Alternative history literature
December 14, 2005 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Help me find alternative history books

Anything will do. Time-traveling type of stuff would be neat. Let me know what's good.
posted by dead_ to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Check out the Alternate Presidencies, Alternate Kennedys, and Alternate Warriors anthologies edited by Michael Resnick. There's a nonfiction-ish book examining an RFK presidency called, I think, A Preponderance of Fate. There's Harry Turtledove, who I'm not personally into (too Clancy-ish).
posted by WCityMike at 7:44 AM on December 14, 2005

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick supposes Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan split North America upon defeating the Allies. Rather trippy at times, but not as wierd as his other works.
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:49 AM on December 14, 2005

There's a book (by, I think, historians) called "What If" that's full of stories of alternate histories.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:51 AM on December 14, 2005

Harry Turtledove is the 500 lb gorrila of the alternate history market. He's a good place to start, even though his latter stuff is getting very, very repetetive (There will always be a character who says "I wish I could say that you were wrong, but I can't." or thereabouts in every book) and sometimes downright creepy (Sex scenes. Even worse when you imagine a guy looking like HT writing said scenes.)

The What If? series edited by Robert Cowley is good, but is not true fiction. It's a bunch of historians imagining the what ifs of various events.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:52 AM on December 14, 2005

Somebody always beats me to posting that Dick novel whenever it comes up. So yeah. It's excellent, although you should be warned: while it's an alternate history on the surface, I don't think that's really the point of the novel.

For more unusual alternative history stuff: the short stories of Avram Davidson frequently trade in this sort of thing on a weird, gnarly, literate level. There's a collection called "The Other Nineteenth Century" that's mostly this sort of thing. History explored, expanded and distorted, sometimes through the lense of possibility and sometimes through fantasy.
posted by selfnoise at 7:53 AM on December 14, 2005

This is going to be a really wide variety, but hopefully something will grab you:

Handmaid's Tale: the 1980s if religious conservatives were in charge of everything in the United States, told from the perspective of a Handmaid, a woman whose role in life is to bear children for other couples.

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels: not just messing with time, but also fiction. British, word play involved, fun. Starts with The Eyre Affair.

and to quote scazza on another thread, The Land of Rice and Salt! "How might human history be different if 14th-century Europe was utterly wiped out by plague, and Islamic and Buddhist societies emerged as the world's dominant religious and political forces?"
posted by whatzit at 7:56 AM on December 14, 2005

Oh, and there's also Harris' Fatherland.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:59 AM on December 14, 2005

Also, The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth featuring President Charles Lindberg and his NAZI sympathies, isolationist policies.
Honestly, I thought it fell apart in the end a bit, but still a worthwhile read.
posted by TheLibrarian at 8:02 AM on December 14, 2005

The Land of Rice and Salt!

This should be The Years of Rice and Salt. I also really enjoyed it, though it is pretty dense.
posted by advil at 8:09 AM on December 14, 2005

Harrison's The Hammer and the Cross series is good.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:16 AM on December 14, 2005

Orson Scott Card's "Alvin Maker" series is a fairly entertaining alternate-universe-america kinda tale. If you like Orson Scott Card, that is.
posted by antifuse at 8:18 AM on December 14, 2005

Kazuo Ishiguro's excellent Never Let Me Go is set in an alternative 1990's England.
posted by nicwolff at 8:23 AM on December 14, 2005

Eventually, someone will recommend The Difference Engine. Ignore them.

Radio 4 used to do a series where historians were asked to extrapolate from a single change... some archived episodes.
posted by Leon at 8:33 AM on December 14, 2005

Here's the first in a series by S.M. Stirling: Island in the Sea of Time

Actually S.M. Stirling does mostly time travel / alt-history stuff.
posted by voidcontext at 8:37 AM on December 14, 2005

Here's a decent alt-history list off of Amazon.
posted by Heminator at 8:38 AM on December 14, 2005

The still-unfinished "Merchant Princes" series by Charles Stross (starting with The Family Trade) involves travel and trade between our world and one with an alternate history.

Also, here are items tagged with "alternate history" on Amazon. (Although I think only 50 percent of users can see the tagging feature right now.)
posted by mbrubeck at 8:49 AM on December 14, 2005

Eventually, someone will recommend The Difference Engine. Ignore them.

Hear hear! What a painful book.
posted by antifuse at 8:55 AM on December 14, 2005

The Lord Darcy books (collected in this single volume) are great fun. Richard the Lion-Hearted did not perish to crossbow bolt, and the principal enemy is Poland. But much more importantly, in the intervening centuries (this is set in the 1960s or so) the laws of magic have been worked out. Lord Darcy is a Sherlock Holmes type.
posted by Aknaton at 8:57 AM on December 14, 2005

Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove is one of my favorites. I remember liking The Proteus Operation when I read it. James P. Hogan, who wrote the latter, unfortunately has gone off the deep end advocating Velikovsky's solar system pinball and Duesberg's "AIDS is caused by drugs not HIV" theories, in case you take the authors views into consideration before buying their books.
posted by beowulf573 at 9:21 AM on December 14, 2005

Thanks everyone, great starting points here.
posted by dead_ at 9:27 AM on December 14, 2005

The still-unfinished "Merchant Princes" series by Charles Stross

Side question: if I couldn't get into The Atrocity Archive, will I like these? I want to give Stross another shot.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:40 AM on December 14, 2005

Harry Harrison's A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! Mid-twentieth century British Empire if there'd never been an American Revolution.

BTW I've never considered The Handmaid's Tale like whatzit does. It's near-future from whenever you're reading it; I noticed nothing placing the novel in the 1980s.
posted by Rash at 9:47 AM on December 14, 2005

advil: thanks for the title correction on Years of Rice and Salt. I loved the book, but am awful at remember titles/authors. No wonder I was having trouble with the Amazon search!
Rash: that's really interesting the different readings we got of the Handmaid's Tale. Throughout the book I was trying to absorb time/place based on Atwood's descriptions of the recent past, and that was about the era I concluded it was in, based on how long the new society had been in place and what the styles had been before it came to be universal.
posted by whatzit at 10:11 AM on December 14, 2005

Check out Darwinia. It's alternate history with a sci-fi twist: "In 1912, the entire European continent and all of the United Kingdom mysteriously vanished during the Miracle, replaced by an alien landscape known as Darwinia. Darwinia seems to be a slice of another Earth, one that diverged from our own millions of years ago and took a separate evolutionary path."
posted by iamck at 10:56 AM on December 14, 2005

Pick up The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century edited by the aforementioned Mr. Turtledove. Featuring all the main players from the genre and consisting entirely of short stories, it gives you a broad taste of what's available and you'll be able to find authors you enjoy and move on from there.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:11 AM on December 14, 2005

It's not particularly serious, but I remember enjoying 1632. It's sort of similar to Island in the Sea of Time in that it deals with an entire community being moved back in time.

That said, I'd second Island in the Sea of Time and The Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by almostbarefoot at 11:33 AM on December 14, 2005

I enjoyed Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (also by Orson Scott Card) pretty well. Basically, time travellers from the future try to correct the biggest injustice in human history.
posted by designbot at 12:03 PM on December 14, 2005

PinkStainlessTail: I haven't read The Atrocity Archive. Of the other Stross books I've read, I liked Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and didn't like Accellerando. The "Merchant Princes" books are different in content from his hard sci-fi, but similar in style. If it's Stross's writing style that bothers you, these probably aren't much different from his other work.

posted by mbrubeck at 3:58 PM on December 14, 2005

I absolutely adored "The Peshawar Lancers" a book where the northern hemisphere is hit by a comet in the mid 18th century and the remnants of the British Empire that fled to India and the last vestiges of Western cvilization.
posted by Megafly at 5:13 PM on December 14, 2005

Two classic alternate-history novels that no one seems to have mentioned yet are Keith Roberts, Pavane, in which the Spanish Armada conquers England, and Kingsley Amis, The Alteration, in which the Reformation never takes place.

There are also several enjoyable essay-collections exploring counterfactual history in a more serious way: e.g. Andrew Roberts (ed.), What Might Have Been, Niall Ferguson (ed.), Virtual History, and Robert Cowley (ed.), What If? For a good introduction to the way that historians can use counterfactual examples, see this essay by Martin Bunzl, Counterfactual History: A User's Guide.

Finally, you might be interested in this Alternate History website, which has a good bibliography of alternate-history novels, and links to other articles on alternate-history topics.
posted by verstegan at 5:26 AM on December 15, 2005

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