10 Best Alternative History Books Update 05/2022

Best Alternative History Books

That’s how Merriam-Webster defines the genre, but books are defiant little creatures that will defy that definition in any way they can. What is a historical occurrence? What does it mean to be “different”? Consider the television show Outlander. Despite the fact that there were no time-traveling nurses present at any of the series’ historical events (as far as I know), I’m willing to guess that many people wouldn’t call it alternate history. It’s also unclear if my own novel qualifies, given that all of the historical events are true. I simply created fake characters for them. More importantly, books are rarely one-dimensional. For example, a section of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem matches the description to a tee, yet the book is so many other things that alt-history may not be the first, second, or third thing that comes to mind while discussing it.

Here are ten very diverse works, old and modern, that toy with the past in unique and interesting ways, whether they fit Webster’s definition or not. Some depict a universe that is significantly different from our own, while others are situated in a world that is barely distinct from our own.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle, set 15 years after a version of WWII won by the Axis coalition, is frequently mentioned when considering alternate history. It’s also an alternate history within an alternate history, which is interesting. The plot revolves around a fictional novel set in a world where the Allies triumphed in World War II, a world that is very different from our own. For contrasting interpretations (and styles) on the same subject, try Robert Harris’ Fatherland or Len Deighton’s SS-GB.

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

Peter Tieryas’ work, which was inspired by The Man in the High Castle, begins with the same WWII “what if?” but takes place in a glossy cyberpunk version of America, and the fictional novel is now a video game. It’s action-packed, a lot faster than its inspiration, and a thoughtful investigation of issues like patriotism, nationalism, and the weight of oppression. Did I mention it has massive mechs?

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore

Moore’s novel is the one that inspired Philip K. Dick’s, not the one that inspired Philip K. Dick’s. The novel is set in a universe where the Confederacy won the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. The novel opens in a defeated and destitute United States in the mid-twentieth century, just as time travel is about to be invented by chance. A similar premise can be found in Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory trilogy (time travel not included).

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

What if, in the case of Gettysburg, all the dead didn’t stay dead? After the Civil War is halted by the zombie apocalypse, Black and Indigenous people are dispatched to confront the zombies. In this riveting YA novel about prejudice, resilience, and one tough woman fighting for her life, Ireland utilizes imagined trauma to explore a very real one.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad was a network of hidden passageways and hiding places used by slaves to reach free states prior to the Civil War. Colson Whitehead imagines it as an actual underground railroad. Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton farm, sets out on a risky trip to find her freedom. Each stop on this terrifying road trip takes you over time and space, shedding light on a separate chapter in America’s racial history.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Long-lost magic is resurrected in Clarke’s fantasy version of England during the Napoleonic Wars to aid the British in defeating Napoleon’s armies. The worldbuilding is as impressive as it is extensive in this game (this book is HUGE). “The finest English novel of the fantastic published in the last 70 years,” Neil Gaiman said of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which could be the best quote to appear on a book cover in the last 70 years.

Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton

Walton’s England seems bleak in comparison to Clarke’s. This mystery is set in 1949, shortly after England and Germany signed a peace accord to end the war. When a politician is discovered dead at the Farthing estate, everyone suspects the main character’s Jewish husband, which could explain why he was invited. Farthing is a great take on fascism’s dangers, and while being set in the past, it feels disturbingly present.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A calamity compels the United States to accelerate its space program, while an ambitious human computer battles sexism to become an astronaut in a slightly altered future. The Calculating Stars justifiably won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for its superb novel that pays honor to the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (called Mercury 13) and women pilots everywhere.

The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J. Sawyer

The world’s top scientists band together to save the Earth from imminent calamity in this story set in the same age as The Calculating Stars. Every one of them: Oppenheimer, Einstein, Szilard, Fermi, Bohr, von Braun, and so on. Single. In this book, the main character is a real-life physicist or rocket scientist. It is incredibly well-researched. After you’ve finished, go to Sawyer’s website to see what’s real and what isn’t.

Ascent by Jed Mercurio and Wesley Robins

More rockets are on the way. From his childhood in a Stalingrad orphanage to his exile after the Korean War and his failed attempt to land a Soviet ship on the moon before the Americans, the graphic novel and the novel on which it is based follow the life of a Soviet ace pilot. Wesley Robin’s artwork quickly drew me in. The rough lines and harsh color palette are perfectly suited to this tragic story. Try Ministry of Space by Warren Ellis, Chris Weston, and Laura Martin if you enjoyed this one.

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