Alternate Histories

Following my review of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank, in which it is imagined that Anne survived her time in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and returned to Amsterdam, I wanted to make a list of alternate history books.  The first book on the list, Stephen Fry’s Making History, is one of my absolute favourite novels, and the others are ones which I would like to get to sooner rather than later.  I have not purposely chosen alternate histories set around the Second World War, but these seem to be amongst the most prevalent, and all really appeal to me as a reader.

 

3174571. Making History by Stephen Fry
In Making History, Stephen Fry has bitten off a rather meaty chunk by tackling an at first deceptively simple premise: What if Hitler had never been born? An unquestionable improvement, one would reason–and so an earnest history grad student and an aging German physicist idealistically undertake to bring this about by preventing Adolf’s conception. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours–but in most ways even worse. Fry’s experiment in history makes for his most ambitious novel yet, and his most affecting. His first book to be set mostly in America, it is a thriller with a funny streak, a futuristic fantasy based on one of mankind’s darkest realities. It is, in every sense, a story of our times.’

 

2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 216363
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.

 

184905333. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.  But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.  Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.’

 

4. Dominion by C.J. Sansom 15770927
1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers, and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours too about what is happening in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing.  In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side. And in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle forever. Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given by them the mission to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country. Before long he, together with a disparate group of Resistance activists, will find themselves fugitives in the midst of London’s Great Smog; as David’s wife Sarah finds herself drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined. And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant, implacable hunter of men…’

 

703._sy475_5. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
In an astonishing feat of narrative invention, our most ambitious novelist imagines an alternate version of American history. In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.  For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threatens to destroy his small, safe corner of America – and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.’

 

6. The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville 41017647._sy475_
It’s 1941. In the chaos of wartime Marseille, American engineer – and occult disciple – Jack Parsons stumbles onto a clandestine anti-Nazi group, including surrealist theorist André Breton. In the strange games of the dissident diplomats, exiled revolutionaries, and avant-garde artists, Parsons finds and channels hope. But what he unwittingly unleashes is the power of dreams and nightmares, changing the war and the world forever.  It’s 1950. A lone surrealist fighter, Thibaut, walks a new, hallucinogenic Paris, where Nazis and the Resistance are trapped in unending conflict, and the streets are stalked by living images and texts – and by the forces of hell. To escape the city, he must join forces with Sam, an American photographer intent on recording the ruins, and make common cause with a powerful, enigmatic figure of chance and rebellion: the exquisite corpse.  But Sam is being hunted. And new secrets will emerge that will test all their loyalties – to each other, to Paris old and new, and to reality itself.’

 

6506307._sy475_7. Blackout by Connie Willis
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

 

8. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis 11371
The only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith, It Can’t Happen Here is a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press. Now finally back in print, It Can’t Happen Here remains uniquely important, a shockingly prescient novel that’s as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite alternate history books?

7 thoughts on “Alternate Histories

  1. This is a great inspiration list! Making History and Radiance sound very thought-provoking!
    I haven’t read any alternate history book, it is a literary area I definitely want to explore! I watched the TV series of “The Man in the High Castle” and I enjoyed it a lot 😀

  2. I commented earlier, but it seems to have disappeared.

    Anyway, I said I’m not sure you can count It Can’t Happen Here as an alternate history given that it begins a year after its publication. It doesn’t look back to a point in history, tweak the timeline and imagine the new future; it just happens in the future.

    • Your response didn’t show up on the blog, as new commenters have to be approved by a moderator. Regarding the list, I haven’t read a lot of the books, and just worked with what I could find on Goodreads. Thanks for your fastidious comment.

    • I am starting to feel braver about returning to the Lewis—I abandoned it in 2017 as Trump upped his outrageous behaviour because the novel felt too much like a blueprint.

  3. I’ve read the P K Dick but now want to return to the Lewis, also I have the Miéville waiting. The Valente sounds interesting, however. 🙂 Can I recommend Owen Sheers’ Resistance? It’s excellent, bringing to a Nazi invasion of Britain a tale of personal lives on the Welsh Marches.

    In children’s fiction the Joan Aiken series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a sequence of alternate (or, alternatively, ‘alternative’) history novels which I’ve been obsessed with for some years now, with at least a dozen instalments set in the 1830s and 1840s.

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