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Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals New edition Edition

27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465023233
ISBN-10: 0465023231
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Editorial Reviews Review

This meaty, scholarly collection of essays by gifted historian Niall Ferguson tackles the controversial topic of counterfactual questions: What if Hitler had invaded Britain in WWII? What if JFK had survived his assassination? What if there had been no Gorbachev to usher in the collapse of Communism? What if there had been no American Revolution? Ferguson points out that while questions such as these are a vital part of how we learn as individuals ("What if I had observed the speed limit, or refused that last drink?"), there remains a great deal of resistance--even hostility--to such musings among professional historians. "[I]n the dismissive phrase of E.H. Carr, 'counterfactual' history is a mere 'parlour game,' a 'red herring.'" E.P. Thompson is less charitable, calling counterfactual histories "'Geschichtswissenschlopff', unhistorical shit."

But Ferguson and his distinguished collaborators (many of whom are also Oxford fellows) lodge some convincing counterfactuals of their own to counter this arguably blinkered notion, this "idea that events are in some way preprogrammed, so that what was, had to be." In addition to the what-ifs above, Ferguson and his comrades tackle eight questions in all, including "What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?", "What if Home Rule had been enacted [in Ireland] in 1912?", and "What if Britain had 'stood aside' in August 1914?" Virtual History makes for a stimulating and intellectually rigorous trip, with Ferguson's own delightful afterword as the collection's crowning jewel, a brilliant--and often bitingly clever--timeline tying together all the threads from 1646 to 1996. --Paul Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"[Niall Ferguson is] the most talked-about British historian of his generation." -- Alan Riding, The New York Times

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (September 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465023231
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465023233
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #371,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Niall Ferguson is one of our most renowned historians. He is the bestselling author of numerous books, including The War of the World, Colossus, and Empire.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

105 of 120 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on January 18, 2002
Format: Paperback
Believe me, I really tried to appreciate this book as either a thought-provoking exploration of scenarios of alternate history, or as a solid study of the art of history itself. I was disappointed both ways. Strangely enough, this book is purported by the publisher and editor to be both of those things, but the results prove otherwise. This book is very unfocused and academically arrogant, and it barely even explores counterfactual history, except at an extremely basic and dry interpretation of the term. Note: This book is from England and is quite Anglo-centric, so a working knowledge of British history might be an asset before you begin (this is not a criticism, just a recommendation).
This book gets off to a horrendous start with Ferguson's 90-page introduction in which he attempts to explore the nuances and importance of counterfactual history. Instead he delivers an extremely tedious and repetitive treatise on the study of history itself, which has little to do with the supposed focus of the book. A large portion of this intro is dedicated to "determinism" vs. "predestination" in history, but this is historiography rather than an exploration of counterfactuals. This is also written in that dry and verbose academic style in which it is more important to endlessly pile on repetitive evidence in order to impress one's colleagues, than to actually enlighten the reader. Ferguson shows a sheer desperation to confound other historians who don't think highly of counterfactuals, and in the process forgets that he is writing a book for the public. He also complains about researchers in his field not being taken seriously, but then insults people in other fields who are interested in counterfactuals, such as sociologists and fiction writers.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 24, 1998
Format: Paperback
What if?
People have been speculating about the consequences of "the path not taken" for centuries, but alternative history -- that is, the consideration, serious or otherwise, of the paths that history would have taken if a single event had gone differently -- has only come into its own in the 20th century. Beginning in the 1930's, with the publication of Squire's _What If?_, there have been numerous publications related to alternative history. Numerous authors have published fiction based on alternative histories -- though most of them could have been better written, they are valuable contributions to the alternative history canon.
Recently, alternative history scenarios -- now known as counterfactuals -- have become intellectually respectable, as historians, social scientists, and economists have used them to analyze how our society developed. It is in this light that _Virtual History : Alternatives and Counterfactuals_ was written.
The various scenarios in the book are all interesting, and based in fact. Of particular interest are the scenarios detailing the effects of:
* the survival of the Stuart monarchy in the British Isles;
* the failure of the British to intervene on behalf of the French in the First World War, written by Ferguson;
* the fate of Britain, and of eastern Europe, in the event of Nazi victory in the Second World War;
* and, the evolution of the Soviet Union if Gorbachev and _perestroika_ hadn't intervened.
Finally, a composite history of the world including elements from all nine alternative histories proposed in this book is added on, again written by Ferguson.
On the whole, this book is an essential possession for anyone interested in the question of "What if?".
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David Ahlstrom on December 25, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Niall Ferguson has written several fine books that are must-reads for educated people. These include 'The Pity of War' (on WWI), 'The War of the World' (about the major conflicts in the 20th century including a stunning chapter on the 'armed slave labor camp' that was the Soviet Union), and this book -- Virtual History' on counterfactual or "what if" history. Some amazon reviewers have obviously completely misunderstood this book - it is designed to explore some counterfactual questions, but primarily it is intended to explain and defend the value of counterfactual history. Feguson makes perhaps the finest explanation and defense of counterfactual reasoning. This will obviously not make some people happy, as they would rather hear creative historical what ifs, ala Hollywood. But for historians and other social scientists who need to use counterfactual reasoning, this book is an outstanding resource. By all means read this book, and the other fine works of Niall Ferguson - one of the outstanding comparative historians of our day (or any day).
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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on January 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
Overall, I found "Virtual History" to be an excellent exploration of the value of counterfactuals in historical writing. There is no debating the quality of the writing in this book. From the rousing introduction, to the various essays, and the clever conclusion, the authors do a superb job of engaging the reader in their various areas of expertise. That said, the work overall is somewhat uneven.
I believe this stems from the fact that the various historians don't all share the same comfort level with projecting the consequences of their counterfactuals. Some barely scratch the surface of what might have been, while others go into extensive detail (in particular, "What if Hitler had Invaded England", my favorite). However, this complaint speaks more to the flow of the work overall, and not to the quality of each essay.
In conclusion, "Virtual History" is an outstanding work, that shows top notch research and excellent writing. My one caveat to the potential reader would be that this is not a particularly light, easy reading book. If you are looking for a somewhat less rigorous, less scholarly look at counterfactual history I would recommend "What If?" (Cowley ed.).
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