The End

Karen Thompson Walker’s Favorite ‘What If?’ Books: Book Bag

What if we were all blind? What if we lived on Mars? Karen Thompson Walker, author of the debut novel The Age of Miracles, which imagines the Earth’s rotation slowing, picks her favorite books that envision our world having undergone a great change. Plus, more 'Book Bags' from Jennifer Egan, Hilary Mantel, and Terry Eagleton.

I love books that envision some sort of alternate version of our world. For me, the key ingredient in these stories is a feeling of realism. I always want to feel as if I’m reading something true, no matter how imaginative the scenario is. These are my favorites:

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

I love the way McCarthy manages to blend a realistic story of global catastrophe with the intimate narrative of a boy and his father. Plus, every sentence is like poetry.

First sentence: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”


By José Saramago

Saramago once said that his work was about the “possibility of the impossible.” In this ingeniously constructed novel, he starts with a seemingly impossible premise—an entire city suffers a sudden epidemic of blindness—but he develops it so logically that it feels eerily possible. This book made me want to write my own “what if?” novel.

One striking sentence: “I am blind, I am blind, he repeated in despair as they helped him to get out of the car, and the tears welling up made those eyes which he claimed were dead, shine even more.”

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Sad, lovely and layered, this book about young people doomed to brief lives is made all the more moving because of the restrained, stoic style of the narrator’s voice.

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First sentence: “My name is Kathy H.”

The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury

These stories about the human colonization of Mars were my introduction to speculative fiction. I especially loved them when I was in middle school, but I’m rereading them now.

One striking sentence: “Mars was a distant shore and the men spread upon it in waves.”

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

This nonfiction book is a mesmerizing work of the imagination that envisions what would happen on Earth if every human being were to disappear from the planet in a single day.

My favorite part: “On the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—or houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the earth. They all go.”