Since the present time is just the wildly unlikely result of several trillion coincidences, it makes sense that humans would occasionally wonder what would happen if one or two events concluded differently.
Most alternate history stories are some variation of “What if Hitler had won the Civil War, and was a dinosaur?” but there are some great, well, alternatives, in the list below.
I’m a big fan of author Wilson, and I enjoyed this Hugo-nominated book immensely.
In 1912, history was changed by the Miracle, when the old world of Europe was replaced by Darwinia, a strange land of nightmarish jungle and antedeluvian monsters. To some, the Miracle is an act of divine retribution; to others, it is an opportunity to carve out a new empire.
Leaving an America now ruled by religious fundamentalism, young Guilford Law travels to Darwinia on a mission of discovery that will take him further than he can possibly imagine—to a shattering revelation about mankind’s destiny in the universe.
“The heroes and villains of this surpassingly strange novel are not who they think they are. Though the style is rich, lucid and literate, the point is dizzyingly abstract… Remarkable.”
— Publishers Weekly
Reviewers describe The Separation as both brilliant and confusing, so get ready for a literary puzzle if you dive into this one.
Researching the war between Britain and Nazi Germany, which ended in May 1941, historian Stuart Gratton becomes intrigued by the enigma of J. L. Sawyer, an obscure figure who played a key part in bringing the conflict to its conclusion. As he digs deeper, he discovers there were two J. L. Sawyers—identical twins Jack and Joe, one a bomber pilot and the other a conscientious objector. They are divided both by their love for the same woman and their attitudes towards the war. But as the brothers’ story emerges from books, letters, and diaries, the evidence does not all add up, and there may be an even wider separation between them: divergent realities, in which different possibilities and unexpected truths emerge, and nothing is quite what it seems.
“A subtle, unsettling alternative WWII history.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A military experiment in the year 2021 thrusts an American-led multinational armada back to 1942, right into the middle of the U.S. naval task force speeding toward Midway Atoll, and what was to be the most spectacular U.S. triumph of the entire war.
Initial jubilation at news the Allies would win the war is quickly doused by the chilling realization that the time travelers themselves—by their very presence—have rendered history null and void. Celebration turns to dread when the possibility arises that other elements of the twenty-first century task force may have also made the trip and might now be aiding Yamamoto and the Japanese.
“Unlike many alternate histories, the novel avoids the wish-fulfillment aspect inherent in the genre. This is the first of what should be a hugely (and deservedly) successful series.”
— Publishers Weekly
The Wild Cards story collections were created by a group of New Mexico science fiction authors, pulled together and edited by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin (with assistance by Melinda M. Snodgrass, also a contributor to the series).
There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces, which were those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were Jokers, cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil.
Voyage depicts the 1986 manned mission to Mars, possible partially due to John F. Kennedy surviving the Dallas assassination attempt. The hard-SF book won a Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
“[T]here’s plenty of imagination on display here—and research, too, as Baxter invents not only a credible mission to Mars but also a credible technical, political and personal history behind it.”
– Publishers Weekly
Ada, or Ardor takes place on a planet called Antiterra, a parallel to our Earth (called Terra). Things have happened there in somewhat similar yet oddly different ways than on Terra (earth), including the fact that the Russian and American land masses are connected.
Ada, or Ardor tells a love story troubled by incest. It is also a fairy tale, philosophical treatise on the nature of time, parody of the history of the novel, and erotic catalog.
“A great work of art, a necessary book, radiant and rapturous… [It] provides further evidence that he is a peer of Kafka, Proust and Joyce.”
— The New York Times Book Review
It’s 1949, eight years after Britain agreed to peace with Nazi Germany, leaving Hitler in control of the European continent.
Despite her parents’ disapproval, Lucy is happily married to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband David found themselves invited to a retreat. It’s even more startling when, on the retreat’s first night, a major politician is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic.
It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. But whoever’s behind the murder didn’t reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts…and looking beyond the obvious.
“[S]tunningly powerful alternative history.”
— Publishers Weekly
There are multiple worlds, but moving between them is rare. Transitioning, or flitting, is only possible for people with a predisposed talent for such movement, who may only flit after ingesting a mysterious drug called ‘septus.’ When a Transitionary flits into another world, he or she temporarily takes control of the body of an existing inhabitant of that world.
These Transitionaries are controlled by the Concern, a vast multi-world organization that claims to protect worlds from chaos, but may also hide a greater, darker purpose.
Banks fans, take note: this is not a Culture novel, no matter what Amazon says.
“Banks’s prose is elegant and electric and his story dizzying, but inevitable contradictions are brilliantly tied together—the only way many characters maintain sanity is to question everything, and readers would be well-advised to do the same.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
We’re being invaded from alternate Earths in alternate universes. None of these universes is quite like ours. However, they all have some element or other in common, many of which Pohl develops to satiric effect.
The title is a reference to Schröndinger’s Cat, an imagined cat in a closed box that is neither alive nor dead until an observer lifts the lid to check. Its purpse is to illustrate how crazy the rules of quantum mechanics can be.
“At once zany and thought-provoking, this is one of Pohl’s best.”
— Publishers Weekly
The (Protestant) Reformation did not take place. A choirboy blessed with a sublime voice and the clergy conspire to “alter” him to preserve his soprano genius.
The Alteration won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1977.
“Kingsley Amis’s coruscating tour de force…”
— The Economist
The town of Grantville and its power plant are sent from the year 2000 in West Virginia to 1631 in central Germany, in the middle of the barbaric Thirty Years War.
In this unabashedly positive view of alternate history, American-style freedom and justice are introduced to Europe, and the American Revolution starts much earlier than before.
A group of time-traveling white supremacist members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging from an imagined 21st-century South Africa, who supply Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s and small amounts of other supplies (including nitroglycerine tablets for treating Lee’s heart condition). Their intervention and technologies result in a Confederate victory in the war.
In this wildly well-reviewed winner of the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller, Jake Epping finds a wormhole back to 1958, and decides to stay in order to prevent the JFK assassination.
Anything I could say after that is something of a spoiler, except that since is a Stephen King novel, it’s reasonable to expect that very bad things happen.
“[King’s] most ambitious and accomplished [book].”
Lest Darkness Fall is possibly the earliest and best example of the alternate history genre. It is similar to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938. A thunderstorm arrives, lightning cracks, and he finds himself transported to Rome in the year 535 CE.
Author De Camp was a historian of technology, and even wrote the popular The Ancient Engineers, a non-fiction account of the greatest human engineering (Pyramids of Giza, Great Wall of China, Roman Colosseum, etc).
This book by British comedian Stephen Fry examines what would happen if Hitler never existed.
Michael Young is a graduate student at Cambridge who is completing his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler. Leo Zuckerman is an aging German physicist and Holocaust survivor. Together they idealistically embark on an experiment to change the course of history. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours—but in most ways even worse.
Making History won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
However, not everyone liked it.
“[S]hockingly tasteless…deeply offensive.”
—The New York Times
On the surface, the novel presents an unexceptional pulp, post-apocalypse science fiction action tale entitled Lord of the Swastika. However, this is a pro-fascism narrative written by an alternate-history Adolf Hitler, who in this timeline emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1919 after the Great War, and used his modest artistic skills to become first a pulp–science fiction illustrator and later a successful science fiction writer, telling lurid, purple-prosed adventure stories under a thin SF-veneer.
You follow all that? Really? Then you’re going to have to explain it to me.
“We are forced, insofar as we can continue to read the book seriously, to think…about ourselves: our moral assumptions, our ideas of heroism, our desires to, lead or to be led, our righteous wars.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, science fiction author
The Difference Engine is widely regarded as having helped establish the genre conventions of steampunk.
It’s 1855, and the computer has arrived a century ahead of time due to Charles Babbage accomplishing his dream of creating both the Difference Engine and the more-advanced Analytical Engine.
Part detective story, part historical thriller, the adventure in The Difference Engine begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for.
The Confederate States of America wins the Battle of Gettysburg. Later, it declares victory in the “War of Southron Independence” on July 4, 1864, after the surrender of the United States of America.
The novel takes place in the impoverished United States in the mid-20th century as war looms between the Confederacy and its rival, the German Union. History takes an unexpected turn when the protagonist, historian Hodge Backmaker, decides to travel back in time and witness the moment when the South won the war.
“[Ward Moore is] one of the best American writers.”
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.
“Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style.”
– Publishers Weekly
The novel explores how subsequent world history might have been different if the Black Death plague had killed 99% of Europe’s population, instead of a third.
It’s a fun read, but gets a little talky at the end.
“[A] novel of ideas of the best sort, filled to overflowing with philosophy, theology and scientific theory.”
— Publishers Weekly
Subtitled The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, What If? is a collection of twenty essays and thirteen sidebars dealing with counterfactual history (a.k.a. alternate history).
The book features work by historians John Keegan, David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, and others.
“Consistently well drawn, these scenarios open intellectual as well as imaginative doors for anyone willing to walk through them.”
— Publishers Weekly
Fatherland is set in an alternative world where Hitler has won the Second World War. It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler’s 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin’s most prestigious suburb.
As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth—a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war, and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.
“The single most resonant and carefully imagined book of Dick’s career.”
— The New York Times
9 thoughts on “23 Best Alternate History Books”
Thanks for this. A really good list including some of my personal favorites and others I was unaware of, but which I will now seek out. If you haven’t read it yet, give Keith Roberts’ Pavane (1968) a try. You might just add a 24th entry to this list.
I’ll definitely give Pavane a try. Thanks for the recommendation!
Hi Dan and all you sci-fi lover type beings; and whether you are from this plane or next door with AI nanobots, doesn’t matter or anti-matter. The fact is Dan rocks for putting out these lists. I’ve read like three and have scribbled the names of others right now on my reading lists. The cat looks nervous. I think he might think, and or not to be in a different universe here.
Wow! Thanks! Glad you’re finding some good stuff to read.
Ooh. Thank you. If I ever read all the books on these lists…! Do China Meiville or Justin Cronin fit anywhere? I don’t think you forgot them, I just love them. Also U. K. Le Guinn’s “Always Coming Home?” Anything Connie Willis is wonderful.
SpecFic really shines in the short fiction format:
Cyril Kornbluth’s “Two Dooms” — a post-WWII USA settled by German victors in the East and Japanese victors in the West, with a Manhattan Project scientist stuck in this alternate America.
Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time” — a crazy mishmash of multiple alternate histories in a non-linear timeframe, with an arrogant college professor leading the exploration team comprised of a few of his select students.
Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” — so you think you can’t get any more confused? try a fast-paced story where all five major characters are the same person … at different times in the proceedings. ’nuff said.
some additional thoughts re your list:
#11 should be titled “11/22/63,” not “11/22/1963”– a minor error.
i wouldn’t even include Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, your #6, on the list, although his Greener Than You Think is, IMO, probably the best sardonic SpecFic i’ve ever read — it’s a classic; trust me.
finally, your #10 is MY #1 — Lest Darkness Fall. i have hopes that Netflix will take note of this brilliant alternate history and adapt it for the screen. i’d love to see Moore’s Greener Than You Think as a miniseries, but i fear that the viewing public would take it *the wrong way* — choosing to be insulted rather than entertained by its extreme sardonicism. the hoi polloi tend to be more unforgiving than untroubled in the funny bone arena.
i’m thrilled to see both familiar and unfamiliar titles in your list, Dan. it’s like homework to me. and i LOVE homework!
Read the “afterword” to “The Iron Dream.” [Spoiler Alert]. Thanks to A. Hitler’s move to the USA, the USSR conquers the whole world except North America and Japan, and is closing in on them.
One more interesting title you might want to check out is Salvation on Peril Island by Nash Knight. In takes place in near-future, in the year 2028, where Trump won second term and a an internet-originated document changed the geo-political map of the world. It also features new technologies and even cultural movements, creating a whole new world that feels realistic and organic. If you are a fan of the show Years and years you should definitely give this one a go.