What If?

by Randall Munroe

Cover image

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 0-544-27299-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 295

Buy at Powell's Books

This is another one of those reviews that's somewhat pointless to write, at least beyond telling people who for some strange reason aren't xkcd readers that this is a thing that exists in the world. What If? is a collection of essays from that feature on the xkcd web site and new essays in the same vein. (Over half are new to this collection.) If you've read them, you know what to expect; if you haven't, and have any liking at all for odd scientific facts or stick figures, you're in for a treat.

So, short review: The subtitle is Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, and it's exactly what it says on the tin, except that "serious" includes a healthy dose of trademark xkcd humor. Go read what-if.xkcd.com for numerous samples of Munroe's essay style. If you like what you see, this is a whole book of that: a nice, high-quality hardcover (at least the edition I bought), featuring the same mix of text and cartoon commentary, and with new (and in some cases somewhat longer) material. You probably now have all the information necessary to make a purchasing decision.

If you need more motivation, particularly to buy a physical copy, the inside of the dust jacket of the hardcover is a detailed, labeled map of the world after a drain in the Marianas Trench has emptied most of the oceans onto Mars. And the book inside the dust jacket is embossed with what happens after the dinosaur on the cover is lowered into, or at least towards, the Great Pit of Carkoon. This made me particularly happy, since too often hardcovers inside the dust jacket look just like every other hardcover except for the spine lettering. Very few of them have embossed Star Wars references.

Personally, I think that's a great reason to buy the hardcover even if, like me, you've been following What If? on the web religiously since it started. But of course the real draw is the new material. There's enough of it that I won't try any sort of comprehensive list, but rest assured that it's of equal or better quality than the web-published essays we know and love. My favorite of the new pieces is the answer to the question "what would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?" As with so many What If? questions, it starts with killing everyone in the vicinity, and then things get weird.

Another nice touch in this collection is what I'd call "rejected questions": questions that people submitted but that didn't inspire an essay. Most of these (I wish all) get a single cartoon of reaction to the question itself, which include some of the funniest (and most touching) panels in the book.

Ebook formatting has gotten much better, so there's some hope that at least some platforms could do justice to this book with its embedded cartoons. Putting the footnotes properly at the bottom of each page (thank you!) might be a challenge, though. Writing mixed with art is one of the things I think benefits greatly from a physical copy, and the hardcover is a satisfying and beautiful artifact. (I see there's also an audio book, but I'm sure how well that could work; so much of the joy of What If? is the illustrations, and I'm dubious that one could adequately describe them.) Prior web readers will be relieved to know that the mouse-over text is preserved as italic captions under the cartoons, although sadly most cartoons are missing captions. (As I recall, that's also the case for the early web What If? essays, but later essays have mouse-over text for nearly every cartoon.)

Anyway, this is a thing that exists. If you follow xkcd, you probably knew that already, given that the book was published last year and I only now got around to reading it. (My current backlog is... impressive.) If you were not previously aware of What If? or of xkcd itself, now you are, and I envy you the joy of discovery. A short bit of reading will tell you for certain whether this is something you want to purchase. If your relationship to physics is at all similar to mine, I suspect the answer will be yes.

A small personal note: I just now realized how much the style of What If? resembles the mixed text and illustrations of One Two Three... Infinity. Given how foundational that book was to my love of obscure physics facts, my love of What If? is even less surprising.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-21

Last modified and spun 2015-10-22