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The introduction to this second What If book promises to go beyond the first volume's war- and conflict-heavy focus on "counter-factual history."
As a genre of history writing, "counter-factual," or "what if" scenarios, are a particularly fun and engaging way of looking at events. The essays contained in this book are written by several different historians, each with their own style and approach.
They seem to work best when the authors truly explore the alternate scenario, providing a fantastical, narrative account - such as the counterfactual "history" of a world where the Chinese became a great seafaring empire, or if Jesus had been spared by Pontius Pilate.
Unfortutnately, the majority of the essays are written by authors who are brilliant historians, but hardly great writers. Military history, despite the promise of the introduction, still dominates the book. The final essay, a speculation on a world where the potato was never introduced to Europe, carries on for ages about facts and figures, and dwindles off in a weak afterthought, committing only the last very few seconds to the idea of a Europe without potatoes. It is as if the author of that final piece had been reminded right at the end what the thesis of this book was.
The most disappointing aspect of the audiobook, however, is the narrator himself. With a flat, dispassionate voice and mediocre sense of timing, Murphy Guyer comes across more like a high school teacher than a professional reader. His mangled pronunciation of Chinese names takes one of the best essays in the book down from gripping to merely bearable.
A shame, since the narrators of Volume I had done such a good job.
Worth the free download, but not up to the usual standards of Simon & Schuster Audio.
20 of 20 people found this review helpful
There is no such thing as "counterfactual history": rather there is fiction that uses history as the grist for its mill. It is thus as fiction that one should judge "What If?," and as fiction it sucks. The volume starts with a curmudgeonly gripe about the professionalization of history in the academy. The first effort in the collection is an eye-rolling fantasy about Jesus and the crucifiction. The writer meanders through a muddle of gross characterizations about religion (it is "about" interpretation, we are told), then wanders through some cardboard set-pieces about Pontius Pilot. I found myself baffled and bored. I like history and attempts to think through the challenges of writing stories about a past from an available archive. I also like historical fiction: self-conscious novelizations of sometimes familiar and often unfamiliar characters that mean to illuminate another time, place, and people. I stopped listening about 45 minutes into the volume. I deleted the selection and plan to add something better written, or at least intellectually interesting, or both. Churlish defenses of the value of this type of enterprise are unconvincing, especially if the authors are unwilling to be explicit about how it is that the fiction that spins out of the phrase "What if?" might help us to understand "what was" and, ultimately, what could be.
6 of 9 people found this review helpful