Monday, 27 April 2009


I've been wanting for a long time to come up with a campaign setting for Cyberpunk 2020 - a kind of alternate history of the future. Nothing like as detailed or out-there as Sirlarkins' fantastic Rifts setting idea, but perhaps vaguely in that vein, imagining a world in which Something Big happened at some point in the 20th Century that radically changed the course of history.

I have a lot of nostalgia for nuclear apocalypse as a trope of sci-fi/fantasy. Perhaps it's because my generation was the last to grow up in a world in which it was a genuine possibility. (I vividly remember in primary school - probably at the age of about 10 - me and another kid were chosen to debate the advantages and disadvantages of spending tax income on Britain's Trident nuclear programme, compared to the NHS. Being 10 year old boys, we naturally came down on the side of Trident.) However, nuclear apocalypse is too decisive an event for a cyberpunk world; cyberpunk is about malaise, about decay, and about slow decline. A nuclear apocalypse is a watershed. In cyberpunk, there is no watershed - just a steady worsening.

I enjoyed the concept behind The Arabesk Trilogy, John Courtenay Grimwood's cyberpunk future, based in an Ottoman Empire which never fell. The execution was lacking (Grimwood, like Neal Stephenson, is one of those writers whose prose I actually actively dislike), but the idea was there. However, World War I what-ifs are a too familiar a point of deviation for alternate history, just like World War II and the American Civil War. There needs to be something less obvious and less obviously world changing. Subtle difference.

One possibility which I've often considered is that imperialism never failed. (I'm no imperialist, quite the opposite; but remember, this is about dystopia.) There is every reason to believe that it might not have, had the first and second world wars - its death knells - never happened. The major powers in the fin de siecle period were extraordinarily self-confident and strong, and ruled practically the entire globe. Without the wars, which broke down the great powers' economies and ushered in concepts such as human rights, that strength might have proved unshakeable and we might still live in a colonial world.

The key to all this is Austria-Hungary. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries two ideas were floating around Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his cronies, who were well aware of the problems which faced them (and which would eventually boil over with catastrophic consequences in Sarajevo in 1914). The first of these ideas was the complete reform of the Dual Monarchy into an entity known as the United States of Greater Austria - a federal state comprised of 15 separate autonomous entities for the various ethnic groups found within its borders. This may have served to satisfy the nascent nationalist movements within the empire - whose main complaint was lack of political representation - and placated terrorist groups such as the Black Hand. Hey presto! - no World War I.

The second idea was the elevation of the Kingdom of Croatia to the same level as Austria and Hungary - creating a Triple, rather than a Dual, monarchy. This would have been accompanied by greater regional autonomy within each of the three monarchies, and a far greater balance of power between all of the empire's ethnic groups.

The glory of alternate histories such as these is that they don't have to be particularly plausible. I have no idea if the United States of Greater Austria would ever have worked. All I need, however, is the knowledge that there was a slim chance it could. And then work from there.

Implications of this idea in another post sometime, maybe.


  1. And I was thinking this was going to be a Colonial Gothic review... ;)

    Definitely an interesting premise. :)

  2. that could even be the setting for a Steampunk campaign. perhaps a certain Lord Greystoke was involved in breaking up extremist factions like the Black Hand.

  3. I'd like to recommend that you might want to check out Harry Turtledove/Richard Dreyfuss' "The Two Georges." It outlines a situation similar to what you're talking about where you have the British Empire, a Russian One, and a Franco-Spanish Holy Empire all vying for supremacy. There are also several smaller ones also in existence.
    If you can't find the book, there is a fairly extensive article on it on Wikipedia at

  4. It's a very interesting idea, as Timeshadows said, although I think World War I would have happened anyway.

    Although the immediate cause of the war was in the Balkans, the rising tension between Germany and the other powers would, I think, have caused the war to break out over something else...

  5. Timeshadows: Always wanted to play it, never have.

    Jerry Cornelius: It must have been done already, somewhere.

    Underminer: That Turtledove is a machine. How many 500 page doorstops has the guy written?

    Sir Harrock: Ah, but you see, without the ethnic tension in the Balkans the rivalry between Russia and Austria would never have surfaced, and the Dreikaiserbund might have been reunited. Without Russian support it's unlikely that Britain and France would have taken on Germany, and if they had the war would very well have ended at Christmas - with German troops in Paris. Such a speedy war would not have bleached Europe of its manpower or destroyed its economy, and the empires might still be around today - though probably in different form.