This story was first published on The Reading Room.
Alternate history brings readers to intriguing worlds. Perhaps to our worst nightmare like a Nazi ruled United States, or a place with time travel, or to England, which never became a world power. Creative liberty inherent in speculative fiction allows writers to create awe-inspiring alternate universes based on real historical events. Such fiction tackles genuine human issues: religion, race, economic despair, and war, just to name a few. Of course, these book are all speculative and at the end of the day a “fun” read, but the genre will often make you wonder how could the world have been different and what would have been the same.
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
There is no shortage of alternate histories based on WWII and Nazis, but Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle is a chilling, masterfully written dystopian look of what could have happened if the Axis powers had won the war. The story takes place in the United States, run by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, where slavery is legal and Jews must hide. Dick changes real historical events ever so slightly, showing just how close the Allies came to losing the war, making this sci-fi alternate universe all the more unsettling. This book packs a whole lot of exciting espionage, corrupt politics, and mind-bending fantasy.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon
The Slattery Report was proposed in 1939 as a means to deal with European’s immigration to settlements in Alaska, specifically Jews from Nazi occupied territories. In reality, the plan fell through. Chabon’s sci-fi alternative history imagines that Jewish refugees made it to Alaska while Israel failed to be established as a Jewish nation. Set in present day Sitka, AK, a Yiddish-speaking metropolis, detective Meyer Landsman has a lot to deal with: a mystifying murder; the supposed love of his life coupled with a marriage falling to pieces; and, the prospect that Sitka’s lease may soon come to an end. Chabon dabbles in a variety of very real issues, such as race and religious persecution, woven with a sci-fi, 1940’s noir-inspired story. Complex and compelling indeed.
The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Thankfully, none of us were around when the black plague swept through Europe in the 14th Century, wiping out a third of the continent’s population. The Years of Rice and Salt speculates how the world would have turned out if the plague depleted 99% of Europe’s population, and consequently, a majority of Judeo-Christains. The novel spans centuries, where Old World populations (Islam, Chinese, and Indian cultural groups) expanded their influence, discovering the Americas and spreading disease and warfare. Told from the point of view of a few characters who are continuously reincarnated through 600 years of history, Robinson’s imaginative story is a thought-provoking examination of human nature.
11/22/63, by Stephen King
King’s thrilling alternate history is a wonderfully written story about Jake Epping, a time-traveller sent back to 1963 in order to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Behind this mission is the hope that the war with Vietnam, the Cold War, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and all subsequent American maladies will never occur. King went to great lengths in order to ensure an accurate portrayal of the time period, making the book all the more interesting. Jake experiences diners, the jitterbug, Elvis, and a truly chilling character: Lee Harvey Oswald. History buffs and sci-fi lovers will truly enjoy this book. Look out for the miniseries coming this February.
The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis
In Amis’ disturbing parallel universe, the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe never took place. Many aspects of the present appear familiar, such as language, until the reader is completely thrown off by bizarre differences. Science is frowned upon and very little technological advancements have been made. The Alteration focuses on a choirboy with a beautiful voice facing pubescent vocal changes. The Catholic clergy is more than willing to ‘alter’ him to save his voice. The Alteration pries into a young boys personal life while tackling issues of the Roman Catholic Church. The conceivable premise makes the novel all the more dark and creepy.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The premise of The Eyre Affair is straight up hard science fiction for literary lovers. In alternative England, 1985, time travel and cloning are everyday occurrences and literature is incredibly important, Russia is still run by the Tsars, and the Crimean war has been fought for 131 years. Consequently, England has never conquered the world. Thursday Next, a detective and heroine of the story, investigates crimes of the literary world. Next must track down a villain through the supernatural, altered world of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, meeting some great characters along the way. Fforde’s book is witty, brimming with humor, and filled with highly amusing, flippant references.
The Guns of the South, by Harry Turtledove
Imagine this: the Unionist fighters of the American Civil War are losing the battle when out of no where Confederate Soldiers start wielding a powerful, previously unheard of weapon known as the AK-47. A frightening white supremacist from the future, Andries Rhoodie, using a time machine, brings the rifle to the Confederacy hoping for a Southern victory- along with implementation of extreme racist laws. But to Rhoodie’s dismay, the Confederate victors start embracing emancipation and view the extreme white supremacists from the future as enemies. Turtledove’s novel examines the differences between ignorance and hatred, making a fascinating comparison of past and present racism.