7 Alternate History Books

How could changes in our past affect our present?


Alternate history books bring readers to familiar but slightly foreign worlds. Sometimes they take us to our worst nightmare—like a Nazi ruled United States—or a place with time travel. At other times, we're shown an England that never became a world power. The inherent creative liberty of speculative fiction allows writers to create these alternate universes, which are based on real historical events. At the same time, their changed landscapes often work as avenues for tackling genuine human issues: religion, race, economic despair, and war. 

Of course, these books are all speculative and “fun” reads at the end of the day, but the alternate history genre does provide some food for thought: How would the world have been different? And what would have been the same?


The Man in the High Castle

By Philip K. Dick

There is no shortage of alternate histories based on WWII and Nazis, but the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle is certainly one of the most chilling and masterfully written. We're introduced to a post-WWII United States that is run by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—the result of Axis victory and a place where slavery is legal and Jews must hide. Dick changes real historical events ever so slightly, showing just how close the Allies came to losing the war. Packed with espionage, corrupt politics, and mind-bending fantasy, it also makes for a binge-worthy television show

RELATED: 15 Best Time Travel Books You Haven't Read Yet 


The Yiddish Policemen's Union

By Michael Chabon

The Slattery Report was proposed in 1939 as a means of bringing European immigrants to Alaskan settlements, specifically Jews from Nazi-occupied territories. In reality, though, the plan fell through. But Chabon’s sci-fi alternative history imagines that Jewish refugees did made it to Alaska and that Israel was not established as a Jewish nation. Set in present day Sitka—a Yiddish-speaking Alaskan metropolis—detective Meyer Landsman has a lot to deal with: a mystifying murder, a failing marriage, and the prospect that Sitka’s future is in jeopardy. Chabon dabbles in a variety of very real issues, such as race and religious persecution, and weaves them with a sci-fi-infused, noir-inspired story. Complex and compelling indeed.


The Years of Rice and Salt

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Thankfully, none of us were around when the black plague swept through 14th century Europe. But what if the sickness had wiped out not just a third of the population but 99% of it? Such is the premise of The Years of Rice and Salt, which explores the lives of Judeo-Christians post-plague. The novel spans centuries, where Old World populations (Islam, Chinese, and Indian cultural groups) expanded their influence, discovering the Americas and spreading disease and warfare. Told from the point of view of characters who are continuously reincarnated throughout 600 years of history, Robinson’s imaginative story is a thought-provoking examination of human nature.

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By Stephen King

King’s thrilling alternate history is a wonderfully written story about Jake Epping, a time-traveller sent back to 1963 to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Behind this mission is the hope that the Vietnam and Cold Wars, MLK's assassination—and all subsequent American maladies—will never occur. King went to great lengths in order to ensure an accurate portrayal of the time period: Jake experiences diners, the jitterbug, Elvis, and even Lee Harvey Oswald. History buffs and sci-fi lovers will love it.


The Alteration

By Kingsley Amis

In Amis’ disturbing parallel universe, the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe never took place. Many aspects of the present appear familiar, such as language, though there are also many radical differences. Science is frowned upon and very few technological advancements have been made. The Alteration focuses on a choirboy with a beautiful voice who faces pubescent vocal changes. The Catholic clergy is more than willing to ‘alter’ him to save his voice. The result is a look into the mind of a young boy and a chilling exploration of the Roman Catholic Church.


The Eyre Affair

By Jasper Fforde

Though a story of hard science fiction, The Eyre Affair is a perfect read for lovers of classic lit. In alternative England, time travel and cloning are everyday occurrences, Russia is still run by the Tsars, and the Crimean War has been fought for 131 years. Consequently, England has never conquered the world. This version of England is also obsessed with literature, and its people can enter the fictional universes of their favorite books. Thursday Next—the story's 'bibliodetective' heroine—investigates crimes with ties to these sort of occurrences. While trying to track down a villain in the supernatural, altered world of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, she meets some great characters. Fforde’s New York Times bestseller is witty, brimming with humor, and filled with highly amusing, flippant literary references.


The Guns of the South

By Harry Turtledove

Imagine this: the Unionist fighters of the American Civil War are losing when, out of nowhere, Confederate Soldiers unveil powerful, then-unknown AK-47s. A frightening white supremacist from the future, Andries Rhoodie, has used a time machine to bring the weapon to the Confederacy and ensure a Southern victory (along with the implementation of extremely racist laws). But to Rhoodie’s dismay, the Confederate victors actually start embracing emancipation, viewing the white supremacists from the future as their enemies. Turtledove also wrote many other alternate history books such as Agent of Byzantium, A Different Flesh, and The Bastard King

This post was originally appeared on The Reading Room.

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Featured Image: Poster of "The Man in the High Castle" (2015), via Hulu