Review: “What If?” Edited by Robert Cowley

What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. Edited by Robert Cowley. Berkley Books. 416 pages.

I’m a big fan of speculative history. On the other hand, my daughter, the purist, rolls her eyes whenever I talk about What if the South had Won the Civil War or What if there had Been no First World War. For me, it’s a creative exercise that challenges both your imagination and your knowledge of history.

I picked this book up at Half Price Books, and didn’t take too long to get engrossed in it. It is filled with essays by leading military historians. Some of the topics include: what if Alexander the Great had died early, what if the Romans had won the battle against the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest, what if the Mongols had conquered Europe, what are the many ways the Americans could have lost the Revolutionary War, and what if World War I never happened. Some of the writers are better than others–Steven Ambrose, James McPherson, and Caleb Carr immediately come to mind–while others struggle to eliminate smugness and academia from their writing. The writing is, in other words, inconsistent for a book that is intended for the general public, with some very excellent writers, and some mediocre (at best) ones.

Some of the writers get bogged down in the telling of events leading up to the turning point, while others talk exhaustively about the actual event in question. It’s the ones who focus on how history could have changed that do a decent job of this.

Going on Amazon, I see that Cowley had at least one or two similar books in this series, so I presume he had a modicum of success with this project. If you’re a history buff, like me, or better yet, into speculative history, I recommend looking this up.

I give it three and a half stars out of five.