore F. Cook, Jr., muses on the possibilities of expansion during the Ming Dynasty. The story centers around eunuch admiral Zheng He, who led several large armadas to Africa, India, and throughout the southwest Pacific, overcoming many youthful difficulties, including:

Selected for his alertness and courage by the general himself and marked a “candidate of exceptional qualities,” after enduring the excruciating agony of castration by knife (which traditionally removed both penis and testicles), the boy was assigned to the retinue of one of the emperor’s sons, the Prince of Yu (Zhu Di’s ititled during his father’s reign), [sic] at the capital of Nanjing.

So the Chinese were painfully emasculating a portion of their population, but on the other hand:

Might not the worst horrors of the Atlantic slave trade been aborted by a halt to Portuguese expansion along the African coast at this early date?

This author happily trades forced castration for stopping the Portuguese slave trade. To many academics, undoubtedly, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

I found many such idealogical digs and inflammatory throwaway lines to note, but once the book got back to warfare, where apparently the serious historians play, it turned more coldly analytical.

Still, it’s a good read and worth your time as each essay explains what happened and how it might have changed, which serves to remind and reinforce one of historical knowledge one might have, or need. Counterfactual history, as the introduction notes, reminds us of the narrative of history instead of the dry dates and campaigns of history. Plus, it makes me feel like Uatu.

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