Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sobel Wiki: a word from our sponsor

This week's featured article on the Sobel Wiki is Owen Galloway, locomobile magnate, philanthropist, pacifist, and a direct descendant of noted Loyalist Joseph Galloway. This presents a problem, because none of Joseph Galloway's sons survived to adulthood. When the fighting broke out in 1775, his only surviving child was his daughter Elizabeth. In our history, Galloway's wife Grace died in 1782, and we can only assume that she died around the same time in Sobel's history, and that Galloway remarried and had at least one son by his second wife.

In the Sobel Timeline, Owen Galloway played a similar role to that of our own history's Henry Ford, hitting on the idea of building low-cost cars for a mass market. He also dispayed a touch of William C. Durant by acquiring seven other locomobile companies and combining them into North American Motors, the world's largest car company. He then started up a subsidiary oil company to provide fuel for his cars, a subsidiary financial company to offer loans to car buyers, and a subsidiary motel chain to give motorists a place to stay the night.

Galloway's most significant accomplishment, though, had nothing to do with his car company. At a time when society in the C.N.A. was undergoing a major social disturbance, Galloway hit upon the idea of forming a trust fund to subsidize emigration by North Americans. This made Galloway the most popular public figure in the C.N.A., and his weekly vitavision addresses attracted larger audiences than any of the entertainment programs (except possibly his own Galloway Playhouse). Galloway wasn't interested in a political career, but Sobel reports that a whole generation of North American politicians courted popularity by imitating Galloway's wooden delivery.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sobel Wiki: unilateral assured destruction

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on the War Without War -- the Sobel Timeline's version of the Cold War. But as is usually the case with the Sobel Timeline, the differences are more important than the similarities.

To start with, unlike our own history, there was no ideological component to Sobel's version of the Cold War. Instead of two rival superpowers with rival ideologies, the War Without War has no less than five major powers facing off against each other: the Confederation of North America, the United States of Mexico, the British Empire, the German Empire, and the global supercorporation Kramer Associates. The British and the C.N.A. are allies (or at least, they are when the C.N.A. isn't feeling isolationist), but otherwise it's pretty much a free-for-all. And the closest thing to an ideological rivalry is the U.S.M.'s populist dictatorship versus K.A.'s corporate meritocracy, with the other three powers all being liberal democracies.

Also, our world's Cold War started with a nuclear stalemate between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. In the Sobel Timeline, nuclear weapons are only invented fifteen years into the War Without War. And the result isn't so much a stalemate as a form of global blackmail. The atomic bomb is first invented by Kramer Associates, and K.A. President Carl Salazar explicitly threatens to use it against any nation that attempts to re-start the Global War. Sobel is at some pains to paint Richard Mason, the leader of the C.N.A., as a fool. Yet Mason is the only world leader to take Salazar at his word. Instead of attempting to replicate K.A.'s nuclear weapons program, Mason is content to allow the corporation to maintain its nuclear monopoly, and allow the C.N.A. to shelter under the nuclear umbrella of Salazar's Pax Kramerica.

The picture we get of the War Without War is ambiguous, because the artist who draws it is an unreliable one. The alternate Sobel who is the nominal author of For Want of a Nail is not an impartial observer of his world. He is a native of Australia, a country that was dependent on huge subsidies from Kramer Associates to survive the Global War, and a country that Sobel himself admits is becoming an economic colony of K.A. At the end of Nail, we learn that Sobel has emigrated to K.A.'s Taiwanese fiefdom under the patronage of Stanley Tulin, Carl Salazar's court historian. Nail can be seen (and in some quarters, we learn, is seen) as a work of K.A. propaganda, praising Salazar and his predecessors, vilifying his Mexican enemies, and seeking to sway North American public opinion away from the pacifistic Peace and Justice Party and towards the bellicose People's Coalition.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sobel Wiki: the border that wasn't

This week's featured article on the Sobel Wiki is the Confederation of Southern Vandalia, Sobel's "black confederation" (the scare quotes are his). As I've noted before, Southern Vandalia was part of Sobel's alternate version of American race relations, a part of the C.N.A. where black North Americans could, to use a modern expression, escape the kyriarchy that dominated the rest of the country, and establish a society that was, if not color-blind, then at least biased in the other direction. Sobel's majority-black confederation was established in 1877. By the turn of the 20th century, young black Southern Vandalians who were the product of that society began emigrating to the majority-white areas of the C.N.A., seeking opportunities that weren't available in their own decidedly rural home state. By the middle of the century, racial animosity in the C.N.A. had receded to the point where there were, to use another modern expression, no racial dog-whistles employed when black and white candidates campaigned against each other for the office of chief executive.

For students of Sobel's alternate history, however, Southern Vandalia is as much a cartographical puzzle as a sociological one. On page 140, Sobel has this to say on the separation of Vandalia into northern and southern sections:
This fast growth created problems of administration, and in addition, there were conflicts between miners and farmers, immigrants and native-born Americans, settlers from Indiana and the N.C. on the one side and the S.C. on the other. Because of this, all members of the Grand Council but four recommended the division of the confederation. Governor Hiram Potter also supported division, which was accomplished in 1877. Northern Vandalia (the area north of the 40th parallel) contained the mines, many foreign-born and Indiana-N.C. settlers, and wheatlands, while Southern Vandalia had almost all the S.C. immigrants, the richest farmlands in the region, and the largest proportion of Negro North Americans in the C.N.A.
So, based on Sobel's reference to the 40th parallel, a typical map of Southern Vandalia looks like this:

But if you look at the frontispiece map in Nail, you'll find that it shows Southern Vandalia looking like this:

So, how do you reconcile the contradiction between the text and the only actual map of the C.N.A. that we have access to?

The standard solution is to ignore the map and stick to the 40th parallel as the boundary between Northern and Southern Vandalia. But I admit that I'm becoming less satisfied with that answer than I used to be. Those of us who have spent far too much time studying the Sobel Timeline have explained away much knottier contradictions than this.

In this case, I think the thing to bear in mind is that not all geographical expressions are meant to be taken literally. In our own history, for example, "the Mason-Dixon line" is used as shorthand for "the boundary between free states and slave states/former slave states" even though the actual Mason-Dixon line was simply the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the same way, it's possible that in the Sobel Timeline, "the 40th parallel" was used as shorthand for the boundary between majority-white and majority-black areas of Vandalia. When it came time to draw the actual boundary, though, the Grand Council did some gerrymandering to ensure that as many of Vandalia's black residents were south of the line, and as many whites were north of it, as possible.

Of course, if we accept this interpretation of "the 40th parallel", it will mean redrawing most of the maps on the Sobel Wiki. But since they'll conform more closely with the source material, it would be a change worth making.

I solicit the opinions of other Sobel scholars on the question.