Ever wonder what might have been? Here are some scenarios, courtesy of science fiction

What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if the space race had never ended? What if ... ?

Alternate history novels take significant events and ask how things might have turned out differently. At their worst, these books may seem like an empty exercise in world building. At their best, they can offer an insightful examination of history and a commentary on our present day. Like a funhouse mirror, alternate history can cast our own reflection back at us and make it both wondrous and strange.

The granddaddy of the genre may be Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962). Dick’s elegiac examination of various actors in an America divided between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis remains compelling today and has spawned a successful TV series. Several writers, such as the venerable Harry Turtledove, have made alternate history their main output (be sure to take a look at his Worldwar series, in which an alien invasion in the midst of World War II irrevocably changes history).

But more typically, a writer will produce only a single work or two in the genre. The Calculating Stars (2018) by Mary Robinette Kowal, an alternate history of the American space program, swept up all the major genre awards, including the Sidewise, an award specifically for alternate history. Winners of the Sidewise Award, given annually since 1995, include Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, and Ken Liu’s short story “The Long Haul.” So which books would we nominate?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford. Originally published in 1983, the book comes out in a new edition this year. Many people have said it’s perfect for Game of Thrones fans, and I can see the reason for the comparison, even if this novel takes place not in a fantasyland, but in a medieval Europe rife with political machinations and vampires. It’s The War of the Roses meets Dracula. And speaking of Dracula, Kim Newman has been writing alternate histories with vampires ever since Anno Dracula (1992) made a cocktail of Victorian London, the undead, and Jack the Ripper. His latest book, Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju (2019), takes place in Tokyo. Are the 1990s now historical, Lavie?

Lavie Tidhar: I think the ’90s are going to be the next ’80s, Silvia. Anno Dracula is a great series that asks what if Dracula won at the end of the original novel and leaping ahead from there. My favorite in that universe may be Kim Newman’s novella Coppola’s Dracula (1997), which imagines the director shooting a vampire movie in Transylvania instead of Apocalypse Now — with real vampires, of course. My pick, though: Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History (1998). It came out in 2000 and looked like it could be the next big book of the decade (and I do mean big: it’s more than 1,000 pages). It’s a fantastically rich novel, an alternate history set in 15th-century Europe, following the adventures of Ash, a female mercenary. Things get weird fast, with a darkness falling over Europe and a threat from Carthage which, we eventually discover, is manipulated by black pyramids who are sentient A.I.s. The whole thing is presented as a manuscript discovered by two scientists from our time, but events soon begin to influence each other. It’s an early 21st-century example of cross-genre fiction, mixing fantasy, historical, science fiction, alternate history, and metafiction together — and Gentle is a compelling writer. But it came out before e-books, and in the United States it got split into four volumes, which was disastrous for sales. My recommendation: Get it now in e-book.

SMG: Another somewhat obscure book was Darwinia (1998), by American-Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson. It has a bonkers premise: One day, Europe disappeared and was replaced with a mysterious continent full of strange flora and fauna. I loved the Land of the Lost vibe even if I didn’t quite like how things were resolved. And for something more recent there’s Everfair (2016) by Nisi Shawl, in which the people of the Congo acquire steampunk technology early on, therefore averting the colonial horrors of our timeline. It’s an ambitious, sprawling book.

LT: I loved Darwinia! Speaking of Canadians, Robert J. Sawyer’s latest The Oppenheimer Alternative (out in June) ambitiously focuses on the (real-life) scientists behind the atomic bomb. Sticking with space, I was very fond of Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains (2013), which combines the space race and Nazi occult, and is the first part of his Apollo Quartet. Another recent trend in this category is postwar Jewish diaspora alternate histories, enough at least to fill a (small) shelf. Yoav Avni’s Herzl Said (2011) — in which Jews have settled in Uganda, and Palestine remains an Arab state — has sadly not been translated from Hebrew yet, but is very good. The late Nava Semel’s Isra-Isle (Jews in Niagara Falls) (2016), translated by Jessica Cohen, is an excellent alternative-alternative. Then there’s Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaat (Jews in Saxony) (2016), and of course Michael Chabon’s 2012 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Jews in Alaska), which is terrific fun. Adam Rovner’s nonfiction In the Shadow of Zion (2014) is an exploration of the real-life inspirations for these. It might be niche, but it’s an example of how alternate history can deal with powerful historical themes. 

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