Ever since I started blogging about alternate history, I have been asked which alternate history books I think are the best. I have always been uncomfortable giving my opinion because it would be based solely on the books I have read or that I heard are good. I never thought this was the best way to do it and it is one of the reasons why I like sites like Rotten Tomatoes which collates the good and bad reviews a movie gets to determine its rating.
Which got me thinking, why don’t I do the same thing? Over the last few days I (with the help of some friends) gathered published lists of the best alternate history books (which I will link to below) and added all the times individual books were mentioned, while using my opinion to break ties. Below is the top 10 list of the best alternate history books I was able to find with this method. This will, however, only be version 1.0, because any other published lists I find may change the score. I also tried to focus on books and not short stories (with one exception, as you will see).
With that being said, lets find out what the critics think are the top ten best alternate history books:
#10: 11/22/63 by Stephen King
11/22/63 tells the story of Jake Epping as he travels back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination. As he prepares for that fateful day, Jake experiences the good and bad of late 50s/early 60s America and learns just how obstinate time can be.
I can recommend 11/22/63, even if the actual alternate history is minimal and only appears near the very end. At its heart, 11/22/63 is a time travel story that is all about the journey and not the destination. That being said, a part of me wonders whether the only reason this book makes so many best of lists is because of its author: Stephen King. With such name recognition, people and critics may be more likely to pick this book up rather then books by more obscure authors and give it a higher rating. Granted I have read tons of Stephen King books and I like his writing, but it may be something to consider when I revise this list in the future.
Does it deserve to be this high up on the list? Maybe not, but I did enjoy 11/22/63 and I think you will to if you like a no nonsense look at mid-20th century America (and if you want a more in depth look at the actual alternate history of 11/22/63, check out my video on the subject).
#9: Dominion by CJ Samson
In Dominion‘s alternate history, Lord Halifax, rather than Winston Churchill, succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940, who surrendered to Nazi Germany after the failure at Dunkirk. By the 1950s, the United Kingdom is a satellite state of the Germans, while they continue to fight their long campaign against the Soviets. Our story focuses on David Fitzgerald, a resistance spy and secret Jew, who has to smuggle a scientist out of the country.
This is a good example on why I wanted to rely on other people’s opinions when creating this list because I have yet to read Dominion. Luckily I can rely on other people’s review to describe why this book is good, like my friend and author Alison Morton who described Dominion as “[p]art adventure, part espionage, all encompassed by terrific atmosphere, this is an exciting, but moving account of people who become heroic but remain very human.”
Dominion is the first of many World War II alternate histories you will see on this list and is an example of the range of stories that era of history can still give us.
#8: Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois
In Resurrection Day, the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates into a full-scale nuclear war. By 1972, the Soviet Union is devastated, while the United States remains under martial law and increasingly reliant on its ally Britain, which is once again a world power. Our story follows veteran and reporter Carl Landry who not only stumbles upon the true history of the events leading up to the war, but also on a plot to end the United States once and for all.
I have read Resurrection Day, but I have never officially reviewed it. I discovered it early in my career as an alternate historian and was blown away (pun not intended), by the intense and gritty story. More importantly, I liked how even at a nation’s darkest moment, there was still a ray of hope shining through. Its probably why I found DuBois’s Amerikan Eagle so disappointing because it was honestly the same story, just with a different setting.
Still when it comes to nuclear war alternate histories, Resurrection Day stands out and you should certainly pick up a copy.
#7: Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
In Bring the Jubilee, the South has won the American Civil War after their victory at Gettysburg. During the events of the story they are a superpower locked in a Cold War with the German Union. Our protagonist, Hodge Backmaker, has grown up in the impoverished United States, but his knowledge of history (especially the War of Southern Independence) has brought him to a peculiar institute that would allow him to get a close and personal at the battle that changed the world.
I agonized about including Bring the Jubilee as one of the best “novels” because its length makes it more a short story and I believe one or two critics I pulled from called it a “novella”. Still I have seen people call it a novel as well and it is such an influential story that not including it would be the greater crime. This is a story that inspired Philip K Dick to write an alternate history (who we will talk about later) and still has one of the best twists in alternate history, even if it has been done to death by the present.
Plus, it is the only American Civil War alternate history to make the list, and for good reason. It has a stood the test of time and continues to influence the genre as a whole.
#6: Fatherland by Robert Harris
In Fatherland, Reinhard Heydrich survived the assassination attempt by Czech fighters in May 1942 and the Germans learned their Enigma code had been broken by the Allies. Britain is starved into surrender and the Soviets are driven behind the Urals, but Japan is still defeated by the United States. By the 1960s, tensions between the United States and Germany are starting to thaw, but this is jeopardized after German police officer Xavier March uncovers a plot to cover up what really happened to Europe’s Jews.
Fatherland is an excellent political thriller and it seems everyone has read it, even non-alternate historians. The fact that it was also Harris’ first fictional book (he had published several non-fiction works before that) is pretty impressive. I also liked how the book didn’t rely on the different outcomes of battles, but instead on something obscure, like the Enigma code.The vague ending was great as well. Without spoiling anything, you can either view it as a bittersweet ending where the good guys succeeded at great cost or the delusions of someone waiting for death.
It was also, as far as I know, the first alternate history work to be directly adapted for another medium, so there is another reason why it should be included on this list.
#5: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
In The Years of Rice and Salt, 99% of Europe is wiped out by the Black Death, leaving the rest of the world alone to develop. The history of this world is told through the eyes of several character who are continuously reincarnated over the centuries. Through them we see how the cultures of China, Islam, India and the Americas change and evolve on this alternate timeline.
Although I go into more details on my review of the novel, The Years of Rice and Salt is what you recommend when someone doesn’t want to read another alternate history set in Western Civilization. It has a unique way of story-telling that showcases an increasingly divergent and fascinating world with a focus on “progress” and what that may mean. At one point I did criticize this novel for paralleling history too much, but Robinson tends to follow a more leftist theory of history which emphasizes intangible forces rather then individual choices. Thus from his and other proponents of that school of thought, its understandable why at times certain events from our own history have direct parallels in this world.
Additionally, someone pointed out to me that because the souls of the Europeans could have been reincarnated after they died, it means that important people from their past may still get a chance to make their impact on this history. Thus if one character is acting a little too much like Napoleon, it may be because he really is Napoleon, which adds another layer of why this book is so good and why you need to check it out.
#4: The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
In the world of The Alteration, Catherine of Aragon and Arthur of Wales had a son who became king of England upon the death of Henry VII. Additionally, Martin Luther never split with the Catholic Church and even became pope. Now in the 1970s in the midst of a Catholic/Muslim Cold War, a young choir boy named Hubert Anvil must flee England before he is castrated and loses his amazing singing voice.
This is another alternate history novel that I haven’t read and thus I can’t give you my own opinion of the novel. Nevertheless, several people have spoken about it as a well-written, but creepy book that doesn’t shy away from criticizing the Catholic Church. Considering how recent history has shown that the Catholic Church has more than one skeleton in their closet regarding young boys, this book can still be relevant today.
This is certainly on my to-read list and I hope it is on yours if you haven’t read it already.
#3: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
In The Plot Against America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. From the eyes of a young Philip Roth, we see what happens to the increasingly anti-Semitic America that is cozying up to Nazi Germany.
This is another book I haven’t read and it is also the most controversial of any of the books on this list. Fans have praised the book for its excellent writing and its criticism of western conservatism, but this comes from a lot of people outside of the alternate history community. I have seen a lot of alternate historians point out the flaws in Roth’s historical speculations, while others have criticized the author himself for the arrogance he showed promoting the book by allegedly acting as if he came up with the concept of alternate history. Sadly I don’t have links to back up my statements, so you will just have to take my word for it.
It may sound like a cop out, but this is an award winning book that ended up on several best of lists. Maybe its another case of an author’s name recognition inflating his score or maybe this book does contain a story we all should read.
#2: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an accidental death leads to the United States agreeing in 1941 to temporarily settle Jewish refugees in Sitka, Alaska. Decades later, in a world where Israel does not exist, Sitka’s status as a home for the Jews is about to end with most of its citizens having nowhere else to go. Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective in Sitka, should be thinking about his future, but instead decides to investigate the death of the son of a powerful rabbi and how it is connected with the plans of the current evangelical Christian president.
I’m so happy I can talk about novels I have read again! This was perhaps the first literary alternate history I read with all of the heady prose that attracts people to that genre. Not only was it an interesting murder mystery with a likable protagonist, but it also went into great detail about Judaism and how diverse the religion really is. I also found the plot at the heart of the book eerily plausible even if it does border on conspiracy theory in our timeline.
While writing this list I learned that the Coen brothers were doing a film adaptation and a script was even written, but sadly nothing came of it. That is a shame because if anything on this list that hasn’t already been adapted needs a film version, it is this one.
#1: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
In the timeline of The Man in the High Castle, FDR is assassinated in 1933 and the United States never pulls itself out of the Great Depression. Later the Axis Powers are victorious in World War II and divide the United States between themselves, with Germany on the East Coast, Japan on the West Coast and a neutral buffer zone along the Rocky Mountains. From the point of view of several different characters we witness a world where the bad-guys won, yet people just try to get on with their lives, even if they begin to question whether this reality is the right one after all.
What can I say about The Man in the High Castle that hasn’t already been said? This is an award-winning alternate history novel that is usually seen on best books of all time lists. I have seen several authors mention this book when asked what inspired them to write alternate history. Plus it is one of the first alternate history books to reach mass appeal where the alternate history wasn’t created by supernatural means (time travel, parallel universes, magic, etc.). The modern alternate history genre may not exist without The Man in the High Castle.
In fact this novel is still leaving an impact on the genre, especially after the success of Amazon’s adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. With other networks producing their own alternate history adaptations, we can thank Dick for his revolutionary novel and all it has done to push alternate history forward into the 21st century.
- Farthing by Jo Walton
- For Want of a Nail…; If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel
- How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove
- Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
- Making History by Stephen Fry
- Pasquale’s Angel by Paul J. McAuley
- The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
- The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
- The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
- The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
- Voyage by Stephen Baxter
- West of Eden by Harry Harrison
- 7 Alternate History Books by Gabriellezsegal at The Reading Room.
- The 10 Best Alternate Histories by John Farrier at Neatorama.
- Alternate History Sci-Fi: the Best Earths that Never Were by BunRab (R. Kelly Wagner) at Flashlight Worthy.
- Best Alternate History Books: The Top 25 Novels About Alternate History (Worlds That Never Were) at BestScienceFictionBooks.com.
- The Best Alternative Histories in Literature by Richard Davies at AbeBooks.co.uk.
- DJ Taylor’s top 10 counter-factual novels by DJ Taylor at The Guardian.
- Literature For Life: Rewriting History by Josh Weiss at Man of the Hour Magazine.
- Sidewise Awards for Alternate History at Uchronia.
- Top Five Alternative History Novels by Lynsey at Dead Good.