What if? It’s a question we find ourselves asking about all sorts of things in life, from our biggest decisions to everyday tasks. It’s also the question that creates the spark for great fiction.
Perhaps nobody asks that question more often or with more ambition than sci-fi/fantasy authors: What if we could really travel to distant galaxies? What if we found extraterrestrial life? What if magic really existed and lost worlds lay hidden beneath the sea?
But if sci-fi and fantasy can create far-fetched or creative scenarios, the what-ifs of world history are often more grounded. Historians have seen the rise and fall of empires across millennia. They can compare one historical event to another and postulate how differently the world might be if a war was won, an election was lost, and so on. The wide-ranging effects of changing a single moment in history are sometimes difficult to fathom, but these alternate history books make them seem downright believable.
Read on to see how the world might have turned out totally differently from the way it is today.
Our Favorite Alternate History Titles
This book quite literally asks the question, "What If?" In this collection of essays, celebrated historians like Stephen J. Ambrose and John Keegan examine crucial pivot points across history, from an Assyrian plague in 701 BC all the way to World War II. What would the world look like today if things had gone just a little differently?
The Age of Unreason
In this four-book series, Benjamin Franklin goes up against supernatural forces of evil in order to save humanity.
In the first book, Newton’s Cannon, Isaac Newton has just made the discovery of a lifetime: philosopher’s mercury. But this scientific breakthrough could mean the end of the world if it falls into the wrong hands, particularly those of French King Louis XIV.
Luckily, the young American Newton's been mentoring, Ben Franklin, has the skills to help him save the world.
In this alternate history series by Greg Keyes, Isaac Newton doesn't just discover laws of physics: He also discovers philosopher's mercury, an alchemical material that allows a person to manipulate earth, water, ai, and fire.
Set in England in 1681, the story follows key players of French, British, and American history as they seek to unlock the secrets of the universe.
The King's Daughter
In this novel from Vonda N. McIntyre, scholar and explorer Father Yves de la Croix electrifies the court of Louis XIV when he captures a mermaid alive. The king believes that by killing the specimen, he will at last find the secret to immortality.
As Yves and his sister Marie-Josèphe learn from and communicate with the creature, they realize she must be protected. Now, they will have to decide if their loyalties lie with the king or with their consciences.
When a graduate student writing a dissertation on Hitler meets a German physicist forever changed by the Holocaust, they devise a way to change history.
The two bend the facts of the past to make sure Hitler was never born. But the present they return to is not what they imagined.
The Man in the High Castle
Probably the most famous alternate history book today, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle presents a world where the Axis Powers won World War II.
In the 1960s, America has been divided into two spheres of influence: the Germans and the Japanese. As tensions rise between the two powers, a dealer in counterfeit artifacts hides his Judaism, and his ex-wife and a Japanese trade minister all begin to question the world they live in.
In this novel, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century never happened. Instead, Martin Luther became pope.
Now, in a medieval-like 1970s, Hubert Anvil is the most talented singer in his boy's choir. He is 10 years old , and he’s heard the adults around him talk of an “alteration” that will ensure his soprano voice is preserved for the rest of his life.
When Hubert realizes what this means for his future, he will have to choose between faith and building the life he wants.
After years of serving as Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and slave, Sally Hemings can only take solace in the promise that her children will have a better life than her own. Until one day, she finds herself transported to a completely different time and place. The American Republic that Jefferson built has disappeared.
Instead, there is the theocracy of Aeonopolis, and those in power are eager to see Sally behind bars.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Years ago, the United States voted to allocate land in Alaska to serve as a temporary home for Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. The community in the Federal District of Sitka has firmly established itself, but the time has come for the area to return to Alaskan control.
As the residents of the Sitka District question their future, homicide detective Meyer Landsman works to solve a murder while his life disintegrates. But it soon becomes clear that someone doesn’t want him to find the truth.
Nisi Shawl's debut novel envisions what history might look like if the Congo had pioneered steam technology. Told through varying points of view, the epic and intricate book follows the history of 'Everfair,' a refuge for Indigenous people displaced by European invaders, former slaves returning to Africa, and others escaping colonization and enslavement.
The Years of Rice and Salt
When the Black Death hits Europe, 99 percent of its population is killed. Christianity fades into obscurity, and Buddhism and Islam rise to take its place. As the centuries go on, China drives the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution begins in India.
What results is a world vastly different and strikingly similar to our own.
His Majesty's Dragon
The last thing British Captain Will Laurence expected to find on the captured French ship is a dragon’s egg. When the egg hatches, Laurence’s life changes forever.
Now the master of his dragon Temeraire, he is drafted into the Aerial Corps and must prepare to face Napoleon’s own dragon fleet.
Stephen King's 11/22/63 doesn't just offer a vision of an alternate history. The book literally follows high school English teacher Jake Epping as he attempts to alter history by traveling backward in time. His goal? To stop the JFK assassination and, hopefully, stop the Vietnam War in the process.
Using a portal, Epping can see how each of his changes affects the future in the year 2011. During this experimentation, he also realizes a more dangerous truth: The past doesn't like to be played with and will do what it can to stop him.
The Plot Against America
In 1940, the celebrity status of beloved pilot Charles Lindbergh catapults him into victory over FDR in the presidential election. A committed isolationist, President Lindbergh negotiates a treaty of understanding with Hitler, and the United States stays out of World War II.
As the US starts to seem more and more like its German allies, one Jewish family struggles to survive and preserve the America they know.
A Different Flesh
In the universe of A Different Flesh, North America has been inhabited by Homo erectus, mankind’s prehistoric cousin. During the European Age of Exploration, Homo sapiens arrive in North America and meet the primitive species, quickly enslaving them.
For the next several hundred years, America is dominated by interactions between humans and “sims," culminating in the daring rescue of a sim from an experimentation facility by activists.
The Peshawar Lancers
After a string of comet impacts renders the Northern Hemisphere nearly totally unlivable, the major powers of the world all moved south.
In 2025, the British Empire, still the dominant force in the world, operates out of Delhi in India. Although all scientific advancement was stopped in its tracks by the environmental disaster in the 1870s, everyone knows the inevitable war between the British and the Russians will be a bloody one. Unless Captain Athelstane King, an officer in the Peshawar Lancers, can foil a Russian plot in time.
The Damiano Trilogy
Set during the Italian Renaissance, The Damiano Trilogy mixes history with fantasy. In an alternate world where faith-based magic exists, protagonist Damiano Dalstrego (wizard, alchemist, heir to dark magic) is befriended by none other than the Archangel Raphael. When his city is threatened, Damiano is forced to set out on a pilgrimage to find sorceress Saara. What awaits him is betrayal and disillusionment as Damiano learns to control his own hellish powers.
In this work from alternate history master Harry Turtledove, the Spanish Armada defeated the British and now Spain wields its influence over the island. Agents of the Inquisition are always watching, ready to send any suspected heretic to a fiery death, and Queen Elizabeth is being held prisoner in the Tower of London.
Politics have never interested the playwright William Shakespeare. But when an opportunity arises to write a work that will drive the British to rise up against the Spanish, who is he to say no?
The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead's alternate history novel imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal subterranean railway. Told through multiple perspectives, the novel marries subtle speculative fiction elements with historically-accurate depictions of travesties such as the forced sterilization of Black people.
The Underground Railroad won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and other accolades.
The Sky People
In the 1960s, scientists discovered human life on Mars and Venus, which completely changed the goals of the Space Race.
In 1988, Marc Vitrac is just one of many scientists based in Jamestown, the U.S.-Commonwealth base on Venus. When an EastBloc shuttle crashes in the jungles of western Venus, Jamestown sends in forces to help. But no one on board suspects the truths that they find there.
West of Eden
West of Eden asks how humanity would fare if the dinosaurs had never gone extinct. Kerrick was raised among the dinosaurs, but has always yearned to join his people.
When he at last makes contact with humanity, his knowledge of dinosaur behavior makes him a key asset to the clan, and he is quickly made their leader. But now he will have to face off against the very beasts he grew up with.
In 1901, Germany under the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II has become a formidable military force. But unlike the world’s other major powers, they have no empire to speak of.
When the United States refuses to cede its new territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba, the Kaiser launches an all-out invasion.
Just as the war begins, President McKinley dies, and Theodore Roosevelt suddenly finds himself in the middle of a conflict with world-changing implications.
November 22, 1963 was a harrowing day for America: President John F. Kennedy was paralyzed, and his wife Jackie was killed. Even as the world moved on, Kennedy remained committed to his vision of getting man into space. Now, in 1986, NASA is sending humans to Mars. For all involved, reaching the red planet means reaching the apex of their dreams.
One of the more upbeat takes on alternate history, 1632 sees the entire population of a West Virginia mining town suddenly transported to Germany during the Thirty Years’ War.
Mike Stearn isn’t exactly sure how he got from his sister’s wedding to 15th century Europe, but when he sees innocent people being terrorized by soliders, he and his buddies know exactly what to do.
Lest Darkness Fall
One of the earliest examples of alternate history, Lest Darkness Fall has also been inspirational to multiple science fiction authors.
In 1938, American archeologist Martin Padway is exploring the Pantheon when a sudden thunderstorm transports him to 6th century Rome. Using his vast knowledge of Roman history and Latin, he quickly fits into society as Martinus Paduei Quastor.
But Martin knows that the Byzantine Empire is planning an attack that will destabilize Italy for generations, and he sets out to change Rome’s fate.
When the dead begin to walk the Earth, the American Civil War comes to a grinding halt. Jane McKeene is training to become an Attendant, a skilled fighter employed by society’s white elite to protect them from the undead.
After she finishes her training in Baltimore, all Jane wants is to return home to Kentucky. But when entire families start going missing, she'll have to grapple with a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Everyone thinks the stories of when England was ruled by the laws of faerie magic were just legends, until a mysterious man named Mr. Norrell proves he has mastered magic. Aristocrat Jonathan Strange becomes a master himself, and Norrell becomes his mentor.
When the British government becomes aware of his talents, Strange is conscripted to serve in the Napoleonic Wars. But when he and Norrell clash over the right way to use magic, Strange sets out to create his own set of rules.
The Napoleon Options
Speaking of the Napoleonic Wars, this book looks at ten scenarios spanning the years between 1796 and 1815 of the conflict and explores alternate versions of reality. For example: What if the French invaded Ireland? What if the Russians had succeeded at Borodino? Co-written by fourteen authors, The Napoleon Options offers great perspective on how even minor changes could have major consequences.
In May 1941, the war between Britain and Nazi Germany came to a peaceful end, thanks in large part to the mysterious J. L. Sawyer. In the present, historian Stuart Gratton researches the enigmatic peacemaker and discovers that his story is really two stories.
Jack L. Sawyer and Joe L. Sawyer had vastly different opinions on the war, and let a woman drive them apart. But as Gratton learns more about the brothers, he begins to suspect that they may have ended up in different realities.
Weapons of Choice
In 1942, an Allied naval task force is headed for the Midway Atoll and towards what history knows to be a key turning point in the war in the Pacific. The last thing its commanders expect is for a group of American-led forces from 2021 to materialize in front of them.
At first, they’re excited to hear the news of their impending victory and to accept the help of their futuristic technology. Until everyone realizes that that Japanese may have some help from the future as well....
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