The question of “what if…” is a jumping off point for many authors. It’s the deceptively simple engine driving a wealth of great fiction. It’s the query at the center of one of literature’s most fascinating – and occasionally terrifying – genres: alternate history. The notion that history could be altered by a single, sometimes seemingly innocuous event has proven a fascinating playground for some of literature’s most imaginative and adventurous minds.
The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winner imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal underground rail system devised to carry runaway slaves to freedom.The story centers around Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who makes a desperate bid for freedom.However, she is doggedly pursued by a ruthless slavecatcher in a story that is both brilliantly imagined and painfully timely.
Set in a world where Teddy Roosevelt is elected President for a second time and World War I is just on the horizon, Roosevelt relies on a top secret clandestine network known as the Black Chamber. The novel centers around Luz O’Malley Arostegui, a deadly spy set on a mission to infiltrate the German Reich and discover how the desperate country intends to deal with the United States.
The Plot Against America
Originally published in 2004, this novel by the late Philip Roth feels unfortunately timely. Here, the inimitable Roth imagines an alternate history that sees Franklin Roosevelt lose the 1940 election to the zealous isolationism of Charles Lindbergh, who was a spokesman for the America First Committee and often spoke against the media and blamed American Jews for pushing the U.S. toward involvement in WWII. The novel follows the Lindbergh administration as they begin an insidious campaign of institutionalized anti-semitism and make peace with Hitler’s Germany. While disturbingly plausible at the time, The Plot Against America now has a whole new level of unfortunate relevance and, in some ways, feels all too prescient.
The Years of Rice and Salt
This sprawling novel reimagines much of world history and spans centuries.What if rather than killing off a third of Europe’s population, the Black Plague had killed ninety-nine percent?According to the imagination of Kim Stanley Robinson, the result would be a world where China is the first country to reach the New World, colonizing from west to east, where the Industrial Revolution began in India, and Buddhism and Islam are the world’s most influential religions.It’s a fascinating and sweeping alternate history.
Making History follows a Cambridge graduate student named Michael Young who is completing his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler when he becomes entangled with an aging German physicistand Holocaust survivor.Together they discover a way to change the course of modern history. Their success brings about a new world — but is it better or worse than the one they knew?
It Can’t Happen Here
This classic cautionary tale is an unnervingly plausible look at the fragility of American democracy and how easily and insidiously fascism could take hold in the U.S. Written during the Great Depression, It Can’t Happen Here saw a surge in sales after the 2016 election.The novel charts the rise of populist huckster, Buzz Windrip, touting a return to patriotism and the “traditional” America. His ascent to the Presidency slowly devolves into an authoritarian dictatorship on the back of his attacks on the “liberal” press and his political enemies.It’s as unsettling now as it was in 1935.
The Difference Engine
This steampunk classic, widely considered the novel that established the genre, is a fascinating exercise in imagination. Part noir and part historical thriller, The Difference Engine positswhat would have occurred had Charles Babbage perfected his Analytical Engine and brought about the age of the computer a century early. The result of deeply influential sci-fi classic.
Fatherland is a classic of the alternate history genre.It’s a meticulously thought out detective yarn set in a world where the Nazis won World War II.Set in Berlin in 1964, The Greater German Reich enjoys an uneasy peace with the U.S. and is preparing for Adolph Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday as well as a visit from American president, Joseph Kennedy.However, the discovery of a dead body will lead a German detective named Xavier March deep into a shocking conspiracy that reaches the very top of the Reich and could alter the course of history.