Books

So You Want to Read Alternate History: Here’s Where to Start

 

All of us have probably wondered how the world might have changed had history gone in a different direction. Alternate history authors make these kinds of questions their bread and butter. Here’s a few book recommendations if you’re looking to get your feet wet. Got some of your own? Let our readers know in the comments section!

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1632
by Eric Flint

I’ve tried to focus solely on alternate history novels where the twist is entirely historical rather than dependent upon some kind of magical act, but I would be utterly remiss to not mention Eric Flint’s 1632. In this highly imaginative series, a small West Virginia town and its residents are transported to north Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Flint explores how not only how modern technology changes the conflict, but also the attitudes and ideas of contemporary Americans.

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Bombs Away
by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove is arguably the king of alternate history, having written near exclusively in the genre for decades. His fiction skews toward military conflicts and their consequences, and it covers many wars—factual and fictional. My best advice is to choose a starting point based on the conflict or era that interests you the most. If you’re interested in twentieth century conflicts, I’d suggest Turtledove’s Bombs Away, a story that begins with Harry S. Truman authorizing a nuclear strike during the height of the North Korean conflict.

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Clash of Eagles
by Alan Smale

In Clash of Eagles, Author Alan Smale imagines a 12th century Europe in which Rome never fell and America was discovered hundreds of years before Columbus. When The 33rd Roman Legion arrives on the shores of North America, they expect to claim an easy victory over the land’s native inhabitants. Instead, they find themselves face to face with an advanced civilization armed with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before.

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Farthing
by Jo Walton

World War II is a popular topic in the alternate history genre, and you could easily spend the rest of your life reading just novels exploring that conflict. With that in mind, I’ve tried to limit myself here. Farthing is a murder mystery set in an alternate Britain that made piece with Germany. When a member of a prominent English family is murdered during a social gathering, clues gathered at the scene suggest the killer had political motives. Could this be a new chapter in a war thought to have ended years ago, or is it all a ruse?

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The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth

Philip Roth isn’t exactly known for his science-fiction, but The Plot Against America is a solid work of alternate history through and through. In this what-if novel, aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president. After winning office, he makes peace with Adolf Hitler. A young Jewish boy and his family struggle to survive in a new America where antisemitism is on the rise.

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The Years of Rice and Salt
by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Years of Rice and Salt is a sprawling tale of alternate history that begins with a single question: What if the Black Plague killed 99% of Europe’s population instead of a third? This important twist in history gives way to a new world in which China colonizes the Americas, Buddhism and Islam are the world’s dominant religions, and the Industrial Revolution starts in India. Robinson’s story is one told over many centuries, so buckle in and get ready for a story with a lot of interesting characters.