We’ve all mapped out some mental image of the world we live in, and it’s not great. Whatever our doomscape looks like, though, we can probably agree that it still beats a medieval patchwork of theocratic states after an unspecified Event, a zombie-colonised Britain, and a Pacific Northwest after Oregon’s fallen into the sea.
This alternate reality can be found on Reddit. The coordinates: r/ImaginaryMaps. Population: 192k. Historical fantasists and world-builders have constructed a haven to display often first-rate maps of fantasy worlds and alternative histories, complete with scrolls of mythology. Even on a forum largely devoted to imagining alternative outcomes to colonialist/imperialist campaigns, Imaginary Maps members steer clear of entertaining certain present-day authoritarian fantasies, and the comments keep it breezy. (One presumably Dutch member writes of one imagined history: “Please, we don’t want Belgium lmao, give them to France or something.”)
Lurking has never been so much fun, let alone thought-provoking (!!), and there are several ways to enjoy these works. Appreciate the painterly glimmer of an eighth-grade marker hodgepodge of flags, in the manner of modernist painter Marsden Hartley. Picture basilisks flying over foggy coniferous forests populated by crumbling castles and sea pigs mucking around in the Lake of the Forgotten. Think about the most efficient public transportation system for a Minecraft server. Accept a proposition—what if the area currently known as Delaware had been successfully colonised by Sweden?—and wind back through the events that could have made them possible (a “Dutch-Swedish bromance,” in the words of a commenter).
My personal favourites are the alternate history timelines whose lore, detailed at length in the comments, dream up vivid personas for historical rulers, like a stack of cartoony character cards in a fabulist strategy game. The Habsburgs (whose constantly-besieged empire of intermarriages Napoleon allegedly once called “an old maidservant, accustomed to being raped by everyone”) figure as perpetual losers. Secretary of State William Seward, decides, in 1848, to keep Alaska for himself and call it “Seward.” Tyrant anti-Royalist Oliver Cromwell’s son (not a “pussy” in this scenario) ascends to Lord Protector II, establishing a sort of parallel British monarchical line.
Reddit user xpNc (who asked that Gizmodo not use his name) shines in this department, mingling obsessive attention to detail (his muted palette with dainty borders are even sometimes printed on folded glossy paper for extra realism), but with a flair for drama and hilarity.
“What do a fledgling Canada accepting annexation to pay off their debts after an incredibly corrupt Canada Pacific Railway project, an unrealistically successful all-Mexico movement in the 1850s, and a massive Mormon population that would bring a tear of joy to Brigham Young’s eye all have in common?” he asks, under one astonishingly labour-intensive map of a 1930 United States that encompasses all of North America. “They’re all things I made up after the fact to justify this map!”
Don’t sweat the particulars. Just soak in his four-part opus imagining what would happen if Britain had conquered in the “American rebellion” and an exiled Thomas Jefferson founded an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte. The result: a Commonwealth of Europe ideologically divided between agrarianism and monarchy. An Austrian Empire, fallen. A young, spoiled Napoleon Bonaparte II wages a sweeping military offensive and is crowned Emperor by the Pope in 1845, only to later be hanged by his own intestines in the streets. (Read on here.) Needless to say, xpNc got the coveted mod approval badge for a reason.
XpNc, a Canadian in his twenties, told Gizmodo that an insufficient textbook education and a love of video games (Hearts of Iron II, Europa Universalis III, Crusader Kings, and Victoria II) led to “countless late nights” in Wikipedia rabbit holes on colonial governors. He talked about why he digs into the grisly pre-modern traumas and madness, his M.O. (“things could be worse”), and certain alt-histories you may want to avoid these days.
Gizmodo: What about the shortcomings of your education made you want to draw out historical personalities?
xpNc: Individuals were portrayed as historical automatons that do things without really getting into their motivations. You look at someone like Wilhelm II for example, the last Kaiser of Germany, and you aren’t really taught why he was so eager to fight against England. You do a little bit of research and you expose the image of a disabled man, his arm mutilated by English doctors (he was the grandson of Queen Victoria), and his father also died of cancer under the care of English doctors. If he wasn’t disabled, or if his Anglophile father hadn’t died, how would history have changed? Would World War I had happened? Would it have been smaller? Would it have led to World War II? It’s the lack of looking at these figures that made my history classes so inadequate, and it made me really passionate about piecing together those what-ifs.
Gizmodo: Which person or event led you down your first rabbit hole?
xpNc: It’s kind of a cliché, but it was definitely alternate World War II scenarios. A Japanese victory in particular. It’s probably the most implausible scenario in modern history, for a number of reasons, but there was kind of a macabre fascination with what we stopped from happening back then. I stay away from WWII stuff now as a general rule. Some people are just a little bit too enthusiastic about scenarios where Germany takes over the world, and I really don’t want to attract that crowd.
Gizmodo: Ah yes, this is wise. I was going to ask about the most contentious debate you’ve ever gotten into over a map or historical event, kind of angling at that.
xpNc: Just about every community I’m part of has rules against glorifying genocidal regimes, but as far as debates go you’re pretty much guaranteed to at least observe intense flamewars over anything in the Balkans. I don’t like the arguing, but if I’ve drawn a scenario where Turkey is bigger or smaller than it is in real life, or if I’ve done anything regarding Serbia, Albania, Greece, whichever, someone in the comments is going to be incredibly mad. There are no exceptions to this.
Gizmodo: Are you driven by any personal desire to see a different world? Or pure interest in thought experiments?
xpNc: Most of the time I will readily admit that the worlds I create are a lot worse than the one we live in now, and that’s by design. I don’t have any particular drive or desire to live in a different world, certainly not any of the ones I’ve made in my maps. “Things could be worse” is kind of the theme of a few that I’ve made.
There are a lot of people in the community who are fixated on “if the borders were like this we’d live in a perfect world” kind of attitude, but I think a lot of our problems would still exist regardless of where the lines between countries are drawn. Instead of focusing on the utopian side of things and pretending like I’m smart enough to design a flawless world (I’m not), I like to show that the world we live in is pretty ok at the end of the day.
Gizmodo: Do you think you consume news differently than most people? Do you see historical parallels between people currently in power, or mentally map out various trajectories?
xpNc: Would you believe I don’t really pay attention to the news? There’s no escaping hearing about big events these days but the 24-hour news cycle is all a bit dreary and unnecessary. I’ve thought about mapping out trajectories for the future, but I guess my head is stuck in the 19th century.
Gizmodo: No! That’s surprising.
xpNc: I guess one of the benefits of reading so much about the past is that current leaders really don’t seem all that extreme to me. You don’t see many of those “larger-than-life” personalities swaying the course of history much these days.
Gizmodo: Are there any two or three who’ve particularly captured your interest? Who’s the most fun to write lore about?
xpNc: I recommend everyone read about Dr. Francia, the first dictator of Paraguay. I think he was one of the most interesting people who ever lived. He made interracial marriage mandatory, demanded the Pope be his personal chaplain, and his only personal possessions were a few books and a tobacco case, or something like that. He ran the country as his personal fiefdom, basically. This was back in 1814.
Another that I think is incredibly interesting is Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. He was a general during the Russian Civil War, on the anti-Communist side, whose devotion to the institution of Monarchy was so intense that once he saw Russia was a lost cause, he pulled the strings and elevated himself to a high position in Mongolia, and was working towards re-establishing the Mongol Empire in its entirety before he was captured and executed by the Red Army.
Gizmodo: What map or series did you enjoy making the most? How long did it take, and can you describe the research process?
xpNc: I’m going to have to say my “Jefferson-Napoleon” timeline [part one, part two, part three, part four]. It started off in October with a small inkling of an idea that became an absolute tome of lore that I might even turn into a book if I can figure out how to make a narrative out of it all.
Gizmodo: I’d love to see that series as a book because each of them leaves off with a great cliffhanger. For example, in the lore for the Commonwealth of Europe, you ask:
Will Napoleon’s desire for aristocracy continue to rule Europe as monarchy in everything but name, or will Jefferson’s radical agrarianism be the law of the land?
I’d read a fanfic on that premise.
What was that inking of an idea that spun out into this series?
xpNc: Well, it was originally just a simple what-if scenario where England won the Revolutionary War. I wanted to make it like the United States was just like Canada, where today we’ve still got the Queen as our Head of State, still part of the Commonwealth, and all the other imperial baggage we carry as a result of that. But if you do that, you have to explain what happens after, right? Where do the Founding Fathers go? France, of course—they were heavily supported by the French King. But what do they do there? And then it becomes an entire string of events all interconnected, taking historical figures and themes, and weaving them all into a timeline that spans the better part of a century.
It’s a lot of fun when you can grasp onto things that actually happened, like the French Revolution, and say “what if this still happened, but it was different because of X?” In the community, we call those “butterflies,” as in the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a hurricane happens in Florida. It’s definitely an oversimplification, but these are the things you have to think about if you want to make compelling alt-history.
Gizmodo: It’s incredibly entertaining to read. Is there anything you’d like to add?
xpNc: I guess I’ll say something for anyone who’s thinking about getting into this sort of thing: don’t be afraid to make a few crappy maps before you actually get good at it. I’ve got hard-drives full of embarrassing, poorly thought out scenarios that’ll never see the light of day, but I’d have never gotten to this point if I hadn’t made them. It’s a pretty friendly community, so don’t hesitate to ask questions if you’ve got them.