The 10 Best Alternate Histories

(If the CSA won World War I by Jordan)

Alternate history is a genre of speculative fiction which alters historical events and sets stories within the worlds created by those changes. It differs from historical fiction, which mostly sticks to real history. Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny is set in our own historical timeline for World War II and is thus historical fiction. Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies imagines a world in which the Axis powers prevailed in that war and is thus alternate history.

Alternate history may be divided into two subgenres: alternate events and alternate settings. The alternate events subgenre focuses on the changing events themselves. Robert Conroy's Red Inferno, for example, is a novel in form but addresses primarily a war between the Soviet Union and the western Allies in 1945. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union takes place in a world in which Israel lost its war for independence. But that alternate event provides the background setting for what is essentially a murder mystery.

I love alternate history. Here are some of my favorite text works from that genre.

1. Britannia's Fist: From Civil War to World War by Peter G. Tsouras. This novel and its sequel A Rainbow of Blood are, in my opinion, the finest works of alternate history ever written.

Among the two subgenres of alternate history (alternate events and alternate settings) my strong preference is for alternate events. Although these books are novels, there is little in the way of distracting dialogue or character development. They read like fast-paced history books.

The first rule of alternate history is that the changes must be reasonable and the outcomes plausible. The author, Peter G. Tsouras, is a retired US Army officer and professional military historian. He has genuine expertise on the subjects about which he writes.

As a result, his alternate histories are thoroughly realistic--a feat that not all novels in the genre can attain. Lengthy endnotes for his sources (some of which are, amusingly, imaginary) support his changes and outcomes.

In these two novels, Britain enters the American Civil War on the side of the South--something that nearly happened in real history.

2. Redcoats' Revenge by David Fitz-Enz. Britain offered her greatest general of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke of Wellington (right), command of its forces against the United States during the War of 1812. Wellington declined the offer. This novel by retired US Army officer and military historian David G. Fitz-Enz speculates about the outcome of Wellington accepting the offer and coming to North America.

Fitz-Enz focuses on the Lake Champlain campaign, on which he also published a non-fiction history. Like Tsouras's works, Redcoats' Revenge is realistic and written more like a straightforward history than a novel. It's a first-rate work of alternate history.

Highlight the following text for a spoiler: As an American, I found this novel deeply disturbing. It left me unsettled for days. In short, America loses--badly. Redcoats' Revenge was a completely plausible and horrifying demonstration of how close my country came to losing the War of 1812 and the terrible consequences that would have resulted. As a work of alternate history, it's perfect. But I wouldn't read it again.

3. The Greenhill Books alternate history series. The British publishing company Greenhill Books has published a series of anthologies of short alternate history scenarios on many different subjects. Most are written by historians or other people fairly knowledgeable on historical topics. All of them address military history, such as winning scenarios for Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany during World War II or different outcomes for the Napoleonic Wars or the Cold War.

4. Custer at the Alamo by Gregory Urbach. This work is both an alternate history and a time travel novel. Purists may understandably reject the novel entirely.

When a scenario is completely implausible, alternate history fans often refer to it as ASB--alien space bats. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and elements of the Seventh Cavalry, on the eve of the Battle of Little Big Horn, are transported back in time and space to Texas during the Texas Revolution. It is therefore inherently implausible. But once you accept time travel, then Urbach's carefully researched novel makes sense. The historical figures behave in completely reasonable ways.

The novel is written in the first person perspective from Custer's point of view. I perceived that Custer is an unreliable narrator--a sophisticated narrative technique normally not seen in alternate history.

5. In the Balance by Harry Turtledove. It's the summer of 1942. The world is embroiled in war. At this point, aliens invade the Earth.

Okay, this series is definitely alien space bats, but it's good ASB.

No list of alternate history novels can fail to include Harry Turtledove. The PhD-trained Byzantine historian is often billed as "the master of alternate history." I wouldn't elevate him that high, but Turtledove is defintely the most prolific published author in the genre.

He is perhaps best known for an alternate timeline that begins with the South winning the American Civil War and ends with the USA and the CSA battling for a final time during World War II. It's a fine series, but if I had to choose, I'd say that his earlier Worldwar series is superior.

(Illustration by John Jude Palencar)

6. Lee at the Alamo by Harry Turtledove. My interest in Turtledove has decreased over time. His recent works are excessively verbose and stretch out story arcs far too long. A more compact and excellent work by Turtledove is his novella Lee at the Alamo.

Don't worry! There's no time travel here. A minor change to real history delays Robert E. Lee's exit from Texas prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War.

7. Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. This is the first novel in a trilogy that imagines the immediate results of a Confederate victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. If you love alternate history or military fiction, this series will keep you on the edge of your seat with excitement.

These two authors also wrote 1945, a fairly strong alternate history in which the US went to war with Japan, but not Germany, during World War II.

(Map of North America in Bring the Jubilee by Federation X)

8. Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. This 1953 novel helped popularize the genre of alternate history. It takes place during the Twentieth Century after a Southern victory at Gettysburg and the Civil War. The main character, Hodge McCormick Backmaker, is a historian living in an impoverished and greatly reduced USA. During his life, scientists develop a method for time travel.

9. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Philip Roth is a highly respected author of literary fiction--the hoity-toity stuff intellectuals read. He published his own foray into the alternate history genre in 2004. The Plot Against America describes the experiences of his own American Jewish family when President Charles Lindbergh, an anti-Semite who flirted with Nazi Germany, keeps America out of the European War.

The Plot Against America is both good alternate history and solid literary fiction.

10. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The Axis powers are totally victorious in World War II. They conquer and partition America among them. This terrifying vision of a world that never was is often the first introduction that readers have to alternate history.

The work secured Dick a Hugo Award in 1963. I've never found it particularly interesting, but I can't deny that it is a sophisticated work of fiction. Philip K. Dick definitely deserves all of the acclaim that the novel has earned him.

Bonus Item: there is no novel or short story here. Only a question. But it's the most original alternate history scenario that I've ever encountered.

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A very interesting quasi-alternative history novel is THE BLOVIATOR which tells the true last 6 months in the life of Pres. Harding but also intermingles a very cool subplot of "what if the First Lady, the much more capable and clever Florence Harding, ran for president when Harding is forced out of the race?" It also gives a few very interesting insights into how Harding really died, why why
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@ JoeD: I'm not sure I'd ever heard that Lincoln believed it was going to die out on its own. That's very interesting, so I will try to find a copy of those letters you mentioned.

@ John Farrier: What if, as part of my overall alternate timeline, Lincoln decided that he wasn't going to be so gung-ho about keeping the Union together in the short term. So, instead of going to war over it, the South is given what they want: their own country. And that country slowly suffocates and dies out bit by bit due to its continued use of slavery. Other anti-slavery countries won't do business with them as much anymore, and any farmer that chooses machines over slaves can manage more crops for less cost, so they underbid the slave-owners in every market.

As the CSA dies out over the next several decades, the USA re-acquires whichever territories willingly come back to the fold. Of course, in the intervening time period, the USA would have passed anti-slavery laws, as well as establishing citizenship and voting rights, which the prodigal states must agree to before being readmitted. Imagine the welcome home celebration as each state returned!

Under these circumstances, I could envision a situation where, by about 1900, half the CSA seceded from itself and re-joined the USA. What's left of the CSA would be dying, as the cancer eats away, as you put it. That means mass emigration, as we have seen from Mexico for many years. Since I haven't heard anyone suggest that we forcibly take over Mexico just because many of their people are suffering, I don't see why we would forcibly rescue the CSA over many people suffering. We tend to have a National Security/Defense of the Nation reason to invade another country, like Bush did with the WMD's in Iraq (whether you believe he told the truth is irrelevant to this point).

It's also possible that if Mexico decided to allow slavery, part of the CSA would go that way. Or maybe they'd join Mexico, stay for a few decades, finally realize the grass is just brown and dying there, and secede their way back to the USA the long way.

We didn't have 50 states till Hawaii in August of 1959. I cannot bring myself to think that it is a bad thing to allow that to occur in a slightly different manner. I believe most, if not all, of the CSA would have come back to the fold by 1960.

Yes, that's 100 years later, but I think that would be an interesting alternate history, if nothing else.

IMO, allowing at least some of the southern states to break away without conflict would result, in the long run, in exactly what Lincoln said he wanted, "...a more perfect Union..."
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