The best alternative alternate history novels

Ian R. MacLeod Author Of Wake Up And Dream
By Ian R. MacLeod

Who am I?

I'm an award-winning English writer of what's broadly termed science fiction and fantasy, at least in the sense that most of my work features strange events and fantastic settings. But I'm also deeply drawn to naturalistic fiction and have often found that one of the best and most exciting ways to explore the thrillingly odd without losing touch with the believably real is to take a step sideways in history. Alternate history isn't just about the Nazis winning World War Two, and the Confederate American South defeating the Yankee North. A good, original alternate history can open up the traditional novel into fresh worlds and new vistas.

I wrote...

Wake Up And Dream

By Ian R. MacLeod,

Book cover of Wake Up And Dream

What is my book about?

Amid the glamour of 1940s Hollywood, a failed actor named Clark Gable is ruing the advent of a new movie technology that allows the audience to not only see and hear the actors on the screen but to feel what they are feeling. Clark, now an unlicensed private eye specialising in seedy divorce work, is asked to stand in for a prominent screenwriter suffering from mental health problems with whom he bears a vague resemblance merely so that the contract for his next big feelie, Wake Up and Dream, can be formally signed.

It all seems pretty straightforward, at least until someone tries to kill him and he realises he needs to discover what's really going on inside a corrupt political system if he's going to survive.

The books I picked & why

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Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson,

Book cover of Life After Life

Why this book?

Although it starts with a teasing prologue in which the main character, Ursula, prepares to shoot Hitler in a Munich coffee shop in 1930, this novel then goes back to Ursula's birth, or rather her stillbirth, on a snowy night when the midwife fails to reach her mother in time. The narrative continues through a series of dark moments and silly accidents of the kind that most children survive, but some don't. Yet Ursula does both: life after life, in other words. This might sound experimental and complicated, but in Atkinson's hands, it becomes a deeply involving saga of life, love, and war in the first half of the last century told with a brilliantly alternate twist.

Gloriana: or The Unfulfill'd Queen

By Michael Moorcock,

Book cover of Gloriana: or The Unfulfill'd Queen

Why this book?

Moorcock might be best known for his sword-and-sorcery Elric novels, but he's also a writer of considerable daring and style. Gloriana tells of a Queen of Albion whose empire stretches from the great continent of Virginia to far Hindustan, and then on to Cathay beyond. Half-familiar figures and place names vie with pagan myths and strange ceremonies inside a palace so vast and rambling that every kind of wonder, and the darkest of secrets, have room to hide. The settings and the language are glorious, and the characters, and their schemes and machinations, come vibrantly alive. This is a vivid dream of an alternate queen and an alternate England.

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of Never Let Me Go

Why this book?

No question at all that this novel is set in an alternate dystopia. It's Britain in the 1990s, but the cloning of humans is not only possible but legal, and these clones are then compelled to gradually give up their organs so normal citizens can extend their lives. If that sounds pretty grim, in many ways it is, but somehow in this novel it isn't, as the quiet voice of Ishiguro's narrator, a clone called Kathy who is now a carer for other donors as their health declines, makes it all feel eerily normal. This book eschews the usual dystopian bombast in favour of telling how a dark and strange but compellingly plausible situation affects people's lives.

The Post-Birthday World

By Lionel Shriver,

Book cover of The Post-Birthday World

Why this book?

We all have our own private "what if" moments and personal alternate histories. The party invites we wisely declined, the job offer we foolishly accepted, and—above all, I suspect for many of us—the person we did or didn't kiss. Irina, a successful book illustrator in a long-term relationship with a caring if somewhat boring Lawrence, faces such a crossroads when she encounters the laddish but glamorous professional snooker player Ramsey. Which way does she go? The answer, through the book's following alternate chapters, is both. We get to examine the trails, tribulations, and excitements that run through these alternate relationships through the scalpel of Shriver's characteristically sharp but always witty narrative.


By A.S. Byatt,

Book cover of Possession

Why this book?

Pretty much every historical novel is an alternate history, at least in the sense that it puts semi made-up scenes and characters into otherwise realistic events and settings, but Possession takes the "made-up" bit to another level. Two modern researchers are looking into a previously unknown love affair between the famous Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. All of which, of course, is fiction. But what boots this novel into the alternate stratosphere is the way Byatt interweaves and develops her story through the writings of these great alternate Victorian poets. There are love letters, poems, journal entries, short stories, all executed with great skill and heartfelt conviction.

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