In his latest thriller, The Mirage (Harper, $26), sci-fi/fantasy/post-cyberpunk cult author Matt Ruff imagines an alternate world in which Arabia becomes the earth's dominant superpower and America is a dictator-led, fundamentalist backwater. More than half the fun here comes from discovering all of the intricately clever consequences Ruff derives from that simple premise: In this reality, after the United Arabian States defeated Germany in World War II (and publicly executed Hitler), Israel was settled in central Europe rather than Palestine; alcohol is a forbidden drug, and champagne glasses are considered drug paraphernalia; and the twin towers taken down by (Christian) terrorists are located in Baghdad, not New York. Familiar historical figures get makeovers too: Saddam Hussein is a powerful union leader/mobster, Osama bin Laden is the much-feared leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Lyndon Johnson declares himself president for life and rules for decades--at least until the Arabian government invades America under the suspicion that LBJ has been harboring weapons of mass destruction.
Well handled, those kinds of twists can make alternate history novels enormously enjoyable. Unfortunately, most examples of the genre are little more than formulaic spot-the-reference fantasies, with little feeling for the deep consequences that might result from changing history. (Check out Newt Gingrich's series of alternate-dimension Civil War novels for a taste of the worst.) If Ruff's work whets your appetite for more, here are three more literary alternate histories worth tracking down:
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick (1962)
Arguably the science-fiction master's best novel, this depicts a world in which the Axis powers won World War II, and features an America divided up between Germany and Japan.
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (2004)
Pretty much the last thing you would expect from the Portnoy's Complaint author, this late masterpiece sees an anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh defeating FDR in the 1940 Presidential election.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon (2007)
Chabon's always been fond of mixing up genres, and this mash-up of alternate history and Raymond Chandler-style mystery takes place in an imagined timeline in which Jews created a Zionist homeland in Alaska.