The alternate history is fertile ground in science fiction, the ultimate “what if” that lies at the core of all stories writ large. Most of them go big with their premises, latching onto history’s biggest villains and biggest moments and positing a simple tweak to events, then following the infinite threads it generates to their logical conclusions. And that’s all well and good, but sometimes it’s fun to take a different route: the small and the strange, the alternate histories that pivot on tiny historical details instead of big ones, or wind up in subtle or oddball scenarios instead of big stories with an epic scope. The 10 alt-histories below are as inventive and thought-provoking as your standard what-if-Rome-never-fell narrative, but deal in scenarios far, far stranger.
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey
Gailey pivots on a little-known historical fact: in 1909, there was a bill before Congress that would have imported hippos into Louisiana for the purposes of clearing invasive plants choking the river, and then providing meat for a hungry nation. In reality, the bill failed. In Gailey’s novella, it passes, and when the hippos prove to be, well, hippos (surly, aggressive, and perfectly willing to attack humans), it falls to former hippo rancher Winslow Remington Houndstooth to put together a team of hippo wranglers to move them out of the area they’ve staked out. Gailey sketches out the ripple effects of a hippo-laden USA with skill and ease; you’d never imagine such a bizarre alt-history premise with give rise to one of the best books of the year.
The Vorhh, by Brian Catling
Catling’s universe—continued in the sequel The Erstwhile—is a dreamy convergence of alt-history and magical realism centered on a legendary forest in the middle of Africa that certainly contains horrors and might also contain the Garden of Eden. Into this dreamscape Catling unhesitatingly pours real historical figures whose lives, by necessity, take different paths than in reality. The result is a subtly unsettling alternate history worth discussing (and puzzling out).
The Wild Cards series, by George R.R. Martin et al.
Martin’s long-running shared universe, for which he’s partnered with greats from Roger Zelazny, Melinda Snodgrass, Paul Cornell, and countless others, is like the anti-Watchmen: In 1946, an alien virus is set loose, turning humanity’s DNA against itself. Almost all humans exposed to the virus die horribly, but about 10 percent mutate in various terrible ways (known as Jokers), while a very small percentage remain more or less physically unchanged, but gain incredible superpowers (known as Aces). The whole world is remade as a result, and has, after nearly two dozen books, evolved into a more straightforward alternate universe.
Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman
Newman’s delirious alt-history imagines Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula, was a real undead being—and then posits that he didn’t die as in Stoker’s novel, but rose up through England’s social order to marry Queen Victoria. He quickly asserts his authority, ruling through the bewitched queen, and vampirism becomes fashionable, with many voluntarily turning “cold” in order to gain status. There isn’t another alt-history exactly like it.
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield
What if the world had not only embraced Darwin’s theories, but enthusiastically pursued genetic research in the 19th century? Westerfield figures the impact would have been pretty seismic, resulting in a world where 1914 sees the “Darwinists” fielding armies of huge genetic experiments against the “Clankers” on the German side, who pilot massive war machines engineered to battle the monsters. While making World War I even more terrifying and miserable than it actually was is a challenge, Westerfield’s monstrosities manage to do the job.
Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami
Many aren’t aware Takami’s classic qualifies as alt-history, but it does, imagining the military dictatorship that dragged Japan into World War II was victorious—and remains in existence. The Battle Royale was first conducted in 1947 as a way of fighting juvenile delinquency, choosing one high school class each month to fight it out to the death on an isolated island until just one student is left alive. This nightmarish scenario is buttressed by a skewed past that imagines what might have happened if a merciless government remained in charge of the nation.
The Iron Dream, by Norman Spinrad
This novel made a splash in the 1970s but has faded from memory, possibly because it’s one of the more complex alt-histories out there, set in a world where Hitler moved to the U.S. in 1919 and became a successful author of pulp sci-fi novels. Most of the book is actually Hitler’s most popular work, the dreadful Lord of the Swastika, framed by a critical appraisal of the book—and Hitler’s influence on pop culture, which has several ominous facets that underscore Spinrad’s point about many of sci-fi’s less-savory undercurrents. (For more alt-history mucking about with Hitler’s fate, see Lavie Tidhar’s totally bonkers A Man Lies Dreaming, provoking and perverse in the best way).
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson
Jackson’s premise is simple: after winning World War II, the United States ramped up testing atomic bombs, resulting in a surge of conjoined twins, who grow so populous they become as important—and maligned—a minority as any. The heroine of the book is a “twofer” whose twin has been asleep for decades, and who sorely wishes to be separated so she can be free in this world that seems familiar, but is fundamentally different from our own.
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
In the late 19th century, Charles Babbage seemed on the verge of a brilliant breakthrough in the history of computers. Sterling and Gibson simply imagine that he had that breakthrough, and the world’s first real computer came to be decades earlier than in real life. The alternate history that ensues is exciting and boiling with unexpected consequences—and if you’re a bit put off by the narrator’s tone and affect, trust us, there’s a reason.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Not technically an alt-history, as Wallace intended it to be set in the near future, it has slipped into the category due to the passage of time, and offers up some truly bonkers concepts. While Johnny Gentle, the crooner-turned cleanliness-obsessed president, is no longer quite as fantastic as he once was, the idea of a huge portion of the United States being turned into a toxic waste dump—while time itself becomes sponsored by corporations—walks a brilliant line between ridiculous and plausible that remains powerful.
What’s the weirdest alt-history you’ve ever read?