Neil Gaiman said he began writing fiction because he “wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”
Authors of sci-fi alternate history aim to do the opposite: Even when they’re making up entirely new timelines and technologies, the best ones go to absurd lengths to make sure their stories stay as factual as possible—even if that means taking things to a ridiculously detailed level. Re-writing history is a creative way of storytelling, looking at time and place to see if things could have gone differently. Here are five elaborate sci-fi alternate histories that succeed in that endeavor.
At the Mountains of Madness
Back in the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft turned his obsession with New England history into a successful writing career, becoming synonymous with everything nightmarish and eldritch. Few fans of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon realize that he even went as far as reshaping the last 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history into a sick evolutionary joke.
At the Mountains of Madness is a novella that follows an expedition into the Antarctic continent, where a team of scientists discover the remains of a civilization that predates humanity by hundreds of millions of years … along with the well-preserved corpses of its inhabitants: Strange, starfish-headed creatures dubbed ‘the Old Ones.’ As the team delves into the ancient city buried under the ice, they find murals and fragments of the Old Ones’ history that depict their arrival on Earth over a billion years ago and how they built their cities with the help of “Shoggoths”—unspeakable biological horrors who can modify their forms at will.
Over the millennia, some Shoggoths escaped and bred—leading to strange mutated offspring that resemble familiar plants and animals:
“These vertebrates, as well as an infinity of other life forms—animal and vegetable, marine, terrestrial, and aerial—were the products of unguided evolution acting on life cells made by the Old Ones … It interested us to see … a shambling, primitive mammal … whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable.”
That’s right: Humans were accidents brought about by unthinkably old starfish monsters.
The Man in the High Castle
You might be familiar with The Man in the High Castle now that Amazon has adapted Dick’s book into a television series, but the story in the book is even more detailed and complex.
The timeline diverges from history with the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933—the U.S. never recovers from the Depression, doesn’t develop the atomic bomb, loses the war with Axis Powers, and ends up being occupied by Japan and Germany—with the Rocky Mountains dividing the two territories. Dick put an amazing level of detail into his post-war economics, international politics, and ideologies, but the most subtle and strangely fitting element of his alternate history has to be the antiques business—the new Japanese elite are enamored with Civil War memorabilia and even kitschy artifacts like a “priceless” Mickey Mouse watch.
PKD manages to turn antique dealing into a commentary on what it means to be occupied and transformed by a foreign culture, and it’s genius. Oh, did I forget to mention that the story is also metafictional? The plot revolves around a fictional alternate history book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which follows our timeline instead. Now that’s pretty meta.
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A Different Flesh
Harry Turtledove is one of the most famous names in mainstream alternate history, covering everything from the Civil War to the Cold War. One of his most interesting (and relevant) works is A Different Flesh. A Different Flesh reveals a world where Homo Erectus, the “missing link” between humans and our earlier ancestors, is still surviving in the Americas when European settlers arrive.
What makes the book especially interesting is that it’s actually a series of short stories that cover American history from 1601 all the way to 1988. The first story, dealing with the settlers of Jamestown, gives a first look at the “sims,” which are hairy, muscled people with big cranial brows and sloped foreheads who lack the capacity for spoken language. The existence of sims alters everything along the timeline—from the development of the theory of evolution to the United States’ use of sims as slaves in the South. As the stories go on, we see that sims can communicate, feel, and empathize—and that it may be the humans who need to remember what it means to be, well, human.
The Three-Body Problem
Stephen Hawking recently said that if aliens ever try to make contact with humans, we shouldn’t answer. The Three-Body Problem, one of the first major sci-fi hits from China to be translated into English, explores a timeline in which we already answered the call. Beginning in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in China, the story follows Ye Wenjie, a disgraced astrophysicist, as she’s inducted into an organization called Red Coast Base—which is searching the stars for extraterrestrial life. The timeline diverges when a race of aliens called the Trisolarans respond during the aftermath of the Revolution.
Despite a separate alien communication warning her not to answer, an embittered Ye Wenjie transmits a message inviting the Trisolarans to conquer Earth. Soon after, she and a man named Mike Evans form a global conspiracy called the ETO, which creates crises across the world to prime the collapse of human society in preparation for the invasion. The novel implies that the ETO has engineered nearly every major real-life scientific, political, and environmental catastrophe for the past three decades—including oil spills and the overuse of antibiotics.
The Difference Engine
One of the greatest “what-if” scenarios in the history of technology has to do with Charles Babbage, an inventor from Victorian-era England who laid out the blueprints for the world’s first general-use mechanical computer in 1822. Despite working in theory, Babbage’s computers, called the ‘difference engine’ and ‘analytical engine,’ were never completed.
The Difference Engine explores a world in which Babbage’s engines were not only produced, but were the trigger for a new, computer-driven industrial revolution that alters every level of European society. Gibson and Sterling immerse the reader in the material culture and slang of the era (uses of “flash” and “blarney” are common, along with crinoline and kidney pies), as well as new tech (including the kinotrope, a primitive pixelated display screen). But the greatest innovation is the clackers—the new breed of computer hackers that use celluloid punch cards to hack the engines. If computers were used during the industrial revolution, imagine how different our world would be today.