It’s morning in America. And by “morning” I mean it happens to be “an election year.” The quotation marks are added only in the spirit of empty rhetoric. I will probably disavow any claims that I actually said them. Probably.
Lots of folks get pretty fired up as elections approach (see also: me). It can seem at times that we are living on the cusp of the kind of future you might find in Utopia and the kind you might find in The Road, so we gather around televisions and mobile devices and social media and suddenly we understand the fervor and fanaticism of the world’s soccer fans. In short: we just about lose our minds.
With the future sometimes hanging on a mere chad, I think that passion is forgivable. Though we might try to convince our friends and neighbors that one candidate or another is going to make things just the worst, I think we can take a little comfort in imagining that things could always be EVEN WORSE THAN THAT.
Lucky for us, many books are waiting to offer us a glimpse into a scenario where things turn out differently. Maybe there is a different global leader. Maybe there is a different pattern to the map of the world. Maybe someone got a flat tire on their way to do something great or evil but nonetheless history-changing.
Writers love to change history. So let’s turn off the TV, close up those social media apps, and get our blood pressure back down so we can raise it right back up by reading these alternative history fictions.
The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick: This speculative story is often cited as the point of entry for people looking to explore the genre of alternative history, and rightly so. Plus, you can stream the adaptation onto your screen now so its popularity will probably stay pretty healthy. With the Allies crushed by the Axis powers, the United States becomes the new Berlin in that half is occupied by the Nazis and half is occupied by Japan, and the proverbial glass of optimism is more than half empty. Does it make one appreciate how close the world came to this troubling future? It does.
The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood: This adventure for young readers is kind of like The Man In The High Castle meets Johnny Tremain, with more Ben Franklin (we always need more Ben Franklin, obviously). It’s a lean imagining of yet another switcheroo of victory and defeat as British forces quell the colonial rebellion, with a core of heart and loyalty pumping life into the story. You can tear through it fast enough, probably, to spend the rest of the day listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and learning to play the fife or running an underground newspaper or silversmithing or whatever.
Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin. The history between the United States and France is complex. There is a Napoleon Complex joke in there someplace, but I’m going to restrain myself from making it. When the exiled former Emperor is rescued and nursed to health (see also: if a book features voodoo, I’m totally in) (see also: there is voodoo healing in this book) and lands himself in a youthful America he discovers, true to the genre of alternative history, possibilities are aplenty. The dude is a military genius, and world powers clamor for him to assist their next move—the invasion of Texas, the liberation of Canada. We also get a glimpse into the weight of his care for his family. Just a superbly cool glimpse into what could have been a spark and tinder that might have reshaped so much of North America and Europe.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon: World War II could have gone a thousand different ways. In Michael Chabon’s imagined history, the exiled Jewish population doesn’t set up their home in Israel but instead in the frontier of Alaska, in the imagined district called Sitka. This alternative history is deliciously wrapped in the long brown coat of noir detective stories, but its rich world comes with all the complex hopes and tragedy of the timeline we live in. In fact, the world of Sitka is convincing enough that people have claimed to remember it being an actual place (see: Chabon’s essay on the subject in Maps and Legends ).
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: What happens when The United States brings an invincible superhuman to a global nuclear weapon fight? Well. Richard Nixon pulls an FDR and remains in office long past the usual term limit because the Vietnam War ends with American victory. So you can probably imagine what shape the world—as imagined by the darkly fantastic Alan Moore—is in within the pages of this brilliant and chilling comic book that helped revolutionize the genre in the 1980s.
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson: Okay. The “look how worse things could be” horse is almost dead but I still see it breathing a little, so let’s keep it going. The bubonic plague was a bummer of historic proportions, alternative or otherwise. This cheerful little novel ups the ante from a world in which the plague wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in a swollen, gross, fell swoop to a world in which about ninety-nine percent of that population died off. Times…times is tough.
These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas. This book, while not a perfect example of alternative history, has been described as “Jane Austen meets the X-Men.” And if that isn’t perfection, well then you and I will just have to agree to disagree. A classic element of alternative history is world building, or at least world redecorating, and the co-authors do a bang up job of opening up stiff, restrained and socially masked Victorian England into a place where superhuman abilities sometimes become unfettered. But the charming, witty chitchat of the period remains fully intact, don’t you even worry.
The Dead Zone by Stephen King: While not exactly a textbook example of alternative history, our hero Johnny Smith wakes up from a coma with a neat new side effect: he can see into people’s futures when he touches them. This effect becomes especially neat when he shakes hands with a rising politician who is on the path to leading the world into an apocalyptic war. Johnny’s dilemma hinges on the decision to either ignore his vision and hope for the best or, as he frames the situation for the people in whom he confides, does he essentially “assassinate young Hitler to prevent the Holocaust.” It’s a tough moral call. So, I don’t know, maybe it’s meta-alternative history? Can that be a thing?
This handful is a good place to get started, but I’m sure I have missed your personal alternative history fave, which I should run out and buy immediately. Sock it to me, Internet!