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.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)

Just suppose Charles Lindberg, the air hero who made the world’s first solo transatlantic flight and America’s most-famous Nazi sympathiser, became America’s president in 1940 (the Republicans apparently did invite him to run).

Suppose then that he signed a peace pact with Germany, set in motion his dream of America as land of the brave and blond and introduced a set of anti-Semitic measures that unleashed a wave of violence against American Jews. But because he was so goddamn charismatic, much of society went along with him. That’s the premise of Roth’s bold reimagining of 1940s America.

The narrator is the real Philip Roth, aged seven, and it’s no stretch to say this book is a work of unrestrained genius. It’s too nuanced and broad to explain all its weaving complexities here. But in short, it is a fabulously prescient warning about what can happen when celebrity bleeds into politics and America’s susceptibility to fall for puff-chested demagogues with tight egos and loose principles.

 

Noughts and Crosses by Mallory Blackman (2001)

A modern twist on Romeo and Juliet backdropped by a topsy-turvy alternate Britain riven by racial prejudice. Society is divided in two. Noughts hate Crosses and Crosses hate Noughts. Crosses are powerful, having once enslaved the Noughts. Noughts fight for equality, sometimes through violence. Crosses are black, Noughts are white (or ‘colourless’).

The plot follows Sephy (daughter of one of the leading Crosses) and Callum (a lowly Nought, whose mother was Sephy's nanny). They are best friends who eventually fall in love. But in a world engineered to keep Noughts and Crosses apart, their romance leads them into mortal danger and they must fight for the right to love.

Not only does the book beautifully capture the propulsive rhythm of teenage life – the uncertainty, hope and vulnerability – but it presents a disunited kingdom that barely feels dystopian at all. 

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1974)

Forget the Second World War: it never happened. In Amis’ masterpiece, the Reformation never happened either, meaning the rule of the Roman Catholic Church has remained absolute ever since. A papal crusade prevented Henry VIII from ever taking the throne and Martin Luther became pope.    

Fast-forward to 1974 and Hubert Anvil is an outrageously-gifted chorister. But he’s knocking on puberty, and to preserve his angelic voice his superiors are considering castration – an ‘alteration’ that could bring him fame and fortune, but would also separate him permanently from an adult world he is curious to discover. It is, for him, a sticky conundrum. Should he rebel?

In The Alteration’s world, science has literally become a dirty word; progress ground to a halt centuries ago; and electricity is banned. Those are among Amis’ many historical tweaks that make the story buzz with energy. Or, as Philip K. Dick, put it: ‘One of the best—possibly the best—alternate-worlds novels in existence.’

Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)

This was not the first counterfactual book ever written, but it is – with all certainty – one of the finest. The year is 1962. Twenty-eight years earlier, Roosevelt was assassinated during his first term. So, Germany and Japan won the Second World War, carved up America, and the world – of course – is all shades of awful as a result. Hitler is still alive but crocked by late-stage syphilis.

Also an Amazon Prime TV series, it is first a parable for what happens to a free country when confronted with tyranny, but it is also a geopolitical spy thriller, a far-flung love story and a sci-fi conspiracy.

Alternate history enthusiasts: ignore MITHC at your peril. It fertilised the soil for the canon to grow. A surprisingly effortless, if complex, read, its labyrinthine narrative weaves plot strands in and out of each other like silk, keeping the pages turning while the tea goes cold and the cat gets the goldfish. 

Making History by Stephen Fry (1996)

So, you’re a brilliant young history student with a fascination with Hitler. You meet a wise old physicist with a machine that can send small objects back in time. Oh, and your girlfriend happens to be a biochemist who has perfected a male sterilisation pill. What would you do?

The answer, obviously, is you send the pill back to the well from which Hitler’s father drank to render him infertile. Hey presto: Hitler was never born. The snag is that the moment you send the pill you are sucked into a quantum singularity, you black out and, if you’re lucky – as in Fry’s Making History – you wake up in a bewilderingly different world where hippies never existed, nobody’s heard of rock and roll and Germany actually won the Second World War because, without Hitler, someone more awful took his place. There arises a horrible question: can I find a way to bring back Hitler?

That’s the conundrum for Fry’s protagonist in this time-tinkering historical satire, written with all the intelligence and wit you would expect of Britain’s cleverest comedian.

Virtual History, edited by Niall Ferguson (1997)

You’ll need your serious glasses, and maybe something with elbow patches, for this weighty ‘what-if-athon’. But for what it lacks in levity it makes up tenfold in eye-opening lucidity. It is a fascinating collection of essays by a number of acclaimed historians, each asking a different ‘what would have happened if what actually happened hadn’t happened?’

What if England had had no Cromwell? What if Britain had never entered the First World War? What if Germany had won the second one? What if JFK had never been assassinated? These are the kind of questions they tackle, in a mixture of tones and styles, throttling through history’s major flashpoints like Bill and Ted with DPhils.

They may not all like the idea of reimagining history (one or two make that clear), but these historians are good sports as they jump down the time tunnel to see where else it might have led.

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

Harris’ masterstroke in Fatherland was to build a genre within a genre. Beginning with a dead body, it is a detective story set in a Europe ruled by the Nazis. They won the war and now it’s 1964.

Hard-bitten sleuth Xavier March investigates the drowning of Josef Buhler, former state secretary in the General Government. The Gestapo say it’s a suicide. But they would, wouldn’t they? So, March marches on, aided by American reporter Charlotte Maguire.

Romance ensues, along with plenty of intrigue, as they unravel a conspiracy that leads all the way to the top of the Reich. Themes range from love to loyalty, what-ifs to why-nots, as Harris waltzes on Hitler’s grave with impressive success. 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

The year is 1806, and the country is 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 made of rain 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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