The cities are vast, but the towering buildings are ornate stone with pillars and statues and marble cherubs, usually stained dark with smoke from the great alchemical manufacturies whose bulbous shapes rise above rooftops. Unlikely round or geometric or disk-shaped objects with no visible means of propulsion pass through the sky, along with some giant balloons propelled by sails. Clockwork horses pull cabs through the cobblestoned streets of London and New York. Sometimes what looks like an ordinary horse may be trotting among them – oddly enough, without a rider, and wearing a harness with pockets.
In the year 2011, the British Empire dominates the globe, thanks to holding onto its American colonies. The Chinese Empire is also a dominant power, but its influence is more regional. And of course British power does not extend very far in (fortunately isolationist) Brobdingnag…
It has been almost 300 years since Gulliver returned from his voyages, and the curious lands of Liliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Glubbdubdrip, etc. are as familiar to most people as France or at least Brazil. Monsters, ghosts, and magic coexist with a basically clock-punk technology involving magnetic forces, the energy of phlogiston, malodorous alchemical processes, lots of clockwork, and the applied power of moonbeams.
The inhabitants of Lilliput and Blefuscu have not had a good time of it, being rather easily overrun by European sailors, the majority of their population carried off into captivity, only those able to hide in caves and crevices escaping to maintain an impoverished pastoral existence in the ruins of their former cities, withdrawing into hiding at the first glimpse of a ship’s sail. Not until the 1950s were the islands (by then the site of a British whaling station) resettled by the Microanthropoi (the term “Lilliputians” being reserved for those specifically from that isle) Diaspora after the establishment of legal equal rights for fun-sized humans.
The islands remain a British protectorate, but the majority of “Micros” live elsewhere anyway: given the fact that they are largely unaffected by foreign diseases (most regular-sized germs being too large to penetrate their tissues) and they can live on grams of food per day, the enslaved populations have grown substantially over the intervening centuries. Working in rodent and insect extermination, fine tool, jewelry and clockwork manufacturing, engraving and decoration, medicine, and a number of other occupations where fingers millimeters long and eyes with twelve times the resolution power of human ones are useful, Micros are a major part of the modern economy. (Of course, now that they have some civil rights in almost all countries, no Micro will work anymore for circuses or sideshows – too many bad memories).
Civil rights =/= equal rights. Micros exist under a variety of legal regimes, and under a variety of special laws: on the positive side, for instance, few Micros have to worry about being drafted; on the negative side, given their far smaller material needs, the minimum wage is generally set a lot lower for Micros than for full-sized humans. Marriage between humans and Micros remains illegal in most nations, on the legal basis of “really creepy.”
Rather than living in special compartments within human buildings, nowadays most urban Micros now live with their own kind in “apartment blocks” – small solidly built stone and concrete structures 10+ feet high (topped with barbed wire) with no entries large enough to admit normal humans and inner courts where they can enjoy the outside air without oversize intruders. Various means exist by which Micros can cross city streets without worry about being stepped on, run over, or attacked by cats and dogs: some have elevated little walkways at high levels, others go with tunnels: for distance travel, pneumatic tube travel is often used (with their higher cross-section to volume ratio, Micros are actually more resistant to acceleration than normal humans). Some ride on trained birds, although that is mostly for those with a very good head for heights and experience in dealing with bird-brains.
“Feral” Micros are different. Many Micros escaping from captivity hid in fields and forests, and in spite of heavy losses from animal and insect attacks, managed to create rude communities for themselves, stealing needed provisions and supplies from humans, building refuges dug under trees, in old buildings, or even gazebos. Furtive, nocturnal and secretive, these communities are only slowly emerging from hiding now: they often see “tame” Micros as suborned slaves of the Big Ones, and are highly suspicious of their claims that things are much better now. Of course, if “Ferals” are suspicious of humans and all that relates to them, the sentiment is reciprocated: many humans are paranoid about the possibility that Feral Micros might be sneaking into their houses and robbing them or poisoning their food or leaving roller-skates on the stairs – a few unhealthy political movements have arisen in the past with promises to take “strong measures” against Micro “vermin”…
The tiny animals of their homelands are even more widely spread, being bred in many countries as specialty food items, or for their extremely fine fur and wool. They are rarely found in the wild, being unable to compete with the oversize predators they face.
The home islands of Lilliput and Blefescu have never been settled by humans, for the same reason human diplomats in Brobdignag are generally unmarried: there is something in the soil or air or water, as yet unidentified, which is responsible for their diminutive size. Children born on the islands, growing up eating food grown locally and drinking water from the local springs, reach adulthood a full foot shorter on average than their parents, as any child raised in Brobdignag will be nearly two feet taller. (Effects after many generations are apparently almost but not entirely permanent: careful historical study indicates that the exiled Lilliputian population over many generations has gained nearly half an inch in height over those first kidnapped from the islands).
The existence of other areas of abnormal growth has been speculated on: French visitors to a small and apparently entirely barren island in the south Indian Ocean netted a full-gown whale shortly off shore that was only three feet long, which suggested that there were shrinking elements present powerful enough to pervade even the surrounding seas, a phenomenon unobserved near Lilliput or Brobdingnag: more alarmingly, all members of the crew that spent time ashore found upon return to France that they had shrunk by as much as two inches in height. Nobody has landed on the island since.
Atempts at imposing western civilization on Brobdingnag proved less than successful: initial efforts were hampered by the extreme difficulty of approaching the shores of the land, surrounded as they are by rocky shoals and reefs and rugged isles: and even after a landing is achieved, while heavy cannon are fairly effective against Macroanthopoids, they are of limited utility against nighttime assaults by aggressors wearing plate armor several inches thick and able to travel even in the darkness at speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour. Eventually the development of the phlogiston bomb and the development of magnetic levitation to a degree of art where it could be utilized in areas lacking massive iron ore deposits might have brought the giants to their knees, but by that time the “Macros” had learned enough from captured prisoners (being dangled over a pit filled with two-foot long cockroaches will loosen most tongues) to defend themselves. Currently Brobdingnagian giant artillery pieces have the capacity to bombard northwestern British America by firing over the intervening giant mountains, providing a powerful deterrent.
Said mountains, actively volcanic and reaching heights of over thirty miles, form a largely impenetrable barrier to land communications between British America and Brobdingnag: they are only exceeded in height on Earth by the Mad Mountains of inner Antarctica.
Most human nations are of course worried about the possibility of the Macros expanding outward from their nation (fairly crowded in spite of its bigger-than-OTL-US size, due to each inhabitant requiring 144 times the living space of normal humans). It is a largely misplaced fear: the Brobdingnagians are larger-hearted beings in a metaphorical as well as a strictly literal manner. Although they have their jerks and thugs just as humans do, on the average they are a kinder, more tolerant and less cruel people, and although they tend to despise humans for their bloodthirsty habits, would not lower themselves to exterminating us for their own benefit. They remain somewhat isolated from the rest of the world: they do not travel much (due to the lack of accommodations) and trade little (the main imports are such things as silks or furs of a composition too fine to be duplicated by the materials and means of Brobdingnag). The only thing that is truly important is ideas: the development of long-distance communications by orbital mirrors has been most useful for giant savants communicating with foreign learned men, the delivery of 8-foot long envelopes having posed various problems.
Comparatively few normal humans visit the lands of the Macros: sauce for the Lilliputian gander is rejected by the “normal” human goose, and generally speaking the only humans are those of embassies (usually located in forts built on offshore islets) and of course a few endlessly curious scientists willing to put up with various humiliations for the sake of knowledge.
Humans sneer at Macro scholarship, claiming that they can imitate, but cannot create. This is sheer slander, but is true that the Brobdingnagians are a race which puts much value on brevity and simplicity (for centuries all laws in the kingdom had to employ no more words than were in the alphabet), and tend to be suspicious of anything too complex and ambiguous: this has probably hurt them in some of the more subtle natural sciences.
The only nations with corresponding Macro embassies are China and the British Empire, few cities other from Peking and London being able to easily bear the expense of embassies which consume as much food and fuel as tens of thousands of normal citizens. (In this age of floating fortresses and islands, at least the costs of special roads to ship giants from shore to city and back is not longer required: they can simply drop the embassy staff right off on site without landing). Few Brobdingnagian savants get to actually visit the nations of normal humanity: paperwork to allow them to stroll around the countryside in their size 120 shoes and look at stuff is understandably hard to obtain.
Aside from ambassadors, the only giants which are familiar to the general public are the Brodingnagian ruffians and low-lifes which occasionally travel west to hire themselves out as exhibits or laborers or population-terrorizers for petty kings and princes in exchange for large quantities of certain exotic alkaloids extracted from plants which do not grow in the generally cool climes of their homeland, which then can be resold to certain rich decadents back home for an excellent profit. (The supply is far too small to allow for wide-spread addiction, fortunately). Feeling that such people damage the reputation of the kingdom, the royal court of Brobdingnag has mooted the notion of allowing only government-approved subjects to travel abroad – a sharp departure from the national traditions of wide latitude for personal choice.
Brobdingnagian mammals and plants are generally confined to the larger and wealthier zoos, being too difficult to control and far too heavy eaters for normal animal husbandry: some forms of Brobingnagian insects, though, are raised profitably, such as the Brobdingnagian silkworm, whose immensely strong threads are widely used in bridge-building. There are however some very stringent international conventions on the distribution and breeding of Brobdignagian insect life, put in place after a Brazilian effort to revolutionize the honey-making business ended up requiring the mobilization of Her Majesty’s Aerial Bombardment Corps.
A Brobdingnagian tree planted in Devon by a returning British sailor has grown to a height of 1000 feet and shades an entire village, leading to various “where the sun doesn’t shine” jokes among neighbors. Pruning is an essential all-village task.
The Pacific Ocean Kingdom of Balnibarbi is now ruled from ground level, the flying city of Laputa having been destroyed in the second anti-Savant Revolt (which broke out after the introduction of new “scientific” methods of agriculture brought about famine on a Great Leap Forward level). Still, the pursuit of practical knowledge remains a popular pursuit in the Kingdom (after all, it was through the use of magnetic forces and incendiary explosives that brought down the flying island in the first place) and the Academy of All Arts (rebuilt 1795) has recently succeeded in reconstituting steak from excrement , although nobody so far want to eat it. (The sunlight-from-cucumbers project was abandoned decades ago, when natural philosophers cut out the middleman and developed methods to bottle sunlight directly rather than extracting it from vegetables). The tradition of pure mathematics and art among the ruling classes has been abandoned in favor of practical knowledge, something much mourned by philosophical types in Britain and other European-derived nations, and all monarchs are pledged to spend certain hours of the day in direct contact with and paying close attention to the common people (no matter how common.)
The old-fashioned fears of the educated classes (British as well as Balnibarbian)re comets and other alarming space phenomena have revived somewhat in recent years as new Catastrophic theories re the development of the Earth and Solar system have become more established – not to mention the destruction of 50,000 square miles of Siberia (fortunately mostly uninhabited) due to a grazing collision with a small comet. The Theatre, both sophisticated and vulgar, currently makes good profits with plays featuring cosmic disasters of various sorts, in which the most ingenious mechanical devices and contrivances bring the End of the World into colorful life onstage.
Natural Philosophy (as science calls itself here) marches on. The development of more advanced forms of Magnetic Levitation means that the skies are filled with flying craft, from the individual sky-landaus of the wealthy to the small-island sized flying fortresses of the major powers. Clockwork giants (wound up using the power of alchemical furnaces) fight in wars, and homunculi grown in excrement serve as grunt labor for (simple) jobs. Old soldiers stump around on wind-up legs. The Phlogiston Bomb is the Ultimate Weapon, but is perhaps too dangerous to use: some theoretical calculations show that the detonation of a sufficient number of Bombs could cause a chain reaction in the atmosphere, burning the world to a crisp.
The stars and planets remain a subject of close study, especially since the development of telescopes powerful enough to detect the vaguely insectile Selenites busy at work on their vast ring-shaped cities (called “craters” by earlier astronomers in their ignorance). Attempts have been made to contact them with immense fires and geometric designs inscribed in the Saharan desert, but the Selenites are either short-sighted or uninterested.
Speculation on the inhabitants of more distant alien worlds has been rife, and rather nervous-making, since the Incident of ’69, when a 900-foot tall purple giant, claiming to be a visitor from Jupiter – riding on the shoulder of green, two-headed giant 12,000 feet tall reportedly from a distant star – dropped off from a passing comet to visit the Mediterranean. After poking some gentle fun at human foibles, the giants departed on the comet, the larger one apparently annoyed at some minor damage inflicted upon his stockings by Catholic Alliance military forces.
Captured and distilled Moonbeams are used, of course, in the field of mental health. Houses are illuminated by bottled sunlight, meals are reconstituted from their Essential Salts, and magnetic forces have placed a system of relay mirrors in orbit for communications, making it rather cheaper for people to send messages rapidly around the globe (magicians charge high fees).
Magic as well as the more “scientific” arts exist in this world: the summoning of ghosts and spirits, curses and cures, and various forms of divination and seeing things at a distance, although nobody need worry about being turned into a frog. Perhaps the most spectacular practitioners of it are the inhabitants of Glubdubdrip, a small island inhabited by a tribe of magicians specializing in necromancy. In spite of its small size, the island nation remained unconquered during the Second Age of Colonization, due to its inhabitant’s ability to foresee approaching enemies at a great distance and send ghosts and spirits to attack the leaders of expeditions both airborne and naval.
Aside from the dominant Powers of the British Empire, (which rules North America, much of Africa, and the fairer part of India), and China, which dominates continental East Asia, there are a number of lesser but still “respectable” nations. Japan retains its independence in spite of the power of its neighbor. Russia, expelled from Eastern Siberia under the Donzing Emperor, has expanded into Persia and the Balkans. In the face of overweening British power and the breakup of the Spanish Empire, the French and the Austrians have kissed and made up and the conservative Catholic Alliance dominates southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Prussia overreached itself and was smashed flat, but the North German League has risen to take its place as an important North European Power. The Dutch Empire still has some juice.
The former Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the Americas have emerged as various independent powers in their own right, most important being the Kingdom of Mexico, the Empire of Brazil, the Autocracy of Peru and the Holy Catholic Jesuit-run state of Greater Paraguay, roughly three times as large and eight times as populous as ours.
(The Jesuits broke with the Holy See a while back and run their own brand of Catholicism, and have possessions in India, the East Indies and Africa as well as South America. They are well known to be skilled magicians and masters of various dangerous alchemies).
Another important nation is the nation of El Dorado, a Native American kingdom in the jungle foothills of the Andes forced out of its traditional isolation by the development of magnetically suspended fliers and phlogiston-propelled balloons. Famed for its fantastically abundant precious gems and giant red llamas, able to pull a four-person carriage, it is a socialistic monarchy with laws even gentler and more civilized than those of Brobdignag, and an ally of the so-called Rationalist movement. Highly skilled in the mechanical arts, they have not only duplicated European methods of flight but developed great engines of war of their own design, powered by a secret magnetic process, with which they have so far defended themselves from predatory Brazilians and Peruvians with such vigor that they now control upwards of four hundred thousand square miles of jungle and swamp seized for defensive purposes, and their sages lament that their young men nowadays think of war as a profession rather than as an abomination.
Africa as OTL was eventually colonized, although some powerful, sorcerous kingdoms of the interior managed to avoid outright annexation: a large section of jungle is ruled as a private property of the heirs to an adventurer of philosophical turn, who set about creating a Platonic perfect philosopher-king state (it’s really quite ghastly). The Ottoman Empire still rules the Middle East: the existence of large amounts of oil under some of its possessions is of little interest in this world.
Due to the general spread of knowledge re the practice of necromancy, it has been discovered that there is indeed an afterlife, and it is in fact a bit like that that of the ancient Greeks, a dim, grey sort of place of ghostly shades, which usually spend several thousand years there trying to achieve the sort of spiritual enlightenment needed to “pass on” to the next stage of affairs. (There are multiple competing schools in the afterlife re how to pass on, and none of them are reliable enough to dominate, although they all agree Not Being an Asshole seems to be a fundamental necessity.) This has rather shaken up most religions, although the reaction has varied from Its Demonic Deception (many Protestants and Muslims) to Everyone Has to Spend Time in Limbo (Catholics) to It’s Just Karma (Hindus, Buddhists). There probably would be rather more new religions and more atheism if it were not for the fact that 1.) There is an afterlife, and 2.) Nobody has been able to summon up and no shade claims to have seen Jesus (or, for that fact, Mahomet, Buddha or Moses, although Confucius is well known).
Although the dead can only be summoned up for short periods at long intervals, and when summoned cannot be touched or harmed (shades can manipulate solid objects to a certain extent, but touching one yourself is like putting your hand into a chill fog), the problem of exploitation of the dead great concerns many. A shade can be commanded to do various things by the necromancer, from telling embarrassing personal secrets to (in the case of female shades) doing a dance of the seven veils to attacking the summoner’s enemies. You don’t want to anger shades, since they can do the “interpret wishes all too literally” thing just as well as a genie, and can complain of their treatment to the next summoner (who can, in many countries, then take legal action on the shade’s behalf), but there are enough necromancers out there nowadays that some are going to be incautious jerks. In the cases of many famous people of the past, groups of necromancers working together prevent them from being summoned by unauthorized parties, so when they are summoned, they always end up in the same place, somewhere pleasant and friendly: the nameless and forgotten dead have no such help, but at least the statistical odds of them being summoned are miniscule. Most nations strictly regulate necromancy and require extensive paperwork for every shade summoned, although that means that a lot of summoning happens on the sly and off the books.
History books have of course been heavily rewritten: in some of the more dictatorial countries, necromancy is forbidden for the same reason accurate historical research is. Nobody talks about "blind Homer" anymore. A great many books went on the remainders pile when the shade of Governor-General Kennedy’s assassin explained patiently that yes, he had done it, and yes, there hadn’t been any great conspiracy behind it. Although a great many historical works lost to time were recovered from the shades of dead artists and writers, to the disappointment of many classicists the shades of the ancient Greek playwrights had mostly forgotten their pre-death plays (although in some cases they had written some good ones since death, in spite of the not exactly inspiring nature of the afterlife).
As a result of the proof of an afterlife, gloomy as it is, there is less fear of death: deathbed scenes are more like saying farewell to someone exiled to Antarctica  in the 19th century: a vast separation, but not an unbridgeable one. If still conscious, the dying person will probably be pestered by someone giving them unsolicited advice from The Idiot’s Guide to the Afterlife or The Bostonian Book of the Dead. The biggest demand on Necromancers is, of course, from people wishing to contact deceased relatives, and since demand vastly exceeds supply (becoming a Necromancer is roughly as intellectually demanding as becoming a nuclear physicist, with more of a chance of horrible death), the bereaved must deal with either waiting lists years long or horrendous fees.
Still, the afterlife not being exactly pleasant, natural philosophy still struggles to extend the human lifespan. The clockwork heart still has its bugs, and although the Praetorious Humor Rebalancing Technique can actually considerably extend the human lifespan, the expense, plus the need of remaining hooked up to a system of tubes and pipes some seven hours out of the day does not exactly make it popular. The struldbrugs of Luggnagg have in fact been brought to other lands (after the French militarily compelled the kingdom to reverse the former ban on their export) explicitly for the study of natural philosophers, in hopes of determining the nature of their immortality and their immunity to disease (while finding some way to avoid the hideous decay of their faculties). It must be admitted that some people, as Gulliver hoped, have indeed been reconciled to the idea of the afterlife by seeing some of the struldbrugs, especially the one on display in the national gardens of Paris: the oldest known specimen, estimated at over 10,000 years by study of the bones, it (originally male, the sexual organs having shriveled up to dried-pea size) is entirely blind, incapable of motion except for a slow twitching, speechless, malodorous, and is able to ingest only soft babyfood, if it is put into its mouth: it was taken care of by a kindly sect of monks back home, nobody else being able to stand the detestable thing, which is shrunken to a length of less than three feet and with yellow, blotchy skin so wrinkled and involuted as to have an almost fungus-like consistency.
The Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses, have had a complex relation with humans, and their current overlord, the King-Emperor of Britain. Unable to stand off the world like the Brodnignagians, but hardly as defenseless as the Lilliputians, the intelligent horses were conquered, but could not truly be enslaved: human beings only ride normal horses because the horse is fooled into thinking the human rider is more powerful than he is. No Houyhnhnm has been ridden involuntarily by a human save under threat of death.
Although the King’s Sapient Cavalry have been disbanded, there remains a substantial Houyhnhnm population in Britain, mostly hiring themselves out in various capacities - and an odd mix of capacities it is – due to the crudeness of their “hands” and their difficulty in clearly imitating human speech, they do not do well in most skilled professions, so they do a lot of heavy labor, bodyguarding, as mounts for the rich, etc. – but due to their prodigious memories and high intellect, they often find position in “brain-work” positions: the most prestigious mathematics professor at Oxford is a Houyhnhnm. They also are wanted as dispute mediators, being both honest and quite disinterested.
Their race had never had need for money on their isle, having had an essentially socialistic pre-industrial society. They do not work to grow rich, they work so they can send money home to their island – to rent humans. Human hands are far more effective than the crude “claw” a Houyhnhnm can make with its extended pastern and flexible hoof (although, as anyone who has seen a Houyhnhnm-built house or watched one sewing can attest, they can achieve quite remarkable things with their limited manipulative equipment). Therefore, if their island is to develop modern industry and infrastructure, it will require human craftsmen and workers – and not cheap, unreliable ones either. Since aside from some foodstuffs and a little coal their island has nothing much to export, the development of a manufacturing capacity is considered essential in raising their standard of living to the point where they can stand (so to speak) on their own feet – the British Empire has given them extensive civil rights, but they are still legally separate from humans, and many nations do not recognize them as having any rights at all.
Unlike the Micros, there aren’t colonies of former Houyhnhnm slaves scattered around the globe: it’s a hell of a lot harder to sneak breeding pairs of full-size horses, especially ones with objections to be kidnapped, out of Britain, and the considerable ease with which a Houyhnhnm can kill a human being not keeping a gun on him at all times makes them poor slaves. (While holding the Sapient Cavalry’s homeland hostage always gave the British monarchy a hold on them, they also had various defined rights, and a place of honor in the Imperial armies.)
Houyhnhnms, a highly intelligent and philosophical race, are in some ways smarter than humans: they are careful, however, not to make a point of this, even those (and they are quite numerous) who have attained high places in academe and the natural sciences being reserved and not given to self-promotion. They also try to play down the fact that they are more rational, more honest, less greedy, etc…after all, Yahoos are dreadfully jealous creatures, and will always seek to foul that which is clean and drag down that which is superior. They hope that by teaching and writing they might in time improve the mental habits of the “short-haired Yahoos” to the point where they may be tolerable neighbors: but they also know that they must never let them know they are trying to improve them, since a Yahoo will rarely take well the efforts of an ethical teacher of his or her kind, let alone one of another species.
(They are deluded in their hopes, alas: a rational species, the Houyhnhnms are largely incapable of grasping to what extent humans are driven by emotions and dubious internal models of the world - and in turn, humans find them often cold and unfeeling in their inherent rationality. Romantic love, for instance, is utterly unknown to the Houyhnhnm).
There aren’t that many “actual” Yahoos left: the British colonists disliked seeing horses ruling over creatures which looked human, and when the "liberated" Yahoos proved too unmanageable, solved the new problem by killing all but a handful of the Yahoos living on the island. Although a few countries use Yahoos as slaves, generally they have not proven to be an effective substitute for human labor: besides the whole “horribly filthy” thing, they are often too dumb to generalize from fear of one human (say, an overseer with a whip) to general respect for humans: they are often a danger to children and young women, not to mention pets. Then they’re vindictive, mean, given to theft…some historians suggest that the Yahoos, by showing what a true “slave race” looked like, helped give impetus to the end of slavery in the British Empire, but the theory remains controversial. There’s an international Society for the Preservation of Yahoos, but they face an uphill struggle for public opinion.
The automatic identification of humans with Yahoos that Houyhnhnm make has caused endless vitriol to be spilled on paper by said humans, and endless books written to the effect that Yahoos and humans are not, in fact, related. This argument has continued as various species of large apes, dwarves, troglodytes and other odd humanoids have been found here and there in the remote parts of the globe. Recent archeological discoveries have given support to the “not-Yahoo-related” camp: unfortunately, they suggest a common ancestry for humans and Sus Scrofa, known commonly as the “pig.”
 Australia ended up colonized by the Dutch, but there are some habitable islands further south that proved useful as a dumping ground for convicts once the American colonies grew politically powerful enough to stop the practice in their country. (The Penguin-Men survive on a few reservations). Climatic zones are a bit different here: there is in fact open water around the North Pole, where the colossal Magnetic Mountain constantly crackles with weird electrical auras.