There is something about alternate history that fascinates science fiction buffs. With a great benefit of hindsight, we can look back on the big, pivotal moments in history and wonder “what if?” What if the Nazis won WWII? What if the USA came in on the side of Nazi Germany? What if the East had settled the Americas? What if William the Conqueror didn’t win at Hastings? What if JFK survived? What if Trotsky and not Stalin had succeeded Lenin?
We will never know the answers to these questions because history panned out the way it did and the world we inhabit now is the one we live in. Many people are fascinated by it that the speculation can trump the quality of the story. Personally, I felt that The Difference Engine was pretty mediocre but I appreciate the book a lot more than I enjoyed it. The alternate history contained within is pretty comprehensive and plausible.
I think also that my lack of enjoyment was partly down to my limited interest in the Victorian period. Sure, I know about the industrial revolution, most of the great inventions and inventors of the period but my knowledge of Marxism, the rise of socialism in Britain and The Labour Party could be a lot better than it is.
Without further waffle, here is a list of my top favourite alternate history stories in no particular order.
K (is for Killing)
It’s the 1930s USA and Charles Lindbergh is President. He has the backing of a political wing of the white supremacist movement through his VP David Stephenson (real life Grand Dragon of the KKK in that era). As a result, blacks have been re-enslaved; lynchings are a daily occurrence and Jews and homosexuals are being shipped to concentration camps – there are hundreds of them nationwide. The plot concerns a British MI5 agent sent to assassinate Stephenson to stop him killing Lindbergh, becoming President and entering the war as allies of the Nazis. The best the allied powers can hope for is the USA’s neutrality.
Before Dan Brown created a stir on the alternate life of Jesus, Barnaby Williams wrote this novel of the discovery of a long-destroyed sect of Christianity known as The Children of Jeshua. Destroyed by the Catholic Church because they knew the truth: that Jesus was rescued from the cross and was murdered by St. Paul when he returned to knock some sense into those who twisted his words for their own political agenda. A far more adult affair than anything written by Brown, it is a far more engaging novel and better written.
Back to World War II with James Herbert and London is in ruins, destroyed by a biological weapon released by Hitler in revenge for the defeat of his regime. The allies won the war, but the last, desperate act of a dying tyrant was to launch a retaliatory attack on London born only of spite. London is dead or dying, the population a mere fraction of what it was. The only man immune to the disease is in hiding in the city from Oswald Mosley’s black shirts who want to drain his blood because they think it will cure them. This is a kind of I Am Legend type of story written by James Herbert.
The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history goes back to The Black Death in Europe, following a timeline through to the modern day. What is different? Europe was more heavily affected by the killer disease than it was in our world, so much so that the complex societies could no longer function and collapsed. The world is dominated by the eastern religions when Christian Europe is reduced to a mere handful of its pre-Black Death population. It is quickly conquered by The Golden Hoard from the steppes who enslave the final remaining Europeans who, eventually, also conquer The Americas. This is a very metaphor heavy story thick with Buddhist philosophy and it is through the lens of Islam that we see renaissance and reformation.
Vinland: The Dream
Also by Kim Stanley Robinson, it is a collection of short stories that explore alternate histories. The most fascinating are those that deal with what might have happened if the atomic weapons dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima failed. One of the pieces is an interesting thread based on the principles of chaos theory, treated time like a river with tributaries (for example, one bomb failed to detonate properly and the Emperor went to inspect the damage, saw the potential and surrendered saving millions of lives… but the weapon would be used later in another conflict with far more tragic consequences). The writing is like a piece of art in itself.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert
One of the most notable computer games to explore an alternate Second World War. In the modern day, a scientist invents a time machine and takes it upon himself to return to the end of WWI to kill Hitler as he returns to Austria. Unfortunately, it doesn’t create a 20th century devoid of conflict. Instead it leads to an aggressively expansionist Stalin invading Europe against an alliance of Britain, Germany, Spain, Greece and France. Without WWII, technology has advanced much further, giving the player many interesting and anachronistic weapons and some that would be futuristic even by 21st century standards.
Those are the most noteworthy and I’m sure I could think of many more. Now it is over to you, what are some of your favourites?