Alternate Histories for the New Year

Map of the USA as depicted in the Main in the High Castle TV series.
USA as depicted in Man in the High Castle series by RedFoxJinx used under CC License.

We’re on the brink of the new year, which makes it a good time to reflect on the changes that the future might bring and the way that those changes are shaped by the past. To help you reflect on the way single events can change the course of history, here are several authors re-imaging the course that history may have taken if certain events played out differently. If President Kennedy had lived, how would the space program be different? If the Nazis had won WWII, what would our current geo-political landscape look like? If the black plague had wiped out almost all of Europe, how would the civilizations of the world have developed differently? By looking at these versions of what might have been, we can better understand and contemplate our own future in the upcoming year and beyond.

Voyage book coverVoyage by Stephen Baxter

An epic saga of America’s might-have-been, Voyage is a powerful, sweeping novel imaginatively created from true lives and real events of how, if President Kennedy had lived, we could have sent a manned mission to Mars in the 1980s. NASA, the Saturn rocket, and historical figures from Neil Armstrong to Ronald Reagan are interwoven with unforgettable characters that only a world-class novelist could bring to life: Dana, the Nazi camp survivor who achieves the dream of his hated masters; Gershon, the Vietnam fighter jock determined to be the first African-American to land on another planet; Lee, the small-scale aerospace contractor with a big dream; Priest, who gives his life so that others might live to walk on Mars. And most memorable of all, Natalie York, the brilliant geologist/astronaut who is her own worst enemy, and best friend; a passionate woman who risks a career and a lifelong love for the chance to run her fingers through the soil of another world.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union book coverThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can’t catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman’s new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman’s nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

The Collected What If? book coverThe Collected What if? : Eminent Historians Imagining What Might Have Been edited by Robert Cowley

Historians and philosophers alike have pondered the crucial turning points of history–the events that forever altered the course of civilization and set the stage for the world in which we live today. In these essays, some of the most respected minds of our time as the question “What if…”

  • Pontius Pilate hadn’t ordered Jesus Christ’s crucifixion?
  • Abraham Lincoln hadn’t abolished slavery?
  • A Confederate aide hadn’t accidentally lost General Robert E. Lee’s plans for invading the North?
  • The Allied invasion of D Day had failed?
  • Pope Pius XII had spoken out against the Holocaust?
  • The Mongols had succeeded in conquering Europe?

Both fascinating and frightening, The Collected What If? offers in-depth reflections on the monumental events of the past and amazing speculations as to what our world might be like had things gone differently in a singular moment in time.

Fatherland book coverFatherland by Robert Harris

It is twenty years after Nazi Germany’s triumphant victory in World War II and the entire country is preparing for the grand celebration of the Führer’s seventy-fifth birthday, as well as the imminent peacemaking visit from President Kennedy.

Meanwhile, Berlin Detective Xavier March, a disillusioned but talented detective, sets out to investigate a corpse washed up on the shore of a lake. When the dead man turns out to be a high-ranking Nazi commander, the Gestapo orders March off the case immediately. Suddenly other unrelated deaths are anything but routine.

Now obsessed by the case, March teams up with a beautiful, young American journalist and starts asking questions…dangerous questions. What they uncover is a terrifying and long-concealed conspiracy of such astounding and mind-numbing terror that is it certain to spell the end of the Third Reich — if they can live long enough to tell the world about it.

The Years of Rice and Salt book coverThe Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur–the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe’s population was destroyed. But what if? What if the plague killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been–a history that stretches across centuries, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.

This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world’s greatest scientific minds–in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions and Christianity is merely a historical footnote.

Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.

The Plot Against America book coverThe Plot Against America by Philip Roth

When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh, in a nationwide radio address, publicly blamed the Jews for selfishly pushing America toward a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but upon taking office as the thirty-third president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, whose conquest of Europe and virulent anti-Semitic policies he appeared to accept without difficulty.

What then followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family — and for a million such families all over the country — during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst.

Underground Airlines book coverUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred.

A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He’s got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called “the Hard Four.” On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn’t right–with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.

A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he’s hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won’t reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw’s case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor’s salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all–though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface.

Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country’s arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.

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