Edited by Andrew Roberts

Weidenfeld & Nicolson


188pp/$20.00/October 2004

What Might Have Been
Larry Rostant

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Andrew Robertsís What Might Have Been, a collection of counterfactual history by various historians and commentators, demonstrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the technique.  The pieces in the book are generally speculative fiction in that the events described did not happen, but the authors are, for the most part, interested in laying out what might have happened, rather than crafting characters or plots.

What Might Have Been is only the latest in what has become a long line of books dealing with alternative history from historians' points of view.  This dates back at least as far as J.C. Squire's If It Had Happened Otherwise (1932) and more recently with John Cowley's What If? books and Nigel Ferguson's Virtual History.  These books ask historians to speculate on how things would be if major (or minor) events had turned out differently.  

The book is at its best when the authors are experts in their periods and the time under discussion is far enough in the past for the author to fully extrapolate the consequences of the change.  Anne Somersetís vision of a Spanish Armada which successfully invaded England is a strong opening for the book and later Robertsís own piece about Leninís assassination at the Finland Station are among the bookís high points.

Other authors do a passable job, although donít always completely explore their divergent worlds.  Antonia Fraserís article about Guy Fawkes is interesting, but she doesnít really build up a real world to match the point of departure she sets.  This is similarly a problem with many of the other works which are interesting, but donít manage to live up to their full potential.

Where the book fails is when Roberts included essays which are less speculative and more because the author has an axe to grind.  Perhaps because the 2000 election is so recent, nobody could have written a legitimate speculative version of the events since then (although Iím sure Roberts could have found someone if he tried), but David Frumís ď102 Chads Fell Off In FloridaĒ is less speculative history than it is conservative radio show talking points, demonstrating propaganda rather than counterfactual speculation.

The essays are mostly short and provide the background the reader, even the most casual historian, needs to understand what actually happened and what was changed.  Especially with the earlier essays, the historians have a tendency to trace the results of their changes past the immediate period after the difference occurs, helping to give the reader a better idea, not only of where their speculation would lead, but also why the original events were so important in forming the world in which we live.

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