The Best Alternative Histories in Literatureby Richard Davies
This vibrant fiction genre could be renamed ‘What If’ books. What if the Germans won World War II? What if the Confederates won the American Civil War? What if the Cold War had become a nuclear war? You get the picture.
Some major names – such as Sinclair Lewis, Kingsley Amis, Michael Chabon and Philip Roth – have -imagined alternate histories and helped give the genre credibility. You will also find Michael Moorcock, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip K. Dick on this list, so alternative histories cannot be dismissed offhand. Even American politician Newt Gingrich penned one – 1945, a post-World War II-themed novel – along with William R. Forstchen.
The undisputed king of alternative histories is the prolific Harry Turtledove, who has helped guide the genre into mainstream reading. His Southern Victory or Timeline-191 series has the Confederates beating the Union. His Days of Infamy books have Japan occupying Hawaii. Agent of Byzantium has the Byzantine Empire surviving. The Guns of the South has the Confederates equipped with AK-47s by some time-travelling South African white supremacists. He easily blends fantasy and science fiction into historical storylines.
This particular selection of fiction mostly comes from the ‘What if’ category where history has diverged from its path and gone in another direction. The list tries to avoid novels featuring time-travel or parallel universes as they could be seen as sub-genres. With the exception of The Difference Engine by William Gibson, this list also stays away from Steampunk as that’s another can of worms.
The most popular theme for alternative histories by far is World War II – it would have been possible to populate the entire list with books where the Nazis won or the conflict’s outcome is drastically different. However, there are authors who have avoided the global events of the 19th and 20th centuries and preferred to look at other ‘What Ifs’ – for instance, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn cleverly imagines what would have happened if airships had become the dominant form of travel.
Top 25 Alternative Histories in Literature
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
An alternative history of the 19th century where wolves have migrated to England through the Channel Tunnel.
The Plot Against America
Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 by Charles Lindbergh, who guides the US towards fascism and anti-Semitism.
Elizabeth I was murdered and the Catholics are in charge – this book is set in a feudal Dorset in 1968.
This version of the Nazi victory is set in Europe and the Holocaust remains undiscovered.
The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick
Set in 1962 after Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II in 1948.
West of Eden
First part of a fantasy trilogy – imagine if the dinosaurs had not died out.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
First part of the Arabesk trilogy where the Ottoman Empire does not collapse after a different end to World War I.
The Bush Soldiers
Set in Australia in 1943, Japan occupies a large part of the country’s coast. A rebellion is in the air.
How Few Remain
First part of the Timeline-191 saga shows a world after the Confederates won the American Civil War.
The Reformation does not take place, Martin Luther becomes pope, Italy never unites…
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
A murder mystery – Israel was destroyed and the world’s Jews live in a settlement in Alaska.
The Burning Mountain
America’s first atom bomb test fails and the US is forced to invade Japan in 1946.
The Roman Empire survives until the present day and dominates most of the world.
Airships and not airplanes are the world’s main method of global travel in this YA novel.
Set in Britain, now occupied by Nazi Germany – the title refers to the arm of the SS controlling the country.
The Cuban Missile Crisis escalates into a nuclear war and 10 years later the US is still trying to recover.
For Want of a Nail
Robert N. Sobel
The American Revolution fails and the defeated rebels flee to Mexico.
The Execution Channel
Al Gore is elected American president and the War on Terror takes on new dimensions.
Fire on the Mountain
John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry succeeds and sparks a slave rebellion on 1859.
Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen
Moorcock swaps Queen Elizabeth I for Queen Gloriana I of Albion, who rules a vast worldwide empire.
The Two Georges
Harry Turtledove & Richard Dreyfuss
Britain keeps the American colonies after George Washington and King George III agree a settlement.
Set in 1949, Britain negotiates peace with Germany after the US fails to deliver aid.
The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
The Black Death kills almost everyone in Europe so India, China and Islamic nations rule the roost.
The Difference Engine
The computer revolution takes place in the middle of the Victorian era so you get steam driven PCs.