Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reads for Fun: "The Collected What If?"

Some readers will be aware that one of my favorite fiction authors is Harry Turtledove, who is called the “master of alternate history.” This time I took a plunge into some non-fiction of that genre, in this huge volume which is actually two books in one reaching over 800 pages.

The historians in this book address counterfactual possibilities from all over the chronological spectrum, though the weight is towards 20th century events. In some cases they lay out alternate historical scenarios (eg, what if Pilate had refused to crucify Jesus?). In other cases they lay out the effects of a historical event and leave it to the reader to decide what history would have been like otherwise (eg, what if Pizarro had not discovered potatoes in Peru?). Even such small things as the death of one man (for example, in one essay, Socrates) or a meteorological phenomenon (for example, some fog that once allowed Washington’s troops to escape the British) could have had enormous ripple effects.

For example, it is pointed out that without the potato found by Pizarro, Spain could not have fed certain miners who extracted the silver which in turn financed Spanish power in Europe from 1559 to 1640. Also, without the potato, the Irish could not have survived British efforts to displace them. Other crops like wheat didn’t have the potato’s hardiness, and as a result, each of these efforts would have been less effective – and that in turn would have meant a different course of history.

I recommend this book for students of apologetics because I believe that having an understanding of the long-term effects of even the smallest events is important for answering many questions that are raised in apologetics scenarios – especially those of the “couldn’t God have thought of a better way to deal with the Canaanites” variety. Critics frequently have a very narrow view of how history can proceed, and little understanding of cause and effect in the long term. Counterfactual history is an excellent way to expand one’s horizons and thinking processes


  1. For something along the lines, here's an interesting article:

  2. I have that book, but haven't quite gotten around to reading the whole thing (I pick it up now and then).

    The tv trope is For Want of a Nail. I personally find it hard not to look at a lot of these events and wonder if some grand Author has been carefully crafting a grand Story.