My favorite genre doesn’t have a name. So I made one up for it.
I call it “alt-fic.” In essence, alt-fic is about a world that is very similar to ours, only with one or two significant changes in which the whole story is rooted. Think Inception or Lost. Alt-fic is a cousin to sci-fi, but appeals to a broader audience. It’s rather like speculative fiction or magical realism, but tends to be more grounded.
I came up with the name about the time I started my Brilliance trilogy, an alternative present in which a fraction of the population are born savants, forcing the question: If 1% are objectively better, what happens to the other 99% of us? My new novel Afterlife is also alt-fic. I posit a world where death is just the beginning, and where afterwards people find themselves in a world with a new set of rules.
What I love about alt-fic is that it is broad and recognizable. It feels familiar, and yet introduces a difference that changes everything. It’s a genre that allows writers to design compulsively readable thrillers around thoughtful ideas.
Here are a few of my favorites.
By Blake Crouch
A lean, relentless piece of alt-fic, Dark Matter is the story of an ordinary man forced to confront the paths not taken—all of them. After being kidnapped by a complete stranger, Jason Dessen finds himself in a world that looks just like his own… except that his wife is not his wife, his son is not his son, and people he’s never met believe he’s the genius behind an astonishing invention.
It’s a mind-bending thriller that manages to be startling intimate and human.
By Mohsin Hamid
Nadia and Saeed are young, in love, and trapped in an unspecified Middle Eastern city undergoing the bloodiest sort of radicalization. As their familiar world crumbles and casualties mount, they hear rumors of normal doors that open into unfamiliar lands—Greece, England, California.
This is a beautiful book: a love story; a migrant story; a tale of family born and found; and a gorgeously written, nuanced, and wise look at two people on a journey at once unique and universal.2 .
The Windup Girl
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi once quipped on Twitter that he wrote his novels as cautionary tales, and he wished people would stop treating them as instruction manuals. Funny, but with a kernel of truth—what he does better than any writer I’ve read is extrapolate to the future the results from the choices we’re making today. The Windup Girl is a perfectly believable and deeply unsettling look at a world grown larger, when the oceans have swamped the coasts and fuel costs have knocked airplanes from the sky, and genetically modified seeds come with built-in expiration dates. And yet in this world, humanity endures, not in a cliché and crushing dystopia, but in the way we have always endured dark ages—one ugly day at a time.
By Richard K. Morgan
This is one of my favorite pleasure reads, a book I return to repeatedly. I love Morgan’s brain—he tells a story the exact way I hope for, packed with tension and notions and violence and lust and ideas. Imagine The Road Warrior coupled with Wall Street, add a generous helping of hot sex, and present it with a PhD in political philosophy.
In a near future London, the cutting edge of the corporate elite invest in global conflict, sponsoring a warlord here, knocking down a regime there, toasting to the “small wars” that make them wealthy. But it’s a world where boundless ambition is just table stakes—and winning requires a more absolute form of payment.4 .
The Trinity Game
By Sean Chercover
Here’s a perfect example of alt-fic: you know the TV preachers who wear shiny suits and solicit donations and speak in tongues? Well, imagine it was discovered that during his fits, one of them is speaking English backwards, perfectly, and making predictions.
Now imagine that all of his predictions are coming true.
What would that mean to the world? What would it mean to his estranged nephew, who as a teenager had realized the uncle he’d idolized was a fraud—and who as an adult is forced to confront the fact that this con man might be a tool of the divine?
Stories of your Life
By Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang must be ridiculously smart. Blow the doors off, holy-crap smart. Every story in this collection—every single one—is a gem. Each is rooted around a single idea extrapolated upward, and in Chiang’s skilled hands, each reaches heights you could never have imagined from the inception. Reading him is frankly exhilarating.
The most famous story in the collection was the basis for the film Arrival, easily the smartest and one of the finest films released in 2016. I mean it as a tribute to both to say that they are worthy of one another.6 .