As Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turns 150, explore these alt worlds built into books – from feminist sci-fi to webcomics
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published 150 years ago this month. Written by the Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name: Lewis Carroll) for the three young daughters of a friend, it combines logic and fantasy to produce the most glorious nonsense. Since then, there have been countless reworkings of the story of the little girl who fell down the rabbit hole into another world, from the trippy Disney film to the erotic graphic novel Lost Girls. The trouble is, once you’ve read Alice, the real world seems very boring. What’s the point of living if there’s no possibility that you’ll run into the Cheshire Cat or a rabbit in a waistcoat? The only solution is to go in search of some other alternate worlds. We’ve found ten of the best.
SULTANA’S DREAM BY ROKEYA SAKHAWAT HOSSAIN
Sultana's Dream is one of the earliest works of feminist science fiction. Hossain was a Bengali writer and feminist campaigner, and this short story was published in 1905 in The Indian Ladies' Magazine. It's set in a country called Ladyland, where women are in charge of everything and the men, 'fit for nothing', must stay indoors (a reversal of purdah, the practice of female seclusion then observed in India). There are flying cars and solar panels, and disease and crime has been eradicated. Everyone works for only two hours a day, since it turns out that this is all that is necessary if workers aren't wasting six hours a day smoking, as the men used to do. Sounds great.
FLATLAND BY EDWIN ABBOTT ABBOTT
Flatland (1884) is a two-dimensional world where the women are lines and the men are shapes. Edwin Abbott Abbott published the novel under the pseudonym 'A Square'; the book's narrator being a square who explains to the reader how things work in two dimensions. Life gets difficult when a sphere turns up and the square realises that three dimensions can exist, and maybe four, or five, or six... The whole thing is a mathematical satire on the Victorian class system, but more fun than that sounds.
THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK BY LEWIS CARROLL
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is strange, but The Hunting of the Snark is totally off the wall. In his preface, Lewis Carroll calls the work a 'brief but instructive poem'. It is a poem, but it is neither brief nor instructive. It is nonsense from start to finish, and a delight. Snark borrows the setting and some of the same characters and made-up words from Through the Looking-Glass's 'Jabberwocky'. It follows a crew of ten, each of whom has a name beginning with B (Bellman, Banker, Boots, Beaver, etc) as they go in search of a harmless creature called a Snark. But what if the Snark turns out not to be a Snark at all, but a very dangerous Boojum? What does it all mean? No one knows.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE BY DIANA WYNNE JONES
Maybe you read Howl's Moving Castle as a kid, or maybe you've seen the 2004 animated film version. Either way, you should read Diana Wynne Jones's children's novel as an adult. It takes place in the fairytale-like land of Ingary and features a brave young heroine, a wizard who eats the hearts of beautiful women, and an Oz-inspired villain in the Witch of the Waste. It's about big themes like love and fate, and it also has a bunch of references to Shakespeare, John Donne and Arthurian Legend that probably went over your head when you were little.
SUPERMUTANT MAGIC ACADEMY BY JILLIAN TAMAKI
Whatever, Hogwarts: if you were a teenage wizard or witch, you'd want to go to the SuperMutant Magic Academy. Its pupils are way cooler than Harry and co, and their teenage angst is much more entertaining and believable. One of the characters is a cat; another, a wannabe model with the head of a lizard. They're at the academy to learn magic, but mostly they’re gossiping and falling in love and making mistakes, just like non-magic teenagers. Tamaki has been producing the Academy as a webcomic for the past few years, but there’ll be a print anthology published later this month.
HERLAND BY CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
You can never have too many feminist utopian novels, so once you've finished with Sultana's Dream, move on to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 novel Herland. Herland is a peaceful and prosperous country composed entirely of women, each of whom is mysteriously able to give birth to five daughters without having sex. The novel begins when three young and foolish American men decide to go in search of this legendary land. How can it be possible, they wonder, for so many women to live so happily together without any need of men? Suffice to say the Americans are no match for this race of superwomen.
A LESSON IS LEARNED BUT THE DAMAGE IS IRREVERSIBLE BY DAVID HELLMAN AND DALE BERAN
We would love A Lesson Is Learned for its title alone, but there's much else that’s excellent about David Hellman and Dale Beran’s webcomic. Dale and David are the main characters, but beyond them, there’s often not much continuity from episode to episode. It can seem at first as if A Lesson Is Learned is just an enjoyably bleak portrait of the real world, but then some breakdancing giants show up or a character reveals she has no shadow or reflection. In our favourite episode, a woman arrives home to find her boyfriend waiting for her. “Could I use your eyes for a mirror? It gets too lonely when I look at myself any other way,” he says. “Come here and stare at me while I dress and shave.”
THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS BY JORGE LUIS BORGES
This is a collection of alternate animals rather than an alternate world, but if the 120 creatures from myth and folklore that Borges describes really existed, the world would be pretty spectacular. We're especially keen on the Barometz, a plant in the shape of a lamb with a golden fleece, and the Ink Monkey, which sits by writers until they’ve finished their work and drinks up their leftover ink.
THE GRACEKEEPERS BY KIRSTY LOGAN
Logan has been publishing brilliant modern fairy tales for the past few years, so we’re excited for her debut novel to come out next month. The Gracekeepers is set in a world where the sea has flooded the earth. One woman travels around on a circus boat, dancing with her pet bear; another works as a gracekeeper, looking after the graves of those who died at sea.
LANARK: A LIFE IN FOUR BOOKS BY ALASDAIR GRAY
Lanark is the great Scottish epic – specifically, the great Glaswegian epic – of the 20th century. It both is and isn’t set in Glasgow: its four books (presented in the order three, one, two, four) are divided between the cities of Glasgow and Unthank, the latter a place very like Glasgow but where it is always dark, and where the people suffer from peculiar diseases, including ‘dragonhide’, which turns human skin into scales.