It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis - A popular American politician mirrors Adolf Hitler’s rise to power by using the same tactics.

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 by Joan Aiken
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Joan Aiken

An alternative history of the 19th century where wolves have migrated to England through the Channel Tunnel.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
The Plot Against America
Philip Roth

Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 by Charles Lindbergh, who guides the US towards fascism and anti-Semitism.

Pavane by Keith Roberts
Pavane
Keith Roberts

Elizabeth I was murdered and the Catholics are in charge – this book is set in a feudal Dorset in 1968.

Fatherland by Robert Harris
Fatherland
Robert Harris

This version of the Nazi victory is set in Europe and the Holocaust remains undiscovered.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
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 by Harry Harrison
West of Eden
Harry Harrison

First part of a fantasy trilogy – imagine if the dinosaurs had not died out.

Pashazade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Pashazade
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 by John Hooker
The Bush Soldiers
John Hooker

Set in Australia in 1943, Japan occupies a large part of the country’s coast. A rebellion is in the air.

How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove
How Few Remain
Harry Turtledove

First part of the Timeline-191 saga shows a world after the Confederates won the American Civil War.

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
The Alteration
Kingsley Amis

The Reformation does not take place, Martin Luther becomes pope, Italy never unites…

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon

A murder mystery – Israel was destroyed and the world’s Jews live in a settlement in Alaska.

The Burning Mountain by Alfred Coppel
The Burning Mountain
Alfred Coppel

America’s first atom bomb test fails and the US is forced to invade Japan in 1946.

1862 by Robert Conroy
1862
Robert Conroy

Britain sides with Johnny Reb in the US Civil War – the conflict moves to Canada. Also see 1942 & 1945 by Conroy.

Romanitas by Sophia McDougall
Romanitas
Sophia McDougall

The Roman Empire survives until the present day and dominates most of the world.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
Airborn
Kenneth Oppel

Airships and not airplanes are the world’s main method of global travel in this YA novel.

SS-GB by Len Deighton
SS-GB
Len Deighton

Set in Britain, now occupied by Nazi Germany – the title refers to the arm of the SS controlling the country.

Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois
Resurrection Day
Brendan DuBois

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 by Robert N. Sobel
For Want of a Nail
Robert N. Sobel

The American Revolution fails and the defeated rebels flee to Mexico.

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod
The Execution Channel
Ken MacLeod

Al Gore is elected American president and the War on Terror takes on new dimensions.

Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson
Fire on the Mountain
Terry Bisson

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry succeeds and sparks a slave rebellion on 1859.

Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen by Michael Moorcock
Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen
Michael Moorcock

Moorcock swaps Queen Elizabeth I for Queen Gloriana I of Albion, who rules a vast worldwide empire.

The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove & Richard Dreyfuss
The Two Georges
Harry Turtledove & Richard Dreyfuss

Britain keeps the American colonies after George Washington and King George III agree a settlement.

Farthing by Jo Walton
Farthing
Jo Walton

Set in 1949, Britain negotiates peace with Germany after the US fails to deliver aid.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
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 by William Gibson
The Difference Engine
William Gibson

The computer revolution takes place in the middle of the Victorian era so you get steam driven PCs.

If It Had Happened Otherwise by J.C. Squire
If It Had Happened Otherwise
J.C. Squire

A collection of essays written by Squire and other historians in 1931 which consider scenarios such as Napoleon escaping exile and liberating South America, the Moors winning in Spain, or if Francis Bacon was really the author of Shakespeare's plays.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
Bring the Jubilee
Ward Moore

The novel takes place in the mid-20th century in an impoverished United States; the Confederate States of America won the Battle of Gettysburg and went on to conquer Mexico and the rest of South America.

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
The Iron Dream
Norman Spinrad

This story within a story tells of an alternate history where Hitler emigrates to America in 1919 and becomes a pulp-science fiction author/illustrator, writing the Hugo Award-winning Lord of the Swastika.

The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith
The Probability Broach
by L. Neil Smith

A single word is altered in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence which starts a chain of events that lead to the repeal of the Constitution, reestablishment of a revised Articles of Confederation, and results in a libertarian society in North America.

King of the Wood by John Maddox Roberts
King of the Wood
John Maddox Roberts

Set in a world where Pagan Vikings have fled forced conversion to Christianity and settled in North America only to be joined 100 years later by Christian Saxons fleeing William the Conqueror which sets up the story line.

ReVisions edited by Julie E. Czemeda
ReVisions
Julie E. Czemeda (ed.)

Published in 2004 this is a collection of alternate history short-stories.

Aztec Century by Christopher Evans
Aztec Century
Christopher Evans

In this alternate history Hernán Cortés defected and lead to a repulsion of the Spanish invasion of the Americas; the book is set in the 20th century where the Aztec Empire is now a global super power.

The Gate of Worlds by Robert Silverberg
The Gate of Worlds
Robert Silverberg

What if the Black Plague killed more than half of Europe and left it defenseless; this allowed the Ottoman Turks to lay claim to all of Europe.

Lion's Blood by Steven Barnes
Lion's Blood
Steven Barnes

What if Rome had been destroyed by Carthage and Egypt in 200 B.C.? Here Islamic African nations are the dominant world power and have colonies in Europe and the New World.

The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean by Jack Dann
The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean
Jack Dann

In this history James Dean survives the auto accident and emerges a changed man who wants to do something important, so he enters politics.

What is the most chilling alternate reality you can imagine? What is the happiest?


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