Best of alternative history

There was that Turtledove thread, so I feel that perhaps my favorite literary genre needs a thread for wider discussion. What are your favorite alternative history books and short stories?

For the Best AH Book Ever, I simply can’t nominate anything but Robert Sobel’s “For Want of a Nail”. Written like a history book about a world where the Brits won the American revolutionary war, it manages to be plausible and interesting, even without resorting to one of the genre’s persistent cliches, which can be best described as “The history might have taken a drastic turn from our history hundreds of years ago, but by God, we’ll still have Richard Nixon to kick around” obsession - putting real life historical characters to worlds they couldn’t obviously have been born with the same name, let alone same personality. Other greats include, of course, L. Sprague de Camp’s classic “Lest Darkness Fall” and Harry Turtledove’s “Guns of the South”, clearly the best one of the Turtledove bookstream. I also rather liked “What if?” and “What if 2?”, with historians writing essays about history taking different turns, although they could benefit from little bit less “What” and bit more “If”.

In the short story department, my clear favorite is de Camp’s “Aristotle and the Gun”, where a scientist tries to, “Lest Darkness Fall”-style, make the world a better place - and fails rather spectacularily. Also loveable are Turtledove’s “Islands in the Sea”, where Constantinople-conquering Arabs and Christians try to convert the Bulgars, and that one story where Shakespeare is shipwrecked among the American natives, damn me for not remembering the name or the author. I know it’s been on several anthologies. There’s also German Military Regime, which IMHO represents the best of web, soc.history.what-if (an AH newsgroup, obviously) - originated alternative history.

A few suggestions:

Michael Kube-McDowell’s Alternaties, though it shows many alternate history worlds at once.

Len Deighton’s SS-GB, where Hitler defeats Britain. The book concentrates on a murder mystery, but the details of life under a Nazi Britain are great.

Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream deserves special mention. It is actually a novel written in an alternate world:Lords of the Swastika by the popular SF writer and artist, Adolph Hitler.

Spinrad’s later Russian Spring ended up as an alternate world novel, even though it wasn’t written as such. It postulated a strong communist Soviet Union, but was published about a month after the Soviet Union fell.

And there’s the classic Pavanne by Keith Roberts, showing England after the Spanish Armada won.

Fiction: Fatherland by Robert Harris. Another “Nazis win WWII” scenario.

Serious History (!): Virtual History by Niall Ferguson. Explores various alternative history scenarios. Dr. Ferguson also wrote The Pity of War and Empire.

I had to look it up, but this is William Sanders’ The Undiscovered in March 1997 Asimov’s and Dozois’ 15th Annual Year’s Best Science Fiction.

I like Turtledove’s stuff, but the classic is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

Well, most of the ones I came in to nominate have already been mentioned, so I’ll just second Lest Darkness Fall and The Man in the High Castle. I’ll also add A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison and the various Paratime stories by H. Beam Piper (including Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen and the collection Paratime).

Anyone looking for “non-fiction” alternate history (an oxymoron, but I hope you know what I mean) should check out Green Hill’s series of anthologies: The Hitler Options, The Napoleon Options, Rising Sun Victorious, Third Reich Victorious, and Cold War Hot. Like the two What If? books, they are collections of essays by historians.

MY favorite short story is “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper. It is the “story” of what happened to that British diplomat that disappeared in Germany in 1808, and was reported by Charles Fort. Also Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is great, as well as the short story “Crossroads of Destiny”

I’ll second The Hitler Options and I’ll add Kenneth Macksey’s Invasion, a German invasion of England in 1940, David Downing’s The Moscow Option an alternative 1942. Now for fiction I’ll add Brad Linaweaver’s Moon of Ice, an alternative post-WWII with a look as some of the weirdest Nazi theories. For short stories, I would include Harry Turtledove’s The Last Article, a “what if” about the conquest of India by the Nazis.

William Sanders again, Journey to Fusang

Dick’s Man in the High Castle is indeed the all-time classic of the genre.

Pavanne, The Iron Dream and Journey to Fusang are also top-notch.

One name that rarely gets mentioned is Michael Kurland, who built almost his entire career around alternate earths of various kinds, sorts, and types.

And Nick DiChario launched his career around “The Winterberry,” a Kennedy-lived story that appears in one of Mike Resnick’s endless Alternate reality anthologies.

While “The Winterberry” was good, I felt it was more secret-history than alternative history.

BTW, it can also be found in an anthology called “Best Alternative History Stories of the 20th Century”, unless it’s the same Exapno Mapcase (love that name, BTW, love it!), where you can find “The Undiscovered” and “Islands in the Sea”, two stories I recommended. It also has really good “Moon of Ice” and “All the Myriad Ways”, along with some, err, crappier stories - but it’s a good read, all the same.

(underlining mine)

That’s the short version, which is basically an extract of the novel of the same name.

Stephen Baxter’s “Alternate Space” stories - particularly “Voyage” (NASA use Apollo technology to send a crew to Mars) and “Moon Six”.

Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula” books (though I’m not 100% sure that these count).

Have you seen Uchronia - the Alternate History List?

How about Joan Aiken’s series of children’s books, beginning with Black Hearts in Battersea, where the Glorious Revolution never happened. England is ruled by a very Scottish King James, and the books have to do with foiling plots by the evil Hanoverians who want to bring over the pretender, Prince George. I read these before I knew any history and they confused me for years. I couldn’t figure out how the to work Bonnie Prince Charlie into the scheme.

Do Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula books count? (On preview, I see WPL has asked the same question.)

Premise: Van Helsing and co. fail to stop Dracula, who ends up marrying Queen Victoria and becoming the de facto ruler of Great Britain. Vampirism steps out of the shadows and becomes a fashionable condition to acquire. A great series that blends just about every pop culture vampire into a reenvisioned 20th century.

Anyone interested in alternate-history fiction should check out the Uchronia Alternate History List – – which has a massive database of AH books and short stories. They also present the annual “Sidewise Awards” for best AH.

For a favorite, I nominate S.M. Stirling’s “Domination of the Draka” series. (Doing an Internet keyword search with terms like “S.M.” and “Domination” will get you some rather interesting results, but that’s neither here nor there.) It’s an alternate history where, in the course of the American Revolution, Britain wins the Cape Colony from the Dutch (a bit earlier than they acquired it in our timeline) and, after the war, uses the Cape as a refuge for United Empire Loyalists and cashiered Hessian mercenaries. (In OTL, the Loyalists mostly went to Canada and the Hessians mostly went home.) It also becomes a refuge for Royalists fleeing the French Revolution. These self-consciously aristocratic settlers conquer and enslave the natives and build a society based on slavery, militarism, and perpetual expansion. The ruling caste of free citizens, the “Draka,” are raised from childhood in military boarding schools to turn them into superwarriors. Eventually they decide they have to conquer and enslave the whole of non-Draka humanity, regardless of color. Really vivid and truly horrifying! Especially the graphic scenes of execution by impalement, etc., and the battle scenes. I don’t know if Stirling was ever in combat, but he writes the most gripping, vividly realized battle scenes I’ve ever read.

I also liked Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain/Great War/American Empire series. I have the same problem everybody else has with Turtledove’s clotted, repetitious writing style, but I love his alternate-historical imagination. Especially the little details, like “monitor” becoming a generic term for any ironclad warship, or tanks being named “barrels.” (I guess if the CSA had won its independence, Cornfeds would indeed come to mock the Stars and Stripes as “the bleeding zebra”! I liked that one!)

For sheer whimsey, I love the short story “O Brave Old World!” by the late and much-lamented Avram Davidson: Prince Frederick, son of George II, does not die of his tennis-ball injury but takes a rest cure in America . . . and likes it there, and stays . . . with the result that the Court and the Empire’s center of power move from London to Philadelphia, and the British ultimately rise up against the American tyranny.

It hasn’t been mentioned yet but I loved Bruce Stirling and William Gibson’s “The Difference Engine” set in a Victorian Britain where Babbage’s Difference Engine was actually built. It gave birth to the small genre known as “Steampunk”.

I also liked S.M. Stirling’s “Island” trilogy about the island of Nantucket being transported 3000 years in the past.

One AH writer nobody has mentioned yet is Howard Waldrop. His imagination is a little . . . quirky. For instance, “The Effects of Alienation” is set in a world where the Nazis won the war – but the story is mainly about how this affects the personal life of Peter Lorre. In “You Could Go Home Again,” Hitler never came to power, the Technocrats did come to power in the U.S., and Thomas Wolfe managed to live a bit longer. In “Fin de Cycle” . . . but I can’t really do that one justice! Nor “The Passing of the Western.” Check out his short-story collections: “Going Home,” “Night of the Cooters,” and “All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past.”

For whimsy (and a bit of tribute) there’s Larry Niven’s, The Return of William Proxmire.

[spoiler]Wherein William Proxmire, hating all things space-related, travels back in time to make sure Robert Heinlein never becomes a writer by immunizing him against the TB that forced him from the navy. He accomplishes the immunization but comes back to a future where the US rules all of space and the Russians don’t because ‘Admiral Heinlein won’t let them’.

I miss RAH.[/spoiler]

There is an excellent comic series from the early nineties. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, by Brian Talbot, that delt with an alternate universe where Oliver Cromwell ruled Britain in a creepy Stalinist fashion. Dark Horse comics published a reprint of the series, but I think it is out of print. I highly recommend it.