Few books have done more wonders for my imagination than What If? by Randall Munroe or The Collected What If?, which includes the texts of What If? (not Monroe’s aforementioned book) and What If? 2. The Collected What If? is a compilation of essays authored by several different historians from a variety of backgrounds.
Munroe’s What If? addresses hypothetical situations concerning various fields of science, whereas The Collected What If? focuses on content that is historical in nature. I would strongly suggest either to even a casual reader. Both of these books are easy to pick up, read for a few minutes, and sit back down, while still invigorating the mind and offering some refreshing perspectives. The content of each, generally speaking, is outside the realm of the standard nonfiction text and is often humorous.
To say that I have enjoyed reading each of these books is a serious understatement. I have selected my five favorite “chapters” (and I use that term loosely) from each book. These selections are those which stayed with me the longest after reading, often making me seriously ponder some aspects of both my life and writing.
Randall Munroe’s What If? is divided by question. Munroe has selected several hypothetical science questions, many of which are very unique (and certainly not easy to answer), and does his best to offer a calculated and rational solution for each.
5. “Facebook of the Dead”
4. “The Last Human Light”
3. “Hockey Puck”
2. “Rising Steadily”
1. “Interplanetary Cessna”
I laughed while reading “Interplanetary Cessna” and shared that particular passage first and foremost with anyone noticing Munroe’s What If? in my home (and the cover does tend to catch the eye of visitors). As a whole, Munroe’s What If? does a wonderful job at offering some very literal outcomes to several “science fiction” scenarios.
The Collected What If?, edited by Robert Cowley, is divided by essay. The essays cover a very wide variety of hypothetical historical situations. For example, the textbook used for the American History course I teach for Uniontown Area School District, asks the students to identify possible changes in the culture and geography of North America if the French had managed to fight the British to a draw in the French and Indian War. Such a topic would be appropriate for this particular book, as that type of scenario (perhaps the French emerge victorious at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759) is imagined and investigated within each individual essay.
5. “The Dark Ages Made Lighter: The Consequences of Two Defeats” by Barry S. Strauss
4. “Day Day Fails: Atomic Alternatives in Europe” by Stephen E. Ambrose
3. “Unlikely Victory: Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution” by Thomas Fleming
2. “Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9” by Lewis H. Lapham
1. “Pontius Pilate Spares Jesus: Christianity without the Crucifixion” by Carlos M.N. Eire
For anyone mulling a serious historical fiction writing project, The Collected What If? is the ideal place to start. This book offers the type of reading that will genuinely get the wheels ustairs turning.
There are a handful of other books that have really served as an inspiration to me, and I hope to post about those (including one very important title) in the near future. What other books serve as good fodder for the science fiction writer? Are there other titles that might really help an author seeking to write some realistic historical fiction?
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