What are the best works of alternate history? Are they the ones with the richest, most detailed and most plausible histories described? Or are they the most engaging stories that happen to take place in a timeline different from our own?
Fatherland, by Robert Harris, by the latter definition, might just be one title that can be counted among the greatest works of alternate history. Through its description of an Axis victory timeline that has since become cliché, its engaging plot and rounded characters, and its presentation of one of the most frightening dystopias since Orwell’s Airstrip One, it has rightly earned its place as a seminal work of alternate-history fiction.
A bestseller in the UK upon its 1992 release, does Fatherland still hold up as one of the greats of published alternate history?
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In some respects, alternate history is an examination of irony. There are many examples of serious alternate history. There are moments when characters reflect on how our own history is implausible or unthinkable. For something more tongue-in-cheek, Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman took the United States, capitalist and democratic and emerging victorious from the Cold War, and pasted the twentieth-century history of Russia, revolution and tyranny and eventual collapse, onto it in their 1997 collection Back in the USSA.
The history presented in the collection closely parallels our own only with the United Socialist States of America in the place of the historic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with the United Kingdom and a reformed Russian Empire splitting duties as the United States equivalent. This parodic take on twentieth-century history is peppered with existing objects from popular culture portrayed as real figures, rubbing shoulders with our own historical figures in new situations.
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The two most common alternate-history settings are ones based on World War II and the American Civil War. Bringing up a distant third are those based upon the American War of Independence, one of which is The Two Georges by author Harry Turtledove and Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.
The history presented within the novel is kept deliberately vague in favor of a globetrotting adventure mystery across this alternate North America, unraveling a vast international conspiracy against the British Empire and indulging in all of America’s favorite stereotypes of Britain and the British.
This last aspect of the novel mars a riveting plot that makes up for a lot of holes in the history presented, but the novel is unashamedly pop alternate history with recognizable twentieth-century figures of the United States shown broadly similar to their historical personalities within the timeline. In going for this feel, the history presented in the novel comes in brief facts and flashes throughout that has to be pieced together, but enough for the reader to get an overall feel for the different direction history has taken.
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