5 Great Books About Variant Histories

Lately I’ve been on this variant history kick, reading novels set in modern times but after something happened in the past that is different from actual history to change the way things operate in the present.  I thought I would list 5 of my favorite variant history novels for you today since today’s letter is “V” — and I’d probably list them anyway even if they are not.  I will count down from 5, and they are in order of importance.

5.  Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove – I am a southerner at heart, and am in no way in favor of slavery, but this novel is a fun read for anyone wanting to dip into the genre of variant history.  What if a time traveler went back to the Civil War and provided the Confederacy with a heap of automatic weapons?  This well written novel chronicles the alternate events of the war and is a frightening ride down the roller coaster of consequences for the procurement of future technology in the past.

4.  Fatherland by Robert Harris – This frightening novel is alternative history and detective novel all rolled into one.  Nazi Germany survived the war and also took most of Europe, and on Hitler’s 70th birthday several people turn up dead and a lone detective has to solve the disturbing mystery that will bring down the Third Reich.  It is a terrifying look at what could have been if the Nazis were allowed to rise to ultimate power and the consequences for the human race.

3.  The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson – Probably one of the most sweeping and epic variant history novels is this one.  It posits that the Black Death killed 99% of the population of the world instead of only millions.  Out of this destruction comes a brave new world.  From the description: “This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world’s greatest scientific minds–in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions and Christianity is merely a historical footnote.”  It is quite a wild ride and well worth reading.  It will challenge many well held beliefs and also make you think about what could have been.

2. Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove – I usually don’t list one author twice, but Harry Turtledove is probably the king of the variant history novel.  In this stand alone tale, Spain has taken over Elizabethan England and imprisoned the Queen in the Tower of London.  What is so cool about this novel is the hero: William Shakespeare.  The Bard’s hand is forced, and after writing a play that incites England to rally behind the queen he becomes a most unlikely champion for the British Crown.  I love Turtledove’s prose, and he definitely does his research into what could have been.  Excellent read.

1. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – This book tops my list because of its sheer brilliance and amazing prose.  Dick wrote this novel using the I Ching to guide the plot, which in itself is an incredible journey down an unpredictable road.  It is the story of the United States after World War II, and since FDR was assassinated before he could be elected president, the U.S. never climbed out of the Great Depression, remained neutral in the war and after Britain and the U.S.S.R. fell, Japan and Germany divided up the United States (Germany on the east coast and Japan on the west) leaving a free states territory from Colorado to Tennessee.  Circulating around the culture that has evolved is a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which details a world where the United States won the war and everything (historically) is nearer to the way it turned out in the real world.  It is a philosophical romp through the strange mind of Philip K. Dick, but more than that it is a study in how to write interesting and innovative prose while exhibiting a unique voice and diction.  It is the winner of a Hugo award and rightly so.  Pick up this book today and read the excellence between the pages.

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One thought on “5 Great Books About Variant Histories

  1. Another fascinating post Roger. I’ve read a few alternative history novels including Fatherland – great read. Also have The Years of Rice and Salt but daunted by size – will now read it. Haven’t read Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South but the plot reminded me of Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee – my first foray into variations… unless you count Michael Moorcock’s short about the crucifixion Behold The Man – not quite a variation more another perspective.

    Interesting info on Alternate History at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_history giving even more reading for inspiration

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