Alternate history writers have a choice: go big or go small. Small means playing in the margins, subtly twisting known history, or exploring secret histories, changing the meaning of events while leaving the timeline more or less intact. Going big means tackling history like a linebacker: implanting sweeping changes and seeing where everything lands. You can’t go much bigger in alt-history terms than playing around with World War II—the world had never endured a conflict on that scale before (not even with the first World War), and hasn’t since—nor a conflict with such clear stakes. It’s a natural target for alt-history geeks, and an easy one to miss.
These 10 books represent some of the most ambitious, imaginative, and flat-out cool speculative takes on a World War II that never actually happened.
Time Was, by Ian McDonald
During World War II, Tom and Ben meet amid the Blitz while working on a project to render British targets invisible to German instruments. Teamed in close quarters, they find themselves falling in love during a period in history when such relationships are dangerous. Then, something goes wrong with the project, and Ben and Tom disappear. No bodies are ever found, and theyare presumed dead. Solving the mystery of what happened to them will fall into the hands of a grizzled old collector of those rare objects, physical books, in a time a few decades into the 21st century; tracing odd clues left in handmade copies of a particular poetry book, the bookseller begins to discover the secrets of a romance unbound by time. This slender novella is a change of pace from an an author known for his densely plotted future fables (River of Gods), but it loses none of its emotional power for a lack of additional pages.
The Worldwar series, by Harry Turtledove
Turtledove’s classic alt-history saga interrupts a World War II already in progress with the arrival of an alien armada. The lizard-like aliens have advanced technology—but not too advanced; they have jets and missiles and nuclear weapons (and, sure, spaceships) at a time when humanity is just a few years from their own first primitive versions of the same. Turtledove’s great twist is that the pace of the aliens’ technological advancement is much slower than humanity’s, and when they first targeted the Earth for conquest, they saw knights on horseback waving swords, and assumed an easy win. Instead, they encounter a world where the engines of war are revved up and producing startling scientific breakthroughs at what seems to the aliens an impossible pace. The term “World War” takes on a whole new meaning.
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
You can’t discuss alternate history without bringing up The Man in the High Castle. Dick’s brain-warping story is set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II, and America has been divided between Japan and Nazi Germany (the brain twisting bit: a major plot point involves a novel-within-a-novel in which America won the war). As tensions between former allies Japan and Germany rises, Dick’s usual fascination with doubling and surface deceits is tempered by the horrors of a world ordered up by brutal fascists, giving the story a gravitas that remains affecting all these years later. It remains not just one of Dick’s best works, but one of the best examples of alternative World War II fiction, period. (Though set long after the end of the war, Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan, also set in an America occupied by Japan, works as a sort of spiritual followup to Dick’s masterwork.)
V-S Day, by Allen Steele
Steele’s big idea is elegant in its simplicity—and plausibility. This novel is set in the same universe as the author’s The Tranquility Alternative, in which the space race began in the 1940s between Germany and the U.S. instead of the 1960s between the U.S. and Russia. In 1941, Hitler issues a historic order: work on the V2 Rocket is to cease, and work on an orbital spacecraft capable of attacking the United States directly is to begin. When spy networks get word of this new plan to President Roosevelt, he sees just one reasonable response: begin work on his own spacecraft to counteract the Nazi plan. The desperate race to dominate space has a profound effect on the future of humanity in general, but in the meantime, Steele delivers a tense and exciting alternate history that really could have happened.
Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis
Less realistic, but no less exciting for it: Tregillis doesn’t use any half-measures here, imagining that in the early days of World War II, a Nazi mad scientist manages to give a group of orphans super powers—invisibility, fire starting, precognition, your typical X-Men stuff. When a British secret agent discovers this, he recruits his magic-wielding acquaintance, who in turn brings out Britain’s population of warlocks in order to defend the Allies from a mutant-powered invasion by the Nazis. Tossing history out the window and running with this imaginative premise, this trilogy-starter is one of the most fun alternative World War II stories you’ll ever read.
Lammas Night, by Katherine Kurtz
Kurtz combines her special love for the history of early Britain with a tense tale of the occult and World War II. In 1940, wilting under the Blitz and bracing for what seems like an inevitable invasion from France, MI6 officer Colonel John “Gray” Graham learns that Hitler isn’t leaving anything to chance, and intends to use occult powers to ensure victory. But Graham is more than he seems—a man who has lived many lives, and who is uniquely positioned to call forth the ancient covens of Britain to its defense. With the help of Prince William, they race to prepare their island to resist the ultimate forces of darkness—but resistance comes with a dire price.
The Sun-Cross duology, by Barbara Hambly
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like much of an alternate World War II novel: in another universe, a blind magician and his student discover a world where magic seems to have been completely destroyed (something they find shocking and horrifying). In their own world, magic users are hunted and feared, but they cannot imagine magic itself being snuffed out—if it can happen in that alien place, can it happen in their home as well? Setting out to discover how the unthinkable occurred, they find their way to this mysterious mundane world—which turns out to be our own, in the midst of World War II. Hambly finds thematic threads between magic and magicians and the horrors of the conflict that make these two books more than just an exercise in playing around with the past.
Fatherland, by Robert Harris
Harris’ 1992 novel is among the ultimate alternate World War II stories. It’s set in a 1964 20 years-post Germany’s victory. The Third Reich and the United States are locked in a cold war, and Harris delights in dropping hints concerning everything that is different as a result of the twist of the historical record. Following a murder investigation that threatens to expose the Nazis’ terrible secret—the Holocaust—set against a historic meeting between President Kennedy (no, not that one) and Hitler in Berlin, Harris drums up tension as the stakes climb higher and higher.
Farthing, by Jo Walton
Walton imagines a world where Great Britain made a shameful peace with Germany in 1941 in order to save itself, leaving Europe—and its Jewish population—undefended. Eight years later, many of the elite who brokered the deal gather at the country estate of Farthing, where the main negotiator, Sir James Thirkie, is murdered—stabbed in the chest with a yellow star pinned to him. Walton’s murder mystery is tense and well-told, but the true story is the portrait of a declining England, stained by fascism and sliding further into darkness. The two sequels, Ha’Penny and Half a Crown, go deeper into this dark world—and what’s truly disturbing is how plausible they seem.
The Separation, by Christopher Priest
At the outset of Priest’s unsettling novel, historian Stuart Gratton is researching a brief war between Britain and Germany that raged from 1940 to 1941, when a peace accord was signed. Gratton begins to find disturbing inconsistencies in the historical record tied to the name J.L. Sawyer, and locates evidence that there were two such men—twin brothers named Joe and Jack. One assists renegade Nazi Rudolph Hess in negotiating peace, the other works to warn England that peace is a mistake. As Gratton delves deeper into the documents, he finds convincing evidence of two timelines, two distinct worlds developed along different lines. Priest offers up characters who struggle to make choices without the benefit of omniscient information, and who are never certain that they’ve made the right ones.
What’s your favorite alt-WWII story?