Ferguson, Niall (ed). Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

London: Picador, 1997.

“What if” stories have been a staple of science fiction for a long time, and a very enjoyable one, too. They allow one to play with questions of historical causation and to think about the impact of minor events on world history. Many professional historians, however, sneer at the whole idea. What happened, happened, they insist, and it couldn’t possibly be any other way, and to think otherwise even for a moment should be greeted with condemnatory condescension. (Now you know where my bias lies.)

Ferguson, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to consider the notion that history is not predestined or deterministic. To quote Andre Maurois, “there is no privileged past.” But he’s critical of how most essayists, like those in J. C. Squires’s famous volume, have handled it. To claim that a minor decision on the part of a Great Man will automatically change history (anyone’s but his own, anyway) is to ignore the reality of broad social forces and their effects in history. The author’s lengthy Introduction to this book deals with these issues, and with the evolution of determinism, or opposition to it, among historians over the past twenty-five centuries.

The bulk of the volume consists of ten essays, all but one by a British specialist in a particular period of history, and each dealing with a particular what-if. They aren’t cast as fiction, though, but as straight academic investigations, complete with a multitude of footnotes. The subjects include Charles I managing to avoid the Civil War (and therefore no Cromwell and probably an indefinite extension of the Stewarts on the throne), the lack of an American Revolution (and therefore no United States), the establishment of home rule in Ireland in 1912 (no multi-generational violence and no Irish Republic), Britain declining to get involved in the Great War (so there’s a European “union” under the Kaiser), the invasion of Britain by the Germans in 1940 (a popular topic for novelists, but very far-fetched in Real Life), the defeat of the Soviet Union by Germany (I don’t think I can buy that one, either, frankly), several ways in which the Cold War might have been avoided (but none of them really positive for the West), the survival of Kennedy in 1963 (also popular, most recently with Stephen King — and the author paints JFK as far more “liberal” than he actually was), and the absence of Gorbachev (so communism doesn’t collapse, which is right back to the Great Man theory again). And then there’s a rather rambling alternate-historical survey by Ferguson covering the three and a half centuries following 1646, with the defeat of the Scottish Covenanters by Charles I and the eventual succession of James III in 1701.

It’s an interesting collection, though some of the essays are easier reading than others, and some are sure to be of more interest to most readers than others. The speculation — which is where the fun is — is tightly controlled in all of them, possibly in professional self-defense. Perhaps the authors regretted having been roped into this project. The result is an occasional loss of focus. Anyway, you can pretty much read these chapters as surveys of specific periods and events, without worrying about the counterfactual content.

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Published in: on 15 July 2015 at 6:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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