Is missing out on Alternate History the darkest timeline?
February 14, 2014 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Looking for examples of well-written or well-respected Alternate History fiction, in the vein of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

I've always been curious about Alternate History as a genre, but I don't know where to start or what the greatest hits are.

I have read The Yiddish Policeman's Union and loved it. I have also seen the Confederate States Of America mockumentary.

Not looking for ordinary speculative fiction that has retroactively become "alternate history", like Back To The Future II or Soylent Green.

I would prefer things that are more overt rather than, for example, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is often interpreted as taking place in an alternate timeline where the Allies lost WW2. I want things where the author's intent was to create an Alternate History, not "fannon" or "epilectic trees".

I am not interested in anything written in the service of racism (what if the South or the Nazis had won the war, what if the British Empire was still a thing, etc).

My taste is all over the map, but for reading material I tend to be on the snobbier/more literary end of things. I'm happy to delve into SF/F and historical fiction type stuff as long as it's actually good.

I want books more than other media, but if you know about an interesting movie or TV show or radio drama or graphic novel, why not?
posted by Sara C. to Media & Arts (61 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
The Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by rtha at 12:49 PM on February 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history by Kim Stanley Robinson that explores how things might be if the Black Death had killed 99% of Europe instead of a third.

Most of Harry Turtledove's SF/F work fits this category as well.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:50 PM on February 14, 2014

The Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by Jairus at 12:50 PM on February 14, 2014

For extremely well written cross-genre genre fiction may I recommend Farthing. It utilizes the British drawing room mystery genre and the alternative history genre and the historical fiction genre and uses those genres to ask questions about the current War on Terror. There are sequels which are good but not great in the way that Farthing is.
posted by latkes at 12:51 PM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Farthing by Jo Walton might suit you. The Man in the High Castle is a classic in the alt-history genre. (Note: it's sci-fi, and Phillip K. Dick--it gets... weird at points.)
posted by lovecrafty at 12:51 PM on February 14, 2014

Philip Roth's Plot Against America is a recent winner.

Years of Rice and Salt is another one that gets recommended often.

There are a lot of short fiction anthologies about this kind of thing; in this one I found a really poignant story called "The Winterberry" by Nick DiChario. It takes you a while to figure out what the history is that's being rewritten, but then it hits you like sucker punch when you figure it out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:51 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Probably the all-time classic is Dick's The Man in the High Castle.

Sobel's For Want of a Nail is kind of interesting because the central conceit is that it's a history textbook, complete with citations and stuff, from the alternate timeline.

Turtledove always seemed like pulp military-SF crap to me.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 12:52 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Never Let Me Go Though maybe not historical enough.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:53 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, there's Robert Harris' Fatherland, which takes place in an England overrun by Nazis (cf also Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle.

Kingsley Amis did The Alteration in which the Reformation never happened. (Luther was Pope in that one.)

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America has Lindbergh becoming president.

Arguably also Nabokov's Ada, though that's arguably a bit more alternate universe than alternate history (and not one of his better efforts to my mind).
posted by IndigoJones at 12:54 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Like IndigoJones, I came to recommend Robert Harris, but I came particularly with Archangel and (the one I'm finishing now) An Officer an a Spy, a sort of retelling of the Dreyfus Affair in turn of the century France, in mind.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:59 PM on February 14, 2014

The Guns of the South is about the Confederates winning the Civil War due to intervention by time travelers. There are racist characters, but the story is not sympathetic to racism.
posted by Anne Neville at 1:00 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not super epic or literary, but interesting: Melissa Scott's A Choice of Destinies posits what would have happened if Alexander the Great had given up on getting to India and turned his attention west instead. You'll need some background on Alexander and his campaigns to fully get this one, but it makes some fascinating extrapolations.
posted by yasaman at 1:00 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Returning to add: If you play video games at all, Bioshock Infinite is very good and incorporates a lot of alternate history/universe stuff. (Is vague for spoiler reasons.)
posted by lovecrafty at 1:01 PM on February 14, 2014

Have you heard of Farthing or The Years of Rice and Salt? Hah, I kid. But seriously, both awesome.

Beyond that:

Connie Willis -- her timetravel books aren't explicitly AH, more about the characters trying to figure out IF they are in an AH or creating an AH, but they are really good, really well-written, and scratch a lot of the same itch for me.

If you like Farthing (and the two sequels), Jo Walton has a new alternate history coming out in May-- My Real Children -- which is getting awesome reviews and which I can't wait to read.

Are you open to books where the AH is "our world but with magic"? There are some excellent books in that area as well, but I wouldn't call them literary (well-written, yes).

If you are willing to read Orson Scott Card, Timewatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Personally I am no longer willing to read his stuff, but this particular book is unusual in the AH field in (a) having two AHs, and (b) dealing with the pre-Columbian Americas.
posted by pie ninja at 1:02 PM on February 14, 2014

Christopher Priest, The Separation.
posted by snorkmaiden at 1:03 PM on February 14, 2014

Farthing is good but posits a what if Hitler was appeased (from a non-racist POV); avoid the sequels. CJ Samson's Dominion is about this, and it's on my to-read list. I know Stephen King's 11/22/63 is supposed to be something alt-historyish, but also haven't read it.

Books I can recommend:

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is sort of alternate history. But it's very good. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is alternate history and one of my favourite books. (Metafilter's own) Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters (what if mermaids bred with the royals in Europe). Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books are sort of alternate weird. Naomi Novik's Temeraire books are Napoleonic Wars with dragons (but get draggy after the first three-four). These are all alt-hist with magic/dragons/fantasyish elements.

Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch is, well, interesting, but not everyone is okay with reading his works. But essentially the world is doomed, some people go back to make Columbus not kill everyone off in the Americas and also prevent pollution.
posted by jeather at 1:05 PM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Inquisitor's Apprentice is YA but it is very well written YA and just utterly delightful alternate history in early 20th century New York with slight magical touches. It might get a little too precious with the historical inserts but really only in good fun.
posted by foxfirefey at 1:06 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "Our world but with magic" is fine, though I'm more interested in there being a historical events angle.

So if, in Our World But With Magic, Britain recruited Gerald Gardner -- an actual wizard, not just a neo-pagan -- for the war effort against the Nazis, to interesting narrative effect, cool!

If it's more like the Sookie Stackhouse novels (our world but supernatural creatures exist), that's not as interesting to me. But I would still read if the quality was there.
posted by Sara C. at 1:07 PM on February 14, 2014

nthing Man in the High Castle, it's the cornerstone of alt-history SF as far as I'm concerned.

Fatherland by Robert Harris falls into the Nazis-win-WWII genre, but it's very good and very much not written in the service of racism or as a Lost Cause text. Quite the opposite really.

You might want to look at the list of winners of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. (MeFi's Own™ cstross' Merchant Princes sequence is on there, although I don't know if it meets your criteria—it involves parallel universes with diverging histories with travel possible between them. Background with possible spoilers.)

I've heard that Ruled Britannia is decent, but I've tried reading some of Turtledove's stuff before and found it not to my liking, so YMMV.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:14 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding "The Separation" by Christopher Priest - seems like exactly what you're looking for.

Adding "Declare" by Tim Powers.
posted by eugenen at 1:14 PM on February 14, 2014

I'd say that all the books I recommended had actual historical events except Thursday Next -- JSMN and Temeraire are all about the Napoleonic wars and the magic and dragons, respectively, play a role. Life after Life is less overtly about history, it's about one person living her life again and again, during (I believe) WW2.
posted by jeather at 1:14 PM on February 14, 2014

Stephen King's 11/22/63 is sort of an alternate history. In some ways it is a meta commentary on the concept of alternate histories. In other ways it's one of the most engrossing novels I've read in recent years and it has a historical bent, so I'm posting it.
posted by telegraph at 1:17 PM on February 14, 2014

Pavane, Keith Roberts [Elizabeth I is murdered]

Lord Darcy stories, Randall Garrett [Plantagenets still rule England/France, magic works] lists pretty much every alternate history story ever.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:19 PM on February 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Our world but with magic: seconding Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:25 PM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Len Deighton's SS-GB is about Nazi occupation of Britain, but it's very well done. A bit like Phillip Dick's The Man in the High Castle.
posted by dhruva at 1:26 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Turtledove's short story Shtetl Days is "what if the Nazis won" but most definitely does not glorify racism. It's not military, and it's short. Try it on for size.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:29 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Eric Flint's 1632 drops a chunk of present-day West Virginia into the middle of Germany in 1632. It's the beginning of the series, though I have to say not all of the followups are nearly as good. Also, ignore the cover art. It's terrible.
posted by kbuxton at 1:31 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

For Our World But With Magic: Freedom & Necessity, Steven Brust and Emma Bull. Set in 1949, involves the Corn Laws, very well-written.

I think another distinction is between Alternate History (where there is a clear point of departure from our world), and Secret History (where the history is our own, but the story tells The True Story in some way-- e.g. Kage Baker's The Company novels, where our history is established but with time-traveling immortal cyborgs).
posted by pie ninja at 1:36 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out SM Stirling's Draka Series.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:41 PM on February 14, 2014

Oh, Stephen Fry, Making History (time traveler prevents Hitler's birth, finds results are less than totally ideal).
posted by Chrysostom at 1:42 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding Pavane, which is quite lovely, and Freedom and Necessity.

Tim Powers does a lot of work along the "Our World But with Magic" line--The Stress of Her Regard, for example. A number of Dan Simmons' recent novels have also taken this tack (a possessed Wilkie Collins, a monster in the Arctic, etc.); personally, I've found them...not great...but YMMV.

William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, which imagines that the age of computing arrived along with the age of industry.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:46 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: One more clarification and then I'll butt out of the thread:

The story doesn't necessarily have to be about the main point of departure, though it should ideally contain a point of departure, and ideally that point of departure will be something to do with the timeline of historical events.

For example, the point of departure in The Yiddish Policeman's Union is that the state of Israel was not established in Palestine. Instead the US granted land in Alaska to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. The story is about events that unfold in Jewish Alaska, but the main departure point (lines drawn on a map decades before the novel takes place) is only vaguely touched upon in the story.

This, to me, is a feature, not a bug.

But carry on! The recommendations so far are staggering! I'm already reading the Turtledove story infinitewindow mentioned, and it's exactly what I'm looking for.
posted by Sara C. at 1:49 PM on February 14, 2014

"Our world but with magic" is fine, though I'm more interested in there being a historical events angle.

Some of my favorite books ever might be what you're after: The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. It is about the Napoleonic Wars but with dragons. It does a great deal of exploring how various historical cultures interact with dragons in different ways, and how history is different because of their existence.

also the title character is twenty tons of adorable
posted by NMcCoy at 1:50 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't vouch for it having never read it, but as a California resident you might enjoy the "Three Californias" trilogy.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:59 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Gonna second "Fatherland." HBO did a nice movie adaptation of it, too. Rutger Hauer as the lead.

I know you said "no WW2/Nazis won" but that's a major alt-history touchstone, given how much recent history was affected by that war. Just a might be stuck with it, y'know?
posted by Thistledown at 2:01 PM on February 14, 2014

MeFi's own John Scalzi had this cute alternate history riff.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:03 PM on February 14, 2014

Them Bones, by Howard Waldrop (Waldrop has a number of weird little alternative history stories, of which The Ugly Chickens is probably the most famous)
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 2:26 PM on February 14, 2014

Tim Powers' "Declare" is really more "Secret History" than "Alternate History". Which is itself a great genre, and I recommend most of his other books, especially "The Stress of Her Regard" and "Hide Me Among the Graves" for a history where the Romantic poets were involved with vampires. "Three Days To Never" is also quite good, but more modern. And possibly time travel instead of vampires. I haven't read it in a few years.

Also more secret history than alternate history, the Laundry novels by (mefi's own) Charles Stross: The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex. They propose a kind of alternate/secret history where Alan Turing's work was applicable to summoning entities from other dimensions -- Lovecraftian elder gods, basically.
posted by hades at 2:32 PM on February 14, 2014

Scott Westerfeld wrote the Leviathan series that is steampunk as well as WWI alternate history. The Wikipedia page also calls it biopunk, which is new to me. This is the description:The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, diesel-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.
posted by soelo at 2:33 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not This August by C.M. Kornbluth is an alternate history novel where the communists win the Cold War in the mid 1950s.

This Shiloh Project is an alternate history novel where the South won at Gettysburg. The novel is set it the mid 1990s soon after the North had tested its powerful new weapon on Yokohama during the Yankee-Japanese War and is the story of the South trying to capture an example of the weapon.
posted by Rob Rockets at 2:36 PM on February 14, 2014

A Trans-Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. What it the British had successfully put down the Founding Fathers' rebellion, and America was still its colony, today?
posted by Rash at 2:53 PM on February 14, 2014

You might enjoy the Anno Dracula series, a romp through an alternate history created when Count Dracula wins.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:53 PM on February 14, 2014

Oh don't know if it would qualify exactly, but guy gavriel Kay errors books that are like, riffs on history, all kinds of history from Italian proto state, Byzantine empire, Ming dynasty etc etc.

His writing is genuinely very good (good enough he's marketed as literary in some parts of the world, fantasy in others, which is weird because his books feature very little magic at all). He can struggle a bit with good endings. I recommend tigana or the sarantine mosaic.
posted by smoke at 2:57 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't vouch for it having never read it, but as a California resident you might enjoy the "Three Californias" trilogy.

I've read two of them and I'm afraid they must be disqualified from this discussion, as they are a 'three bears' trio of different Future Histories for Orange County. They are not Alternate Histories.
posted by Rash at 3:01 PM on February 14, 2014

Whaddayaknow - Wikipedia has a list.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:03 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

A short-story collection from the early 90s, Alternate Kennedys, has some good ideas, but the cover may be the best part (and it's out of print, so good luck finding a copy).
posted by Rash at 3:09 PM on February 14, 2014

You might enjoy the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregglis. WWII with supernatural creatures, more genetic experiments and British sorcerers.
posted by korej at 3:11 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't say I recommend this book but it does involve the US surrendering to the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:47 PM on February 14, 2014

Oh! Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series, an alternate history of the Victorian era to the near-present day with vampires (including the Big Guy himself).
posted by thomas j wise at 4:03 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stretching the definition a bit, but the vastly underrated War with the Newts by Karel Čapek (who introduced the word "robot" into the sci-fi nomenclature in one of his other works) is what first came to mind. History diverges in the early 20th century (or possibly a bit before) when a Czech tramp steamer captain discovers a species of bipedal sentient newts on a remote Pacific island, and subsequent events go just about as well as you'd expect.

It doesn't have a specific point of departure, but I'm recommending it anyway since it's not only one of my favorite novels (and has been since 4th or 5th grade, when I loved the giant newts but the political commentary went over my head) but has a 100% success rate with people I've recommended it to.

(Note: I've only read Ewald Osers' translation, which seems to be the best-regarded, but there are older translations in the public domain.)
posted by bettafish at 4:08 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and nthing Guy Gavriel Kay (Tigana, The Sarantine Mosaic duology, or The Lions of Al-Rassan would be my picks). I also enjoy the Temeraire series greatly, but since alternate history is your point of interest I would warn that the pre-Napoleonic War worldbuilding doesn't always make sense. If you can just accept that European history up until then somehow came out mostly the same despite the second sentient species and the real point of divergence is a British navy captain capturing a French ship with a dragon egg on it, then it works.
posted by bettafish at 4:14 PM on February 14, 2014

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker novels take place in a late 19th USA where the Civil War is still going on...
posted by herbaliser at 4:48 PM on February 14, 2014

An SF paperback from 1968, Sideslip is still available. Something about aliens even earlier and WWII going differently but an interesting detail is the 3rd Avenue El had never been torn down.

Yes, it is a great book, but in no way is War With The Newts an Alternate History.
posted by Rash at 6:00 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wikihistory is another cute take on some time travel perennial tropes.

Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels is a good take on the "traveling through lots of alternate histories/universes" idea. Or Fred Pohl's The Coming of the Quantum Cats.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:37 PM on February 14, 2014

Ash, the Secret History by Mary Gentle.
posted by PMdixon at 7:45 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try Bring the Jubilee for a successful War of Southron Independence.
posted by Gotanda at 8:43 PM on February 14, 2014

The Bird is Gone, by Stephen Graham Jones. It's an alternate history where the Great Plains are restored to Native governance.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:20 PM on February 14, 2014

L.E. Modesitt's Ghosts of Columbia trilogy may be of interest. Our world but with ghosts, which turns out to have had a somewhat significant impact on the course of world history (haunted battlefields proving a disincentive to war, as I recall). Alt-history mysteries, set in the Dutch(?) colony of Columbia (our New England) tinged with the supernatural.

Most Turtledove is too war-oriented to hold my interest, but he cowrote The Two Georges with Richard Dreyfuss (!) and I liked it just fine.
posted by mumkin at 2:21 PM on February 15, 2014

Lots of recommendations for Man in the High Castle and I nth them all. It is written in an alternate history where The Axis powers won WWII, but it isn't in the service of racism. I wanted to mention that (not a spoiler) the eponymous man is an author who wrote an alternate history where the Allies won the war and the Nazis are tried for war crimes.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:14 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

And, since nobody else has brought them up that I noticed, there is an entire subgenre of works in which alternative historical timelines exist and can be detected/traveled to/etc.

In The Quicksilver Screen, you can only receive the other realities' broadcasts. Most of the book, as I recall, is interested in the aftereffects of full information disclosure (who really shot JFK, etc).

The G.O.D Inc series. Ever wonder who was really buying all of those ginsu knives and Conway Twitty albums?

The grandaddy of them all, of course, is H. Beam Piper's Paratime series. I don't remember any particular amount of racism in these, but they're from the 1950s cautious.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:23 AM on February 18, 2014

If we're going old school, de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall is perhaps *the* classic (guy accidentally travels back to 6th century Rome, tries to avert the Dark Ages).
posted by Chrysostom at 11:57 AM on February 18, 2014

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