Alternate history books (AH to those in the know) speculate as to what might happen if key real world historical events occurred differently. They can, but don’t necessarily, involve speculative fiction tropes such as time travel or a character’s awareness that the timeline is “wrong.” Delve into these fascinating, often thought-provoking scenarios with this list of the most intriguing alternate history books.
The Coming of the Quantum Cats by Frederik Pohl
Deriving its title from the famous “Schrödinger's Cat” thought experiment, Pohl’s 1986 satire imagines invasions from alternate Earths in alternate universes. In one, Nancy Reagan is the President of the United States and John F. Kennedy is married to Marilyn Monroe. In another, Joseph “Dzhugashvili” (a Stalin stand-in) took the proceeds from the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery and fled to America where he established himself as a big-time capitalist. There are three main protagonists, each with multiple versions of themselves traversing the different realities. Depending on the social stations they grew up in, these various genetically identical selves differ considerably in terms of character traits.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The debut novel from British writer Susanna Clarke, this book was a New York Times best-seller in addition to winning a Hugo Award and a Locus Award, among others. Clarke wrote the story over a 10 year period. Set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, the book posits an alternate history where magic exists. The main magic practitioners, the eponymous Strange and Norrell are persuaded to use their abilities in the war effort against Napoleon. A seven-part British TV miniseries adaptation aired on BBC One in 2015 and a film adaptation is currently being written. A sequel is also in the works.
Two Hawks from Earth by Philip Jose Farmer
One of the earlier alternate history books to make this list, Farmer’s novel is also known under its original publication title The Gate of Time. Iroquois World War II dogfighter Roger Two Hawks is shot down over Romania. The only problem is that by the time he parachutes to safety he does not land in Romania—at least not the one he was expecting. The locals are Iroquois like him. He is confused until he sees a globe—he has somehow landed in a version of Earth where the Americas don’t exist and nor does heavier-than-air flight. This world is in the midst of its own version of WWII which Two Hawks gets involved in, bringing with him valuable knowledge and abilities from our world.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
Known as Temeraire in the United Kingdom, this Locus Award Winner and Hugo Award nominee re-imagines the epic events of the Napoleonic Wars. In this reality the belligerents have access to mighty dragons as part of their aerial war fleets. The dragons are intelligent—possessing logic and speech. Real historical figures show up as characters, notably Horatio Nelson, who in this reality had survived the Battle of Trafalgar. Other historical figures to appear include English politician William Wilberforce and Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. The novel is the first book of the Temeraire series, which comprises nine books to date.
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Years of Rice and Salt is another Locus Award winner, plus an Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo nominee to boot. The novel explores how history might have changed if the Black Death plague had wiped out 99 percent of the European population (instead of one third). The story spans hundreds of years, beginning with Muslims conquering a desolate Europe and Native Americans warring with Chinese and Muslim invaders. Meanwhile the Chinese and Muslims also war against each other. Unlike most alternate history books, after this early action Robinson’s novel focuses on the lives of ordinary people and how they are effected by the point of divergence.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
A ground-breaking work of the steampunk genre as well as an alternate history tale, The Difference Engine posits that real historical figure Charles Babbage, an entrepreneur and inventor, succeeded in constructing the world’s first computer in 1824. Set in 1855 Victorian England, Babbage becomes a powerful politician, ruthlessly suppressing Luddite revolutionaries along the way. The early arrival of the computer brings forward the invention of other technologies, and eventually the British Empire holds sway over the world due to the technological revolution. Many other real historical figures are placed in this new context and their destinies are changed by it. The novel explores the social ramifications of such an occurrence.
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Visionary writer Alan Moore’s legendary, Hugo Award winning graphic novel Watchmen depicts an alternate history where superheroes arose in the 1940s. Their presence altered history so that the United States won the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal was successfully covered up and Richard Nixon is still the President of the United States. By 1985 the country is on the brink of World War III as tensions with the Soviet Union mount. Superheroes have by now been outlawed (except those that work for the government). A financially successful and critically acclaimed movie adaptation directed by Zack Snyder was released in 2009.
Fatherland by Robert Harris
One of the better known examples of alternate history books, the premise of Fatherland is that Nazi Germany won World War II. It was an instant smash hit, selling more than three million copies and being translated into 25 languages. Beginning in 1964, the plot follows protagonist detective Xavier March as he investigates the murder of a high-ranking Nazi. He stumbles upon a plot to assassinate all Nazi party officials. The novel features many real historical figures as well as characters based on real historical figures. One of the actual historical people featured is an aged, reclusive, mellowed-out Adolph Hitler.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
This popular novel depicts everyman high school teacher Jake Epping’s mission to travel back in time and alter history by preventing the assassination of JFK. Unfortunately Epping is unable to choose the precise moment he travels back to—it has to be September 9, 1958, meaning that he will have some time to kill. King performed meticulous research for the book in order to precisely portray life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jake takes on side-quests along the way, altering history for personal reasons and performing good deeds. It was adapted into a 2016 Hulu television series starring James Franco.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
A wildly successful TV series adaptation is currently available on Amazon Video. One of the most influential alternate history books, Dick’s Hugo Award winning novel envisions a world where the Axis Powers were victorious in World War II. Nazi Germany conquered most of Europe. Imperial Japan controls China, India, and Oceania. Italy conquered most of Africa. Superpowers Germany and Japan also share the Americas. The Mediterranean Sea has been drained to make room for Nazi farmland. They have also developed and deployed H-bombs, colonized the Moon, Venus and Mars and reinstated black slavery. It features a novel within a novel—a banned book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts an “alternate history” in which the Allies won World War II. Mind blown!