Alternate universes are a pretty popular trope in sci-fi and fantasy—as are secret histories, and strange texts that alter your perception of reality. All of which makes the eight books on this list kind of mind-bending, because each of has a secret history of its own—in that each once existed in a vastly different version. Imagine discussing a favorite novel with a friend and getting into an argument because you each have completely different memories of the story—and the discovering you’re both right. With the eight books on this list, that is an entirely plausible (if unlikely) scenario.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
If you read this fantasy classic before 1966, or if your edition was published before that date, odds are you’re reading a pretty different book than everyone else. The original version of The Hobbit, first published in 1937, was intended as a children’s book, and was much more lighthearted than the one modern readers are familiar with. It was conceived of before Tolkien produced The Lord of the Rings, which not only took the story in a much darker direction, but completely changed the character of Gollum and contradicted many of the events in the original draft (for one thing, Gollum freely gives the One Ring to Bilbo after losing their friendly riddling contest). Tolkien revised the crucial “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the late 1940s, and it was incorporated into all editions published after 1951. Later, he tried to tackle a more robust rewrite of the earlier book to match the more epic tone of the later one, but gave up when he realized he was losing what made The Hobbit special in the first place. But when unauthorized versions of his books began appearing in the 1960s, he finally did revise it more extensively to align it more closely to the trilogy—and renew the copyright in the bargain—resulting in the version we know today.
The Number of the Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein’s 1980 novel is a meta riff on alternate universes, fiction, and the craft of writing—and a hot mess no matter how you look at it. It’s one of those novels that looks brilliant when viewed from one angle and ghastly when viewed from another. It’s fitting, then, that an alternate version about to be published—a 185,000-word version has been discovered that will hit bookshelves in late 2019 under the title Six Six Six. Reportedly it follows the published version very closely for about a third of the story, then veers off into a whole new plot. Wherever you land on Heinlein’s place in SFF’s pantheon, The Number of the Beast is a fascinating book (in an essay on The Heinlein Society website, critic David Potter makes the interesting argument that the main plot of the novel is intentionally bad, while a better plot is unfolding in the background); that a second version (perhaps originating in one of the 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056 alternate universes identified in the novel) is nothing if not intriguing.
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke published Childhood’s End in 1953, and it has become one of his most famous and influential works. Clarke had two endings in mind when he submitted the novel, and dithered on which one to release. As he aged, he grew more stringent in his attitudes toward hard science in his fiction (his Space Odyssey series, for example, originally incorporated mystical elements that were largely retconned out by the time 3001: The Final Odyssey was published). When the novel was re-released in 1989, a lot had changed in terms of scientific advancement and the sociopolitical situation—notably, instead of the space race being at an exciting beginning, man had landed on the moon and the Cold War had settled in like a fog. To modernize the story, Clarke revised the beginning heavily to bring things up to speed, resulting in a different book in many ways—but none of the changes alter its ultimate message or impact.
The Stand, by Stephen King
Many writers chafe at the editing process, during which their brilliance is maligned and unappreciated by short-sighted editors who force them to make changes in the pursuit of improved writing or sales—or both. (We are giving writers the benefit of the doubt here, obviously.) Some of these writers later become incredibly successful and can then do something about it—as Stephen King did after he became, well, Stephen King. The original version of The Stand isn’t exactly short, even after the cuts King’s editors forced him to make to bring it down to mere doorstopper length. Twelve years later, he was able to republish the book with a whole novel’s worth of material (some 150,000 words) reinstated, along with significant revisions that went a long way toward establishing a growing multiverse concept that links many of his stories and novels together. The jury remains out on whether the reinstated material improves things (a case made especially hard to judge by the fact that the revised version has been the only one available for nearly three decades), but much of it is fascinating nonetheless.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
If you buy a copy of Mitchell’s challenging sci-fi novel in the United States and then compare it to a copy purchased in the United Kingdom, you’ll discover two subtly (and not so subtly) different versions of the same story. The bones of the narrative are the same, but there are a huge number of differences throughout, ranging from different word choices to completely rewritten paragraphs, to completely excised scenes. This is due to the fact that his U.S. editor left Random House shortly after the novel sold, leaving in limbo for months stateside while editing and production commenced in the U.K. When the U.S. version finally got moving again, it went through a wholly separate editing process, and Mitchell never bothered to square them with each other—a process he described as “a lot of flaff.” Mitchell didn’t think anyone would ever care enough about his book to ever notice [Editor’s note: I totally noticed—when I read it, I happened to be jumping back and forth between an import copy and the U.S. audiobook]. At least until a new, definitive edition comes out, it’s a book in two versions.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
Weir’s debut novel made quite an unlikely splash considering it’s a low-fi, rigidly realistic look at how an astronaut might survive being marooned on Mars for a very, very long time—a fantastic mundane sci-fi idea, to be sure, and hardly the stuff of sci-fi blockbusters. Until, of course, it became a blockbuster, first as a novel and later as a hugely successful film. Not everyone remembers that Weir, initially frustrated by a lack of interest from publishers, originally posted the novel as a serial on his website, and later made it available as an ebook before being approached by a traditional publisher. The book that was finally released to a mass audience a few months later is different in small but noticeable ways—mainly in the ending; in the original web version, the story ends with Mark Watney, safely back on Earth, being recognized by a kid who asks him if he’d ever go back to Mars. Watney’s response is as profane as you might expect.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is so infused into our culture it’s easy to think you know all about it even if you’ve never actually read it. And even if you have read it, you might not realize that there are two distinct versions of the novel—the original story Mary Shelley wrote and the revised version that resulted from Percy Shelley’s collaboration. An analysis of the two versions determined that Percy contributed about 5,000 words (out of 72,000) in a very different style from Mary’s own, and provided significant shaping t the work in terms of its philosophical and thematic aspects. It’s a fascinating demonstration of the power of editing; Mary’s extant original has a very different voice and energy, leaving us to wonder if the book would be as influential today if Percy had never touched it.
Rinkitink in Oz, by L. Frank Baum
Baum wrote 14 Oz books in his lifetime, and dozens of official entries in the series have been penned by others. Like many authors of successful series, Baum tried to step away from Oz and do something different, only to come back again and again because the books sold well. The 10th installment, Rinkitink in Oz, is often considered an outlier—albeit a very good one—because 90 percent of the story takes place outside of Oz; Dorothy only appears suddenly at the very end to give the heroes a tour of Oz. The reason for this is simple: it was originally written a decade earlier as a standalone fairy tale with no connection to Oz whatsoever. In need of a new Oz book and exhausted after a particularly busy few years of writing, Baum dusted off King Rinkitink, rewrote the ending with a bit of Ozness injected, and published it. The good news is, it’s one of the best stories in the series.
Did we miss any SFF books that have alternate versions? Let us know!
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