Alternate History is a strange beast. As History is in the title, the best examples of the genre can read like well-researched or real-time accounts of events. The time and effort gone into creating a living, breathing world according to the specifics of an altered time line require just as much, if not more, accuracy as any major textbook. Alternate History, in the end, is fantasy, in the classical and literal sense. A grounding in the realities of the world as it was and as it could be, using history and culture to guide the image and give it depth, it still requires leaps of faith, artistic liberty and, sometimes, the power of make-believe. Ranging from sober and academic to outlandish and wild, Alternate History is a genre that has plenty to offer readers of every stripe.
With that being said, the following 6 titles are prime examples of the potential and power that Alternate History has both in entertainment value and intellectual stimulation.
- The Man In The High Castle, by Phillip K Dick
While the ‘What if the Nazis had Won?’ scenario is not a new or rare scenario played out in literature, the world created by Dick is even more grim and inescapable than most could conceive. The ‘diversion’ event in this world’s timeline was the assassination of FDR in the early days of his presidency, leading to the Axis juggernauts of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan sweeping the globe. Taking place in 1962, the former Axis allies are now ideological opponents akin to the Capitalist/Communist dogma of our timeline, with Hitler’s failing health and increasing tensions putting the world on the brink of war. Taking place from a myriad of perspectives throughout the subjugated US ranging from Nazi double agents to flighty Pacific States runaways, the novel is heavy with philosophical, metaphysical, racial and political dogmas that seem completely alien to us in our ‘correct’ timeline.
- Fatherland, by Robert Harris.
Another in the ‘Nazis win’ model, this world, while no less depressing overall, manages to make the evils of Nazi totalitarianism, racial supremacist laws and perpetual fascist warmongering seem banal and mundane at times. Branching off from a D-Day invasion that went catastrophically for the Allies, the US withdrew from the European theater and focused on Imperial Japan. European states either compromised or were conquered and are now under the Steel Curtain of Nazi economic and political domination. As a grinding war of attrition rages to the east in the former Soviet Union and US/Nazi relations remain frozen and hostile, a string of high-profile deaths among Party leaders and Old Guard National Socialists draw the attention of an SS veteran and detective. Following his finely-honed detective skills, and joining forces with a female American journalist, the officer uncovers the buried secret of what was known in our timeline as ‘The Holocaust’, a closely guarded sin in this upside-down reality. A great murder mystery and political drama all mashed together artfully and written wonderfully, this book is a must-read.
- The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.
Written by two of the Gods of Science Fiction, the novel helped solidify the genre and style of ‘Steampunk’ as we know it today. In this world, the ‘Difference Engine’, an early form of computer, was invented over a hundred years early, allowing for a technological and information revolution that had far-reaching effects. The British and French are the Preeminent global powers, the US is fractured into three warring states, technocrats rule parliament and Marxists have begun their global revolution much earlier and with greater audacity. A case of ‘cards,’ an old format of data input and computation, goes missing, with an ensemble of rogues and agents fighting to uncover the card’s secrets. Adventurers, steam ships, Victorian English manners, blood, grease and oil, conspiracies, Sam Houston, it’s all in these pages. Written with equal technical expertise and literary mastery, the book is a great introduction to the style of Steampunk and the genre of Alternate History.
- Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
What if the Black Plague had wiped out 90% of Europe? This question, and its imagined answer, is so immense and world-altering that it is hard to put into words. All of world history, as we know it, is instantly erased, and the masses of humanity that, for us in the west, are in the margins and footnotes, become the masters of the world. Using the spiritual Bardo of Buddhist tradition, two spirits, usually with K or B as the first letter of their names, cycle through death, judgement and rebirth, showing the quality and value of human life as this new world comes into its own. Heavily influenced by Islamic and Buddhist teachings and informed by an intimate, humanist view of the great waves of history, the book is so thought-provoking and engaging that it reads more like a true life account, and the world as we know it, only with new names and masters, feels alien and fantastic to the uninitiated and uninformed. A thought provoking read if ever there were one.
- The Iron Dream, by Norman Spinrad.
A what-if involving Hitler, this novel is extremely ‘meta.’ Taking place in a world where Hitler immigrated to the US and became a renowned sci-fi pulp author and illustrator, the novella is a world within a world within a world, and is clever in a strange and uncomfortable way. The first two-thirds of the book is a swashbuckling post-apocalyptic sci-fi pulp that evokes Hitler’s racial purity ideology, real parallels to the Nazi takeover of our timeline and fascistic military adventure and is constantly winking at us throughout, disarming us by presenting it as a total flight of genre fiction. The last portion of the book is a brief biography and critique by someone from this timeline, relating the state of the world, with the US and Japan the only non-communist countries in the world and Hitler a Lovecraftian figure in the pop-culture. We KNOW the author of the novella is Hitler, THE Hitler… but it also isn’t HITLER Hitler. It’s so unnerving and entertaining and enraging at times that it is easy to miss the parody and satire throughout. The book itself, just by existing, is a visitor from another world, and merely owning it allows one to occupy a parallel universe. Give it a read and see if you can stop yourself from feeling entertained yet vaguely uncomfortable.
- The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Choban.
In our timeline, the US supported the establishment of a Jewish State in British Palestine, biblical Israel, and the people of that new state defended her against attack after attack, rising from pseudo-nation to regional military and economic power, embroiled in controversy and conflict to this day. But, what if Israel, as we know it, had died a bloody, violent death? And what if a defeated congressional measure to create a federal district in Alaska for Europe’s displaced Jews had actually passed? This novel offers an answer. Set in the present day, when the 60 year lease on the Alaskan district of Sitka is set to expire, a retired Jewish policeman turned private eye is called in on the murder of a local junky. What follows is a novel rich in Jewish tradition, the expertly crafted world a hallmark of Choban’s writing. Mixing murder, the Alaskan tundra, Jewish religious and social customs and powerbroking and the prophesy of deliverance and the messiah, the novel manages to completely reinvent and enrich the alternate history trope.