I want to read books and watch movies about Alternate Histories.
November 20, 2015 5:33 AM   Subscribe

With The Man in the High Castle hitting Amazon Prime today, it got me thinking about other alternate histories that I have yet to read about or watch. Obviously this lends itself to dystopian lit, but I was wondering if there's more obscure things out there besides the mainstream/popular things like Inglorious Basterds. My favorites are sci-fi and horror, but I'm open to just about anything and will pretty much give everything a shot if it's highly recommended. Hope me, MeFites!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Basically, anything by Harry Turtledove. He's sort of the alt-history Yoda.
posted by Thistledown at 5:35 AM on November 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Jo Walton's Small Change series (starts with Farthing). Classic British mysteries set in a world where the Hess mission made peace with the Nazis.
posted by pie ninja at 5:40 AM on November 20, 2015 [11 favorites]

How about Anno Dracula?
posted by uncleozzy at 5:41 AM on November 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Stephen Fry's Making History deals with the timely question of what happens if you go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby?
posted by Rock Steady at 5:46 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should read Terry Bisson's Fire On The Mountain, which is a short novel about a successful raid on Harper's Ferry conducted - as originally planned - by both Harriet Tubman and John Brown. It's also just great as a science fiction novel, in my opinion.

You could also read the Three Californias trilogy - it started out as alternate near-futures, but now that the eighties are over they're basically alternate histories.

Lion's Blood by Stephen Barnes is a book I haven't read yet but would like to. It's an alternate history of a 19th century world where Muslim African countries are the dominant powers, and it is supposed to be pretty good.

You've read The Iron Dream, right? I couldn't really get into it, but many alternate history enthusiasts speak highly of it.
posted by Frowner at 5:48 AM on November 20, 2015

I know you didn't mention podcasts, but I have to put in a plug for the Twilight Histories; I wrote a FPP about it a while back.

So far as books go, you might enjoy the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik; it's set during the Napoleonic Wars in a world where alt-Britain has dragons in their military. So it's kind of sci-fi/alt-history.

And of course someone mentioned Turtledove; I find him kind of hit and miss, so if you try one of his series and don't like it, you might find it worthwhile to try a different one.
posted by possibilityleft at 6:02 AM on November 20, 2015

It Happened Here.
It Happened Here is set in an alternate history where the United Kingdom has been invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The plot follows the experiences of an Irish nurse working in England, who encounters people who believe collaboration with the invaders is for the best whilst others are involved in the resistance movement against the occupiers and their local collaborators.

The film's largely amateur production took some eight years, using volunteer actors with some support from professional filmmakers.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 6:02 AM on November 20, 2015

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis is interesting. The divergence begins when Martin Luther becomes Pope Germanicus I and Henry and Elizabeth's son Prince Arthur defeats his evil brother Henry of York's Protestant rebellion.
The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford is somewhat interesting but it's more of a fantasy take on Richard III and the Princes in the Tower.
posted by Hypatia at 6:03 AM on November 20, 2015

Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. Interesting worldbuilding if you can get through the bizarre pacing. Also seconding Turtledove, particularly Guns of the South.
posted by orangutan at 6:11 AM on November 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

What about A Very British Coup?

Also, would nuclear war movies count? You could watch The Day After, or the 1960s BBC production The War Game or - and I do not recommend it because it is fucking harrowing - Threads; all are meant to be realistic present-day-for-them depictions of nuclear war. The Day After is probably the least upsetting, since although basically everyone dies, the template is Big Dumb Tearjerker American Movie so it's sentimental rather than tragic. (It made a big impression on Reagan, and probably was one factor preventing us all from going up in a puff of smoke during his administration...so being big and dumb was just as well, I guess.) Threads has all this social realism and much more character development, plus ratchets up the political tension much better, and the aftermath is much grimmer. It's fascinating, but extraordinarily upsetting if that kind of thing gets to you at all.
posted by Frowner at 6:21 AM on November 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Fatherland - http://www.amazon.com/Fatherland-A-Novel-Robert-Harris/dp/0812977211

Set in an alternative world where Hitler has won the Second World War.
posted by guy72277 at 6:32 AM on November 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America. It's another alternate history involving WWII.
posted by crLLC at 7:06 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the early SF classics is Lest Darkness Fall, about a historian who ends up transported back to the dawn of the dark ages (so to speak) and decides to improve things.

New Amsterdam starts a series by Elizabeth Bear; it's a collection of mystery stories set in a world where New York stayed a Dutch colony for an extended period. It includes a forensic sorcerer and the opening murder is on an airship crossing the Atlantic. In the interest of full disclosure, it's not quite as cool as that makes it sound to my inner nerd, but it's pretty good.

Less clearly in the genre, but related to it, are the Merchant Princes' series by Charles Stross (which are more dimension hopping, but have imho interesting alternate history Americas in addition to our real one.)
posted by mark k at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Flint's 1632 series is really enjoyable. The premise is that a West Virginian mining town is dropped into Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War. They decide to try to establish an American style republic there and then. The later books can be hit or miss in quality, the ones that Virginia DeMarce coauthored are really inconsistent, but the universe is fascinating and once Flint took back primary authorial duties (you can tell in the writing) the series improved.

Also, the first book of the series is online for free (through the publisher) so you can find out if you like them or not.
posted by Hactar at 7:37 AM on November 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Harry Turtledove is definitely the major force in alternate history for the past, oh, 20 years or so. As mentioned above, The Guns of the South is a great book to start with, it's not part of a series.

He has a new series he just started, the first book is Bombs Away, nuclear war breaks out during the Korean war.

The Proteus Operation by James P Hogan is somewhat of an alternate history, more sci-fi.

Edit to add: Hogan went a bit nutty in his later years and held some potentially offensive positions. But he's dead now so buying his books won't be supporting his positions.
posted by beowulf573 at 7:39 AM on November 20, 2015

Seconding Jo Walton's Farthing series. The first book is the best because it packages alternate history together with English country house murder mystery, but the later ones are pretty good, and the short stories are fucking outstanding. Jo Walton can really, really write.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed The Mirage, which is an alternate history of 9/11 in which the Middle East is the world's major power and Christian terrorists attacked on 11/9...but, on the belief that they are IN an alternate reality and our reality is the real world. I really enjoyed seeing how various real-world people would show up in the alternate world.

Another favorite is Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear, which I think fits this category...it's about time travellers going back to WWII, who are under the belief that the time stream won't let them change things...but then as events continue, they begin to worry that they ARE creating an alternate history in various ways (possibly with Hitler-aiding effects).
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you want to expand your horizon to time travel, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is one of, if not the, favorite books of mine. Time travel, comedy of errors and manners, wonderful.

Doomsday Book by Willis is also great but depressing.
posted by beowulf573 at 7:43 AM on November 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon is about an alternate America in which Jews were granted a territory in Alaska after WWII, instead of in Israel. This was actually a real proposal at the time, but was rendered a non-starter by a particularly anti-semitic senator. In the book, he's hit by a car.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:00 AM on November 20, 2015 [13 favorites]

If you want to go far, far back into the history of the genre, Sophia Lee's The Recess (1783) (imagines that Mary, Queen of Scots had two daughters to go along with the son) and Walter Scott's Redgauntlet (1824) (an imaginary Jacobite invasion in 1765).
posted by thomas j wise at 8:00 AM on November 20, 2015

I have a soft spot for The Peshawar Lancers by S. M. Stirling. Summary: massive meteor strike in the northern hemisphere in the 1870's, 150 years later, British Empire perspective.
posted by N-stoff at 8:07 AM on November 20, 2015

The Domination of Draka, also by S. M. Stirling. The timeline diverges when the Netherlands declares war on the UK during the American Revolution, resulting in an authoritarian slave-holding society that seeks to dominate the planet.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:29 AM on November 20, 2015

Pavane by Keith Roberts. Point of departure is the assassination of Elizabeth I in 1588.

You might want to check out Uchronia.net, which lists substantially all alternate history stories ever.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:37 AM on November 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

There isn't one of the above that I would take issue with.
Jo Walton is great is you like alt-history and mysteries.
All 11 books of Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series is a great way to spend several months with your head in an alternate universe.

But I came here to recommend something a little different.
What if? by Robert Cowley
It's not stories or narratives so much as historians imagining how things would have gone differently with a single change at one point in history. Fascinating stuff to go along with the fun stories.
posted by Seamus at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2015

The best ones I've read over the years (not including Man in the High Castle since you already mentioned the TV series based on it, though I think the book is very different and certainly worth reading if you haven't) include:

- Pavane, Keith Roberts
- Tunnel Through the Deeps, Harry Harrison
- Lest Darkness Fall, L Sprague deCamp
- The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
- The Coming of the Quantum Cats, Fred Pohl
- Gloriana, Michael Moorcock
- Ada, Vladimir Nabokov (very literary and subtle, not everyone's taste)
- Bring the Jubilee, Ward Moore
- The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
- Celestial Matters, Richard Garfinkle (I remember this as being quite odd)
- Pasquale's Angel, Paul McAuley
- Ambient / Elvissey / Heathern / Terraplain (series), Jack Womack (great books but depressing)
- Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson (some folks dislike this well-written book for reason that would be spoilers but I liked it a lot)
- Mysterium, Robert Charles Wilson
- The Separation, Christopher Priest
- Voyage, Stephen Baxter
- The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon
- Pashazade, Jon Courtney Grimwood
- Farthing (and sequels), Jo Walton
- The Execution Channel, Ken Macleod
- The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson
- Osama, Lavie Tidhar
- The Mirage, Matt Ruff
posted by aught at 9:33 AM on November 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Len Deighton's SS-GB "deals with life in Nazi-occupied Great Britain, about one year after the German Army successfully overruns the British Isles."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:10 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

11/22/63 by Stephen King is not a straightforward alternate history, per se, but it's similar and in your wheelhouse of sci-fi and horror. It's a very big, extremely engrossing book.
posted by telegraph at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seconding 11/22/63! And here are a couple of other less-straightforward alternate histories...

Christopher Priest's The Separation is about twin brothers in WWII. It's never clear what's real and what's not.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life , also set before and during WWII, is largely focused on personal reality but takes in and ultimately revolves around larger WWII events as well, as the main character re-lives her life again and again.
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:19 AM on November 20, 2015

I'm glad to see Jo Walton's Farthing series already recommended. I would also recommend My Real Children, in which an elderly woman in a rest home looks back on her life. She's a bit confused because she has two sets of memories. It's as much about personal alternatives as grand historical ones and it's very very good.
posted by gamera at 11:44 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

The alternate history is more of a setting/background detail in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, but it's based in a universe where England is a republic, the Crimean War is still ongoing, dirigibles become the main mode of air transportation, genetic engineering is more advanced, and ducks are extinct. The Wikipedia page has more details.
posted by divabat at 11:45 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Previously, from last year. Also, Alternate History at Wikipedia and the Ten Best at Neatorama.

If you're into the Nazies you might like an obscure novel from 1968 called Sideslip by Ted White and Dave Van Arnam; and Warren Ellis' Ministry of Space is a graphic novel about Britain winning the Space Race (because they reach Peenemünde first). Another run of alt.history comic books was Captain Confederacy by Will Shetterly and Vince Stone.
posted by Rash at 10:07 AM on November 21, 2015

Not too many TV & movies on the list so I'll add a bunch. I'm gonna leave off comedies, most alien invasion/incursion (with one exception), post-apocalyptic & super hero films. Also these are a mixed bag - some good, some not so much.

There's loads of WWII themed alternative history films: Aforementioned It Happened Here, Fatherland (1994 film based on the book), Iron Sky, The Final Countdown, Hitler's Britain, The Aerodrome (a good book as well), the upcoming SS-GB, which is also based on the book.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (sort of an alternative history and is based on the YA novel), The Hand Maids Tale (based on the book), The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (film based on a French comic series), The Great Martian War 1913–1917, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Lunopolis, White Man's Burden, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (based on the novel by Susanna Clarke), Death of a President, Nothing So Strange, April and the Extraordinary World, Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, Shadow on the Land.

Does Time Trumpet count as alternative history?

I'll add some more as I think of them.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:21 AM on November 23, 2015

Is there a discrepancy between the book and film versions of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase? The book is explicitly alternate history - I believe the POD is the '45 Uprising being successful.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:18 PM on November 23, 2015

Another vote for Harry Turtledove particularly "Ruled Britannia"
posted by asharchist at 2:00 PM on November 23, 2015

Is there a discrepancy between the book and film versions of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase?

My memory of both, from 27 years ago(!), is at best... faulty. I recall not being wholly satisfied with the TV movie at the time. Which I guess is always the way of these things. I have not revisited either since that time.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:32 PM on November 23, 2015

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