When you spend time in science fiction and fantasy, you expect to get lost in bucolic Shires, bustling Diagon Alleys, and maybe the occasional wardrobe-based analog of Heaven. But why stop there? Join us as we tour the globe à la Phileas Fogg, taking off from a magical London and heading more-or-less east. We’re making stops in a haunted Cairo, a super-powered Delhi, a steampunk Seattle, an alt-history Montreal, and a near-future São Paulo—let us know in the comments if we missed your favorite genre-tinged city!
London, United Kingdom
The Nightjar by Deborah Hewitt
Alice Wyndham lives in a London that we know well enough. It’s got the constant rain, crowded trains and the Tube, awkward jobs with awful coworkers who insist on making inappropriate comments down the pub once they’ve had a few too many pints. But there’s something different about Alice—she’s had visions of birds her whole life, something she’s not particularly fond of. It turns out that Alice is an aviarist, and the birds she sees aren’t regular birds at all. They’re nightjars, magic birds that guard human souls. It’s time to develop her skills as an aviarist, but she can’t do that in plain old normal London. Instead, Alice has to travel to the Rookery, a magic London, hidden away from her coworkers and everyone else she knows, a place where she can learn more about this power she possesses… and what it all means.
The Lankhmar series—Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar is a crowded, labyrinthine, smog-cloaked port city, full of thieves, markets, cults, and sentient rats, and, as the launching point for many of Fafhrd and the Mouser’s adventures, it stands as one of our great fictional settings! While this is a more fantastical world than some on this list, Leiber drew on the 16th Century Seville of Cervantes, so we figured we’d stretch a little and include it. Plus…Cervantes didn’t have nearly as many Mummified Golems in his stories.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor often uses African setting or themes in her work (including her adult novel Who Fears Death, which is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, and the Binti Trilogy, which draws on the culture and traditions of the Himba) but for her 2011 novel she takes readers to her parents’ homeland, Nigeria. But this Nigeria also contains a hidden, magical world, open only to a few. Sunny Nwazue is Nigerian-American, born in New York, who moves with her family to West Africa, where at first being albino makes her an outcast, and the other kids call her Akata – a pejorative term for foreigners, particularly Black Americans. They’re also not so cool with her skin color. Finally, she befriends a small group of fellow pariahs, only to discover that they, too, have magical abilities like the ones she’s been trying to hide. She joins their community, the Leopard People—but as soon as she begins to feel at home, she learns of an apocalyptic threat against her new friends. The Leopard People will need every bit of their magic to stop the terrifying masquerade called Ekwensu…
Johannesburg, South Africa
Set in an alternate present, District 9 shows us a different version of South Africa, one changed by First Contact in 1982. When a spaceship hovers over Johannesburg, the world assumes the worst, but an investigation finds a population of malnourished aliens with seemingly nowhere to go. The government relocates the entire population to a camp on the ground called District 9. In the thirty years since its creation, the camp has been left to fall into disrepair and the humans nearby think of the aliens as little more than animals. Meant to serve as an allegory for apartheid and other points in history where xenophobia caused untold horrors, District 9 is terrifying for the fact that it is familiar despite being an alternate reality full of space aliens.
Tad William’s continent-hopping Otherland series unfolds on Earth in the 2080s, and while much of the action takes place in an immersive virtual reality called The Net, the first book, City of Golden Shadow takes us to South Africa! The action centers on Dr. Renie Sulaweyo, a Zulu college professor and virtual engineer, and !Xabbu, her San assistant. The two live and work in Durban, a large South African port city. One of the innovations of The Net is the ability to essentially live in simulations of Wonderland, the Ancient Greece of The Odyssey, Oz, and just about anywhere else a person can imagine. (One character spent most of his teen years in a Middle-earth sim, and given the option, who wouldn’t?) As the story unfolds, Sulaweyo and !Xabbu travel to Drakensberg, the escarpment that forms a border between Lesotho and the KwaZulu-Natal Province—the land that was designated for the Zulu people under apartheid.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
In an alternate Cairo in the year 1912, there is a Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, which deals with all manner of unusual phenomena. Within that Ministry, Agent Hamed Nasr has recently been assigned a new partner by the name of Onsi Youssef. Their first case is a strange one: The possession of a tram car. It’s not strange because of the haunting itself—those are fairly common—but the fact that hauntings usually stick to stationary locations. In this new past full of airships and roaming sentient automatons, Hamed and Onsi will have to figure out how sentient the haunting specter is and then what to do about it before it causes even more trouble. You can read an excerpt here.
Cairo, Egypt / Daevabad, A Mystical City Full of Djinn
City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
In an alternative 18th century Cairo, con artist Nahri uses her magical talents to swindle a living from nobles, keep herself healthy, and, hopefully, tuck enough money away that she can train to be a real healer someday. She’s getting by just fin until a botched exorcism calls forth an evil, cunning ifrit, who recognizes an exploitable talent in Nahri. Luckily, a much more noble djinn, Dara, also see her potential and decides to help her. In an effort to protect her from the various ifrit that are hunting her down, he spirits her away to Daevabad, the mighty city of the djinn, where Dara himself isn’t exactly welcome, but Nahri might be able to get ahead of the evil forces aligning against her.
“Shtetl Days” by Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove’s story imagines everyday life in Wawolnice, Poland, as Jakub Shlayfer, clockmaker, locksmith, general fix-it man, opens his shop and embarks on his day. He greets his neighbors, makes small talk with customers, and tries to avoid any trouble with the Polish people from the other side of the village. So why is this realistic take on life in the late 1800s on a list of alt-histories? Well, Wawolnice doesn’t really exist anymore—it was wiped off the map by the Nazis, just like every other scrap of Jewish life in the world. But “Wawolnice” the Reich-sponsored interactive theme-park, is alive and well, just north of Lublin on the highway, and populated by teams of paid actors who are very dedicated to their roles. Heck, if you go on the right day you might even get to see a pogrom. You should read it here, off you go.
Metro 2033—Dmitry Glukhovsky
This post-apocalyptic horror, originally published online, has inspired two video games, been translated int0 35 languages, and sold over 500,000 copies in Russia. After a Final War in 2013, humans fled the ravaged surface of the Earth, and a few people managed to make their way into the deepest reaches of the Moscow Metro. Now, a generation later, the last human defend their Station-Cities from each other, and from the mutated creatures the roam the surface world. Other people in other countries may have survived, but no news has been heard from them in years. Now Artyom, one of those born just before the war, must travel throughout the system, and even above, to warn his fellow survivors of a new threat, and try to save humankind.
The Sandman: Fables & Reflections—Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman travels the globe—Morpheus is the King of Dreams, after all, so physical limitations aren’t really a thing in these comics. But one story in particular stands out for this list and that is Issue #50, “Ramadan.” The nested story takes us to Baghdad, during the reign of Harun al-Rashid, who makes a deal with Morpheus. The great leader is in love with his city, and he asks the Dream Lord to preserve its magnificence forever. Morpheus agrees, and immediately everything changes: Baghdad is now a bustling city like any other, and the Caliph doesn’t remember its magic. Even when he is shown his true, glittering city, perfectly preserved in a bottle, he doesn’t recognize that it could ever exist in reality. The story shifts again, and we learn that the tale we’ve just read is being told to a little Iraqi boy in 1993. As he heads home, picking his way through the rubble of his war-torn city, we see what has been done to Baghdad in the centuries since Harun al-Rashid made his bargain.
Greg Egan’s 2010 novel contrasts life in 2012 Tehran with a Tehran of the future in 2027. Martin Seymour is an Australian who travels to Tehran to cover the 2012 election, but ends up marrying an Iranian woman and choosing to make a new home in his adopted city. After the twin blows of losing his wife in an accident and learning he has terminal cancer, Seymour seeks the help of Nasim Golestani. The Iranian scientist spent years in exile in America, but he’s returned to Tehran, and Seymour asks that he upload his consciousness into a “Virtual Martin” so his son won’t have to face life alone. When news of the project is leaked, political and religious factions clash over the idea of a virtual human, and Egan gives us an exploration of the culture of the city as he asks questions about the nature of consciousness itself.
The Beast with Nine Billion Feet—Anil Menon
Pune, India is a high-tech wonderland in the year 2040. Tara and Aditya are siblings navigating a world of liquid computers, emotional cars, and synthetic life. Tara is a serious reader and student, but her brother Aditya tries to spend all of his time in the virtual world, until they get entangled in a moral battle over genetics that is being led by their father, a superstar biologist. Menon uses the culture clash between the two kids to look at larger struggle between different ways of looking at life and humanity’s relationship with nature. He also brings Pune and its educational system to life (especially the use of VR to liven up history lessons) and gives us a fascinating city of the future.
Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going (metaphorically) nowhere when he boards his flight from London to Delhi, He soon discovers that everyone on his flight now has extraordinary abilities corresponding to their innermost desires, and he finds that he can communicate with anyone or anything. But terrible new forces have been unleashed: businessmen, politicians, criminals, each with their own agendas, and superpowers to match. How can the new supers avoid an all-out war for the future of 21st-century India?
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Djinn king Melek Ahmar, one of the Seven and the titular Lord of Tuesday, wakes up in a very bad mood—which is only normal when you’ve been bonked on the head and imprisoned in the Himalayas. He eventually figure out that he’s been asleep for somewhere between three and four thousand years. While his old homebase of Kathmandu still exists, humanity was almost destroyed by a nanotech, fought back with other nanotech, and now lives under a tyrannical AI called Karma, accepting a bland, strictly regulated life. Melek Ahmar, being a properly debauched djinn who really really needs to have some fun after thousands of years, teams up with fellow reprobate Bhan Gurung (he’s the titular Gurkha) to conquer the heck out of the city. Cause what’s the point of being awake and alive if you’re not having a little fun?
Bangkok/Krung Thep, Thailand
The Sonchai Jitpleecheep series—John Burdett
As John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep points out, Krung Thep means City of Angels, but this series tends to focus on the less angelic side of the city Westerners call Bangkok. Sonchai is a dedicated Buddhist who, as the son of a Thai bar girl and an American soldier, lives between castes and cultures, and makes for highly unusual sleuth. With each book the murders he investigates get stranger and more dangerous, and, in addition to giving a nuanced portrait of modern Buddhism, the books allow room for the supernatural and ambiguous – such as Detective Sonchai’s ability to see people’s past lives, as well as trace his own incarnations back thousands of years. And then there are the hungry ghosts that wake him up in the night…
Beijing, China / Cat City, Mars
Cat Country—Lao She
In Lao She’s Cat Country, a Chinese man crash-lands on Mars, only to find that it’s populated by Cat People. He scares some of the aggressive Cat People off with his pistol, and promptly joins up with a rich and powerful drug-dealing Cat named Scorpion. The two go to Cat City, which is a dissolute, chaotic place that has lost touch with tradition. While Lao She chose to take us to another planet in this satire, the corruption and unthinking acceptance of Marxist ideology he lampoons are clearly based in his experiences living in 1930s Beijing.
The Fat Years—Chan Koonchung
The Fat Years was published in 2009, it’s set in the then-future of 2013, and it focuses on the hunt for the month of February 2011, which has mysteriously disappeared. Got all that? Lao Chen, a Hong Kong writer, lives as an expat in Beijing, and is having a pretty ordinary life until his friend Fang Caodi informs him that all known records jump straight from January to March, 2011. So what happened to that lost month? His internet activist ex-girlfriend joins in the search, and as the novel unfolds, the trio learns that the disappearance is somehow connected to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1988. Any contentment he knew slowly seeps away as he and his friends ask the question: is the culture suffering from some sort of collective amnesia, or has time been erased?
Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo, Japan
There are a LOT of alt-Tokyos in culture. So many. But our favorite may still be the seminal Neo-Tokyo of Akira, set in that far-off future of, um, 2020. Holographic advertisements, constant, pulsating lights, street gangs racing their motorcycles and infiltrating government conspiracies and transforming into giant nuclear apocalypse babies…we think? The future is bright my friends, but nowhere is it brighter than in Neo-Tokyo.
On the Beach—Nevil Shute
Following World War III, the remnants of humanity have fled to South America, the tip of the African continent, and Australia. However, as radiation clouds slowly spread around the planet, more and more people succumb to sickness or suicide. On The Beach joins a small group of survivors in Melbourne, Australia, which is still semi-functional. The citizens go about their days as normally as possible, trying to dwell on whatever happiness they can find before the end, and clinging to the last vestiges of ordinary life in a city.
Chatham Islands / Bruges, Belgium / Nea So Copros / Sloosha’s Crossing / etc.
Cloud Atlas—David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas leaps across time, continents, and cultures to tell interlocking stories of hope and change. The actions travels from the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific to Bruges, Begium, to London, to San Francisco to a dystopian future Korea called Nea So Copros, and finally a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. (If you’ve seen the film, you know that the Hawaii portion of the story gives us the phrase true-true which popped up unexpectedly in Rick & Morty) The thing about David Mitchell is that he researches so much, and incorporates the research so well, that he makes each section feel real, three-dimensional, and lived-in, but his writing is so heightened that each place also feels like a slightly alternate reality.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon asks three great questions with The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: what if Alaska had welcomed Jewish refugees during World War II? What if Israel had risen and collapsed immediately after the War’s end? And what if the original land agreement was just about to run out, leaving the community of Jews once again facing life as refugees? The novel explores each of these questions while giving us the beautiful and vibrant Sitka, where Inuit culture cuddles up with Yiddish, and detective Meyer Landsman has to investigate the murder of his neighbor while giving serious thought to a post-Sitka life.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker imagines a Pacific Northwest radically altered by rumor and blight. During the Civil War, when rumors about Klondike gold are flying, a group of Russian prospectors pay an inventor named Leviticus Blue to create a drill that can carve through Alaskan ice. The machine, Blue’s “Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine”—“Boneshaker” for short—goes haywire and destroys part of downtown Seattle, and presumably kills its creator in the process. The accident also releases cloud of “blight gas” that kill anyone who comes into contact with it, and, maybe worse, causes some of the corpses to revive as zombie-like creatures called Rotter. By the time Boneshaker begins, Seattleites have built a wall to contain the worst of the gas and the rotters, and Leviticus’ widow and son, Briar and Ezekiel, live in a poor part of town trying to live down Leviticus’ infamy. When Zeke goes over the wall to try to prove his father’s innocence, Briar heads out on a rescue mission, braving gas and rotters with the help of Captain Cly and his mighty airship to bring her boy home and tell him the truth about his father.
San Francisco, California
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
In Passing Strange, Ellen Klages gives us a San Francisco shot through with magic. It’s 1940, and there are many small cities tucked away within the larger one: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island made from illusions; the city of Chinatown, full of alluring food and “exotic” experiences torn from the pages of the pulps for the amusement of tourists; and even a dusklit world of love, where people who don’t quite fit into straight society can meet and express their whole selves. Here six women from very different backgrounds find their lives entangling with each other’s—and with the bewitching cities they call home.
San Fransokyo, California
Big Hero 6
In the Big Hero 6 comic, Hiro, Baymax, and their friends fought crime in a garden-variety Tokyo. But for the film adaptation (and later cartoon and Kingdom Hearts 3 plot) the writers decided to rewrite San Francisco’s past. In the Big Hero 6-iverse, the artist Lenore Shimamoto created an “energy amplifier” that malfunctioned, causing the 1906 earthquake. In the aftermath of the quake, Japanese immigrants led the rebuilding of the city, using architectural techniques that could withstand another disaster. The city renamed itself “San Fransokyo” in their honor, and has continued to be a multicultural hub, where immigrants are welcomed and many different ways of life are honored.
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring brings Caribbean magic to a dystopic future Toronto. In the wake of an economic collapse, Downtown Toronto has become a violent slum controlled by a crimelord named Rudy. Rudy begins pushing his power into the spiritual realm, waging a magical war on those who stand in his way. Ti-Jeanne, a skeptical young single mother, must join with her grandmother, the shaman Gros-Jeanne, to fight against Rudy and the evil Calabash spirit that he has unleashed on her city.
Mem by Bethany C. Morrow
Bethany C. Morrow uses a glittering art deco alt-history ask questions about consciousness, personhood, and slavery. In 1920s Montreal, a scientist has found a way to extract whole memories from people, which then exist as separate entities. The Mems are mirrors of their Sources, living one moment over and over, unable to change or experience life. That is, until one Mem, Dolores Extract #1, renames herself and sets out on a life of her own. Can she create her own story? Or is she doomed to become just one fragment of another person’s mind?
São Paulo, Brazil
And Still the Earth—Ignacio de Loyola Brandao
In near- future São Paulo water is scarce, garbage is everywhere, and Brazilians every moment and every thought is monitored by a secret entity called the System. Souza, a middle-aged everyman, tries to create a life in a city where remembering the past is not allowed, and having hope is highly suspect.
And Back to London, England!
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
There are Londons on top of Londons here! Kell is one of the few permitted to walk between them being an Antari, or magic user. Grey London is very much like our own, but Kell heralds from Red London, a place where magic flourishes and thrives. As ambassador and adopted son of Red London’s royal family, Kell travel between the Londons to carry correspondence between kingdoms. The other he visits is called White London, a land where the magic as been bled dry and everything is decaying. And there is still another, known as Black London, sealed away so nothing can come into contact with it, a place where no one can go…