Reading lists

Alternative histories: the greatest ‘what if’ novels

William Gibson's latest book Agency is about a world where Hillary Clinton is president and Brexit never happened. Here's some other great novels which rewrite the recent past.

The best alternate history books

Alternate history, counterfactual literature, speculative fiction… the genre has many names, but one mission: to reimagine the present as if the past had panned out differently.

Neuromancer author William Gibson is one of literature’s foremost time tinkerers, a sage of the information age so prescient that many of his maddest prophesies, from the concept of 'cyberspace' in 1982 to ‘virtual sex’ and the cyberpunk movement in 1984, have literally come true.

His latest novel, Agency, is a whizbang post-apocalyptic saga (and sequel to bestselling The Peripheral) set in a multiverse of virtual time travel, and a parallel reality in which Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump and Britain voted Remain in the EU referendum. It's one of our favourite books of the year so far.

And if that's whet your appetite for escaping into a different reality, here's a selection of some of the other best alternate histories ever written.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

The year is 1806. England. The Napoleonic Wars are raging across the Channel, and magic become a forgotten relic of the ancient past. Until now. For now, in Mr Norrell, it still lives.

He enchants the nation with his magical powers, raising fair maidens from the grave and sending ghost ships into battle. But soon his alchemic authority is challenged by a young upstart named Jonathan Strange, whose natural ability to summon the occult more than dents Norrell’s grandeur. Still, the pair work uneasily together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems (not least the Napoleonic scourge).

The temptation to use such clichés as ‘spellbinding’ and ‘enchanting’ is a powerful one. But as that feeling subsides, suffice to say, it is a rollicking ride of a story that will tickle the appetites of Harry Potter fans and Terry Pratchett fans alike. Or, take it from fantasy super-author Neil Gaiman, who called it, ‘unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years’. 

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