Abaddon Books

'What if' we didn't write speculative histories? Sarah Cawkwell responds to the critics

5 years ago

So, 'What If?'…

I have just surfaced from reading Richard J. Evans’s opinion on ‘what-if’ speculations in history, published in The Guardian on 13th March 2014. His thoughts are very heavily based in fact, rather than fiction, but there is a certain relevance to the theme of my upcoming novel, Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising. Thus, it seemed appropriate to spark off something of a debate on the subject of historical ‘what-if’.

“Perhaps it's because we're living in a postmodern age where the idea of progress has largely disappeared, to be replaced by uncertainty and doubt, and where linear notions of time have become blurred; or because truth and fiction no longer seem such polar opposites as they once did; or because historians now have more licence to be subjective than they used to. But it's time to be sceptical about this trend. We need, in this year especially, to start to try to understand why the first world war happened, not to wish that it hadn't, or argue about whether it was "right" or "wrong". In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren't any real use at all.”
- Richard J. Evans

Let’s see. To me, this reads in a manner which suggests Evans is clearly not a man who has any interest in speculation. None whatsoever. He deals in the currency of cold, hard fact, not the airy-fairy world of daydreaming and imagination. I have a lot of respect for that and what happened in history is what happened in history. Short of owning a TARDIS (or, for preference, a De Lorean) there’s not a lot we can do about that. What has happened has happened. We, as a species exist for the now and for tomorrow. We can’t change what has been and why should we?

This is why. Because we are also a species of dreamers and we have been gifted with something extraordinary. Something unique. Something that those embedded in the world of fact can sometimes lose sight of. We are storytellers. From the Viking skalds through to the parent sat reading a nursery rhyme to their infant child, we tell one another stories. We invoke fear, excitement, pleasure, laughter, tears with the written fictional word and to be able to read and write stories is a remarkable gift. I wonder if Mr. Evans reads fiction? I do hope that he does, although from the terse nature of his article (interesting and relevant as it is), I would think that if he does, he avoids the ‘historical fiction’ shelf in his bookshop. For my money, that’s his loss.


To spend hours or even a lifetime debating in earnest fashion the ‘what if’ scenarios outline by Evans in his article seems to me to be bordering on the wistful and in that, I see eye to eye with the author. But yet I disagree that ‘counterfactuals’ aren’t any real use at all. They encourage a deeper understanding of the historical events that surround an outcome. If you can take someone with only a passing interest in an event that changed the world – let’s say the first world war – and ask them what the world might have been like if xx had or had not happened, there’s a good chance they might go away and learn more about the actual facts. In that, you educate people. They learn. They gain interest. And that is a wonderful, extraordinary thing.

But at the same time, it’s human nature to have regret. It’s in our psychological make-up to wonder how things might have been different if we had only taken the other route to work the morning of that car crash, for example.

History is a living thing. We create history every day. It may not be earth-changing or world-shattering, but every action has a consequence. If you were to stop and consider all the actual possibilities of an action, you’d never do anything for fear of heading down the wrong pathway.

There are so many theories on this, the most well documented being that for every decision we make, the alternative decisions are played out in parallel dimensions. That somewhere, there exists another you who decided to actually sit down and revise for that exam actually then went on to university, then became the world’s expert on your chosen subject. Owns a beach house in the Caribbean. Drives a Lotus Elise.

Man. I hate that version of me.

Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising is speculative, what-if historical fiction with a twist. It has fantasy elements thrown in. There is magic. There are demons. There are most definitely consequences for actions. It is not in any way meant to be an academic study of ‘what would have happened if Richard III had won at Bosworth’ but it sure as hell makes me wonder.

Is that so very wrong? I don’t think it is.

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