The Best Alternative History Novels Of All Time

Karl Hampe, a well-known German historian, once said that history knows no “ifs”. This notion, however, is defining only in academic circles, where there is no place for guesswork and speculation. We, as avid readers, love to give reign to our imagination and allow history to take a different turn every now and then. We present to you, therefore, a list of books, the authors of which boldly ask, “What if everything had gone the other way?”

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick


Some of our readers might recognize this title, because Amazon Studios produced a popular TV show of the same name. However, we all know that only a rare TV adaptation can fully convey the spirit and depth of a literary work. Therefore, if you have seen at least a couple of episodes of the show, and it kindled your interest, you should definitely purchase the book and immerse yourself in a dystopian postwar world.

History takes an alternative turn in 1933 with the assassination of U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt. This event leads to the aggravation of the Great Depression and America’s isolationist foreign policy. European democratic states, left alone to face the military might of the Axis, capitulate. The Soviet Union cannot mount a successful stand against the German war machine.

Later, the Axis conquers the American continent and divides it into the Pacific States of America, which are ruled by Japan, and the Eastern United States, occupied by the Nazis. The Rocky Mountain States form a neutral zone in the heart of the continent, as a buffer between the two superpowers. North America has turned into a viper’s nest, and it is only a matter of time before the former allies will turn on each other. The novel has plenty of captivating storylines, and would be an amusing read for those who are interested in the history of the Second World War.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of the most courageous and intelligent presidents in U.S. history, was one of the most shocking events of the 20th century. He is considered an example of American liberalism and a real defender of democracy, who didn’t back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which put the world at the brink of a nuclear war. Many think that the U.S. would have fared better in the 1960s if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Stephen King obviously shares that opinion, so he has decided to employ his writing genius and create a novel that turns the tide of history in a totally new direction.

Jake Epping is the main protagonist in 11/22/63. He is a 35-year old English teacher in a small town called Lisbon Falls who struggles constantly with his finances, so he decides to start teaching classes for adults under the General Education Development program. One day, Jake asks his students to write an essay on the topic “A day that changed my life”. One of the essays, submitted by a learning-impaired janitor, Harry Dunning, draws his particular attention. In his essay, Harry describes the night when his father killed his mother, sister, and brother with a hammer. Harry managed to survive, but his leg was injured so badly that he remained a cripple for his entire life. This terrible tragedy happened more than 50 years ago. Jake is so moved by the story that he and Harry become friends.

Two years later, Jake visits a local diner where he meets Al, the owner of the place, who reveals a secret: there is a time portal in his basement, and Al uses it to travel to the year 1958. Jack decides to test the portal, and after assuring himself that it is functioning by saving Harry’s family, he comes up with a risky and ambitious idea. He wants to travel back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Thus begins Jake’s new life under a new name – George Amberson – in a world of rock’n’roll, big cars, and crazy dances; in a world where he will meet a problematic loner whose name is Lee Harvey Oswald. 

Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp

This novel was one the earliest literary works in the genre of alternative history. It was first published way back in 1939, in a pulp fantasy fiction magazine called Unknown, and later in a hardcover edition in 1941. If the previous two novels have taken us back to relatively recent historical periods, Lest Darkness Fall will take the reader way back to the dawn of the Roman Empire, and its confrontation with the barbarians. 

Martin Padway is an American archeologist who works in Italy during the time when it is under fascist rule. During a visit to the Pantheon in Rome, something mysterious happens, and Martin travels back in time and finds himself in the capital of an Italy that is under the despotic rule of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths. Martin has extensive knowledge of the Latin language, and after a certain period of acclimatization to the realities of the ancient world, he becomes a successful entrepreneur by “inventing” Arabic numerals, the optical telegraph, and the printing press. After establishing himself as a prominent citizen of Rome, he decides to put his knowledge of history to good use to prevent the conquest of Italy by the Byzantines, which would mean the coming of the Dark Ages.        

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