10 best alternate history novels reviewed here

11/22/63 is one of the best recent alternate history novels. Historians don’t have a lot of fun. Usually, the field requires countless hours of slogging through dusty old archives in search of that magical key to historical truth: a primary source. It’s taken for granted that original, contemporaneous materials are superior to anything that might have been said or written later. But I’m not so sure.

I “practice history without a license,” as my friend Adam Hochschild would say. And I’m convinced that insightful books written much after the fact by such brilliant historians as David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Adam himself are more likely to reveal the essential truth of the past than nearly everything written earlier about the same topics. Admittedly, that may be in part because new primary sources have come to light in the meantime. But it’s also because the passage of time has given us perspective on the lies and misunderstandings reflected in primary materials. And I’d like to think that Adam does have fun researching and writing his books.

A great way to have fun with history

But there’s another way to have fun with history. It’s called alternate history, and it’s been around with us for a very long time. In today’s world, alternate history is most closely associated with science fiction. In a typical work in the field, the author imagines the way history might have been affected if some historical event had turned out differently.

The best-known current example of alternate history may be Philip K. Dick’s iconic novel, The Man in the High Castle. The starting-point in Dick’s tale is a German and Japanese victory in World War II that results in the partition of the United States between the two occupying powers. But Dick was far from alone in indulging such fantasies. The likes of the late Philip Roth ventured into alternate history as well with The Plot Against America (recently adapted into a superb miniseries for HBO). Scores of such novels have been written.

Here I’m listing the alternate history novels I’ve read and reviewed here. They appear in alphabetical order by the authors’s last names. And each is linked to my review. Further below I’ve added a shorter list of five additional alternate history novels I read in the past but have not reviewed here, since I read them before I launched this blog in January 2010.

Updated September 21, 2020.

Alternate history novels reviewed on this site

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis—Alternate history by a celebrated mainstream author

When you come across the name Kingsley Amis (1922-95) you don’t expect to find it associated with science fiction. A novelist, poet, and literary critic, Amis is probably best known for his first published novel, Lucky Jim, which appeared in 1954. The book won a major literary award and is frequently included on reading lists in English literature classes. His much later novel, The Alteration, published in 1976, is far less likely to be recommended reading for college students. But it has somehow captivated William Gibson, one of our era’s leading lights in science fiction. And, reading it, I can understand why.

1945 by Robert Conroy—What if Japan hadn’t surrendered?

One of the most hotly debated topics in recent American history was Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although many within his administration resisted the action, Truman defended it on the grounds that the bomb would force Japan’s surrender. The likelihood, his military advisers asserted, is that he would save as many as a million US lives that would be lost in an otherwise necessary invasion of the Japanese home islands. Moral qualms aside, Truman proved to have been right. But what if he hadn’t? What if a military coup inside the Japanese leadership had pushed aside Emperor Hirohito and led the country’s already shattered army and navy in a doomed effort to continue the war? What if Japan hadn’t surrendered? That’s the premise of the late Robert Conroy‘s superb alternate WWII history, 1945.

Red Inferno: 1945 by Robert Conroy—What if the Cold War had turned hot in 1945?

Eisenhower’s legions are steadily pushing their way eastward against collapsing Nazi resistance, while in the east Stalin’s armies are encircling Berlin and bombing it into rubble. Allied generals are pressuring Eisenhower to authorize a move to capture Berlin from the west instead. Although their commander demurs, mindful of the agreements at Yalta, the new American President, Harry Truman, impulsively decides otherwise. Acting against advice to the contrary, he asks Ike to send a token force of two divisions (about 30,000 men) to Berlin’s western reaches to “help” the Soviet forces. Stalin regards it as an opportunity to extend his borders even further into the west. For him, attacking that two-division force is to be the opening salvo into a massive push against the Allied armies to the west, thus engulfing all of Germany in the Soviet sphere of influence.

SS-GB by Len Deighton—In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England

It’s November 1941. World War II ended in Europe on February 19 when Great Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. A puppet Prime Minister has replaced Winston Churchill, who is imprisoned in Germany. King George VI is being held in the Tower of London. Jews have been rounded up and sent “to the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge.” A curfew is in effect in London. Rationing is severe throughout the occupied zone. Thousands of British soldiers are being held in POW camps or in forced labor camps on the Continent.

Everywhere, there are “signs of battle damage unrepaired from the street fighting of the previous winter. Shell craters, and heaped rubble, were marked only by yellow tapes, soiled and drooping between roughly made stakes.” And this is the setting for a high-profile murder mystery that raises the stakes for the resistance to Nazi rule.

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan by Jeff Greenfield—Joy for political junkies in a brilliant alternate history

Here we see one perspective on what might have happened had a little known but all too real would-be-assassin succeeded in killing John F. Kennedy in 1960, after the election but even before the Electoral College met to certify his winning the Presidency. With Lyndon Johnson ascending to the White House three years earlier than in reality, we can ponder how different the 60s might have been.

  • Here, too, we can journey with Robert F. Kennedy through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel the night in June 1968 when he won the California primary—as his brother-in-law tackled Sirhan Sirhan, saving the Senator’s life and giving him a powerful boost in his face-off for the presidential nomination against Hubert Humphrey.
  • In a third venture into alternate history, we view the changes wrought when President Gerald Ford quickly corrects his historic gaffe denying that Eastern Europe is under Soviet control—and proceeds to win the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter.
  • Ford’s Presidency leads us willy-nilly into the disorienting world of 1980, as Senator Gary Hart jumps into a race against Ronald Reagan . . . and wins.

OK, so as you’ve figured out by now, this doesn’t quite fit in this list of alternate history novels, because it’s not a novel. But it hangs together nonetheless. And, lifelong political junkie that I am, I couldn’t resist it.

11/22/63 by Stephen King—A new take on the JFK assassination

King’s protagonist, Jake Epping, 35, is a high school English teacher in a small Maine town when an acquaintance named Al tells him about the window or portal in time in the floor of the storage room in his diner. Al persuades him to step through the portal, which leads directly back to September 9, 1958. No matter how long Jake may stay in the past, only two minutes will have elapsed back home in 2011 when he returns. Al is dying and lures Jake into taking up the mission he himself had recently accepted: returning to 1958 and staying in the past for five years until he can track down and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before that watershed day in November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal—This novel shows just how good hard science fiction can be

The Calculating Stars introduces Dr. Elma Wexler York, a mathematical genius with doctorates in physics and math from Stanford University. Elma had gone to high school at age eleven and to Stanford at fourteen. She’s the anxiety-ridden daughter of a Jewish Army general and works as a computer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.

In those days, “computers” were people, not machines, and most of them were women. Using paper, pencil, and adding machines, they wrote the equations for the ballistics calculations used in artillery and, later, in missiles and rockets. And, yes, you read that right. It’s NACA, not NASA. Because the novel is set in the 1950s in an alternate history of the United States—and the planet. Tom Dewey had defeated Harry Truman in 1948. He has taken advantage of Wernher von Braun and the other former Nazi rocket engineers whisked away to the US. So, Dewey jumpstarted the space program a decade before John F. Kennedy did so in reality.

The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal—An astonishingly good science fiction novel about the first manned mission to Mars

The Fated Sky takes up the Lady Astronaut’s story three years after she has helped build the Moon base. (“I’d made the trip between Earth and the moon about a dozen times.”) She isn’t slated to join the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. But growing opposition to NACA and the enormous sums diverted to fund it cause the agency’s director to reconsider. A movement called Earth First has gathered widespread support and is turning to violence. He needs to tap Elma’s enormous popularity with the public, so he assigns her to the crew after all. The novel explores the personal dimensions of that decision—for her and her engineer husband, and for her relationships with the others in the crew—as the mission unfolds.

The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington by Charles Rosenberg—Was George Washington truly the indispensable man?

British Prime Minister Lord North secretly sends Col. Jeremiah Black across the Atlantic with orders to capture George Washington and bring him back to London. There the British will put him on trial for sedition. It’s late fall 1780, and the war is going badly for Britain. The Treasury is not yet bare but is quickly heading in that direction, drained by the twin demands of war with the French and the American debacle. Black’s orders are precise and suspiciously difficult to execute, but the veteran soldier is a resourceful man. And, despite Washington’s several clever attempts to escape, he pulls it off. What follows is the story promised in the book’s title.

The Farthing Trilogy by Jo Walton

Farthing (Farthing Trilogy #1)Chilling alternate history: If Nazi Germany had won the war

It’s 1949. Eight years earlier, Rudolf Hess had made his way to the United Kingdom to offer a peace settlement—and a British Cabinet member known as Lord Thirkie followed up with a flight to Berlin to meet Hitler personally. His mission led to a quick agreement in the spring of 1941, before Hitler’s planned invasion of the USSR and nearly a year before the USA would have entered the war. Nazi Germany, now unchallenged in the West, occupies the Continent from Gibraltar to Kiev, as fighting rages on between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union—eight years after the invasion.

Ha’penny (Farthing Trilogy #2)A gripping alternate history of England after World War II

Ha’penny picks up the story shortly after the Farthing Set has settled into 10 Downing Street. The scene shifts from the country home in the village of Farthing where the first book was set to London’s theater district. There, Viola Lark, one of the six notorious Larkin sisters, has achieved stardom on the stage and is set to begin production of a production of Hamlet, with herself in the title role in the theatrical fashion of the age. Viola cares only about the theater. She’s less than indifferent to politics. But the novel tells the fascinating tale of her gradual immersion in a plot to put an end to the fascist Farthing regime that has recently risen to power.

Half a Crown (Farthing Trilogy #3)Jo Walton finds the present in an alternate history of the past

What is most engaging about the Farthing Trilogy is its portrayal of the ease with which England slips into fascism, anti-Semitism, and official brutality. Given the rise of anti-immigrant movements in England (and all across the Continent), and the emergence of a rigid and intolerant Right in the US, it’s not difficult to imagine how this might have come about. When democracy comes under pressure, government creates scapegoats for its failures (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, immigrants), begins the march toward totalitarianism (mass surveillance in the US, ubiquitous CCTV cameras in England), and edges ever closer to a complete rejection of the values on which its Constitution is based.

Alternate history novels I read before starting this blog

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

“For sixty years Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.” (Amazon)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

“It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.This harrowing, Hugo Award–winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.” (Amazon)

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

“1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history—and the future: Sybil Gerard—a fallen woman, politician’s tart, daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward “Leviathan” Mallory—explorer and paleontologist; and Laurence Oliphant—diplomat, mystic, and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for….” (Amazon)

Fatherland by Robert Harris

“Berlin, 1964. The Greater German Reich stretches from the Rhine to the Urals and keeps an uneasy peace with its nuclear rival, the United States. As the Fatherland prepares for a grand celebration honoring Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday and anticipates a conciliatory visit from US president Joseph Kennedy and ambassador Charles Lindbergh, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin’s most prestigious suburb. But when Xavier March discovers the identity of the body, he also uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich.” (Amazon)

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

“When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh, in a nationwide radio address, publicly blamed the Jews for selfishly pushing America toward a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but upon taking office as the thirty-third president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial ‘understanding’ with Adolf Hitler, whose conquest of Europe and virulent anti-Semitic policies he appeared to accept without difficulty.” (Amazon)

And I have to mention one more.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

When it appeared in 1935, It Can’t Happen Here was a runaway bestseller in the United States. Fascism was on the upswing in Europe, and demagoguery was rampant at home. Louisiana Senator Huey Long was on the verge of running against President Roosevelt from the Left, and the anti-Semitic firebrand Father Charles Coughlin was heating up the airways with his hysterical rhetoric. So, Lewis’s novel found a ready audience.

Unfortunately, though I bought a copy of the book and tried to read it, I was unable to get very far. I’ll let the professor of English who wrote the introduction to the Kindle edition of this novel explain why. Recognizing its popularity and propagandistic importance, he noted “the novel’s loose melodramatic plot, flat and even corny characters, weak clichéd dialogue, padded political discourse, awkward sentimentality, and heavy-handed satire and irony.” Lewis had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. I’m surprised they didn’t take it away from him after this debacle.

For further reading

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