Alt-World Takes on 5 Familiar Empires


“His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain — why he did not instantly disappear.” -Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Political commentary is risky. Political commentary that doesn’t back the powers that be is even riskier. Trouble is, people have lots of opinions—especially those pesky writers. Which is why, in order to avoid consequences of the head-leaving-shoulders variety, writers have long employed certain tricks and sleights of hand to be able to say what they want to say while maintaining plausible deniability. One of the most popular,—at least as far back as Shakespeare—is to keep the essential events and people in place, but change where it all happens.

In the modern era, the speculative genres have taken this old trick one step further: not only can it all take place in a different land— or on a different planet! With different species! Different science! Magic, even! Genre writers run with this in many interesting directions. Among of my favorites: the ones that use it to take on structures of colonialism and empire. SFF offer a perfect window through which to explore everything from the practical and logistical challenges of administering a vast space empire, to how the philosophical problems inherent in the very concept might play out in the minds of the conquerers and the conquered. These are just a few of our favorite books that take advantage of SFF’s wonderful elasticity. 

Arabella of Marsby David D. Levine
Let’s start with a classic empire: the Brits! This new alt-history steampunk adventure is set in the Napoleonic era. England is still fighting those bothersome French, but this time, it turns out the British Empire happens to extend a little further—all the way to Mars! Seems William of Orange had one more glorious revolution up his sleeve, and with a layup from Isaac Newton, sent one of his captains to Mars in the late 1600s. (NASA, you slackers!) While there are robots and spaceships galore, this is still the Regency England you know and love, with more comedy of manners, elaborate dress, lofty titles, and young ladies behaving most improperly than you could ask for. Speaking of headstrong girls, our story centers on one of them—Arabella, a Martian whose mother has sent her off to London to be civilized. Instead, Arabella runs back to Mars to defend the family outpost, defying convention (cross-dressing, ho!) and living among sailors and soldiers and adventurers as she doeswhatever she can to save her home.

Sailing to Sarantium/Lord of Emperors (The Sarantine Mosaic)by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay loves him some almostbut-not-quite historical worlds, and his Sarantine Duology is a prime example. This pair of books focuses on an empire very similar to the Byzantium of Justinian and Theodora’s glory days. In this world, (as often in ours), a cleverly timed coup brings the coolly intellectual Valerius and the fascinating Alixana to the throne. After a period of constant growth and consolidation of power, their empire is at a transition point: political and religious tensions are on the rise, outlying provinces are becoming restive, and old animosities and reemerging. Into this complex game of power steps Crispin, a talented mosaicist from the empire’s outlying lands who is summoned to decorate Valerius’ new (almost-but-not-quite) Hagia Sophia. Though he has no desire to do anything but produce beautiful art (and survive), Crispin’s life becomes more and more deeply entwined with the dangerous webs being spun by powerful schemers, schemes that will change the empire forever. Treating on themes of power, religious orthodoxy, the meaning of beauty, and what it means to leave a legacy, the world of Sarantium rewards a slow and thoughtful read—which shouldn’t be a problem, since having entered it, you won’t want to hurry to leave.

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
I wrote last year about all the things I liked about the first book in Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, but they’re more than worth reiterating. Liu’s empire is modeled on Ancient China at its height, a civilization that thinks itself secure in its power, which is crushing its people’s spirits and robbing them blind in taxes, thinking no no power can hope to hold it accountable. Two vastly different men begin rebellions to prove that assumption to be very wrong, revealing just how fragile the edifice of empire always is—and just how complicated it can be to tear it down and build anew. This is a story that takes a few steps back to look at the cycles of power—using it, misusing it, handing it over, and changing its structures—and how that broadly affects the lives of the people who initiate change, and those of the people who merely have to live through it all. The next volume, The Wall of Storms, is due out this fall, so if you dive in now, you won’t have long to wait to see what happens next.


The Furies of Calderon (The Codex Alera series)by Jim Butcher
When talking empires, we can’t leave out the granddaddy empire of them all. The Codex Alera series takes place in an empire that strongly resembles Rome at its Julius Caesarian, Gaul-battling height—which makes sense, since the premise is that it was founded by the famous lost 9th Roman Legion. However, in Alera, though the politics and power structure and army and maneuvering look Roman enough, there’s a twist: the empire battle those “barbarians” with its legions, but also with the aid of the furies, elementals who have bonded with the Alerans and given them access to their magic. This is another empire at a transition point, with a leader on the verge of death and conspiracies lurking behind every column. Tavi, a young boy with unexpected abilities living far from the empire’s center, runs smack into one of the spies investigating said intrigues. From there, he’s inadvertently bound up in power games, and finds, in traditional coming-of-age fashion, his true power.

The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis
This one is less alternate world than alternate timeline, but I’m including it because it’s one of the few such tales that uses a lesser-trodden empire for its model: the Dutch. In this timeline, the sun never set on Holland’s, all the way up to the year 1926, by which time it has become the world’s superpower. The empire’s rival and enemy for influence is not England but France, although the content of their conflict—Protestants v. Catholics—is all too familiar. Each empire has mastered different kinds of technology, bolstering their power. For the French, it is chemistry. For the Dutch, it is mechanics and clockworks, and, specifically, robots. One such robot, Jax, is 118 years old and perfectly sentient. He is kept in a state of servitude by his programming, which forbids rebellion and threatens destruction for any deviations. Jax’s capability for free thought comes to seem cruel in the context of his world, and more so the more he uncovers about himself and his kind. This is a book jammed with ideas; anyone looking to engage with issues of identity, freedom, and the effects of colonization on the individual should most certainly give it a try.

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