Great moments in alternate history: World War II

It's finally here — the biggest alternate timeline of all alternate timelines, the alternate history trope to top all alternate history tropes. Today we look at some alternate histories of the Second World War.

Let's start with one of the most respected works in science fiction, Philip K. Dick's Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle. High Castle is a novel that's not just important in the annals of alternate history fiction but — as Josh Wimmer notes over at Blogging the Hugos — it's a watershed moment for the science fiction genre as a whole. I'd also argue that it marks the point where alternate history finally throws off its pulp adventure roots and becomes contemporary science fiction — the novel uses its alternate history trappings to explore important ideas rather than using them as window dressing.

Great moments in alternate history: World War II

The Man in the High Castle popularized so many hallmarks of alternate history fiction it's difficult to list them all. Most notably the title's "man in the high castle" is the author of an alternate history work within an alternate history, writing a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy about a world where the Nazis lost WWII — a.k.a. our world.

In recent years, World War II AH has become so popular that it's difficult to find any spin on the concept that hasn't already been used by at least three or four works. Harry Turtledove alone has written at least eight distinct variations on WWII including the alien invasion of the Tosev timeline, a magical WWII in his Darkness Series, and — toward the end of his Southern Victory Series — a WWII in which a surviving Confederacy fills in for the Nazis.

Great moments in alternate history: World War II

The Axis victory in WWII is also one of the few alternate history tropes to make the leap from the page to other media. It's been the subject of films such as It Happened Here, a television show called The Other Man, even videogames like Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, which takes place during the Axis invasion of the United States in the 1950s. The sub-genre has grown large enough to warrant academic analysis — Gavriel David Rosenfeld's The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism explores the history and implications of the trope.

World War II is kind of a perfect storm for alternate history. It was an all-encompassing turning point in human history that was less than a century ago. Plus, it also has a literary pedigree outside of traditional science fiction circles thanks to books like Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America, Stephen Fry's Making History. Even Noël Coward got an early entry into the canon with his 1946 play Peace in Our Time.

[Top illustration from Tales From the Bully Pulpit by Benito Cereno and illustrated by Graeme MacDonald]