THE BIG BACKDROP

I love the song of the mockingbird,

bird of four hundred voices;

I love the sheen of jade

and the perfumes of flowers;

though more than all of these, I love

my fellow beings, humanity.

 

From the Nahua,

in the times of Nezahualcoyotl

THE YEAR OF THE COMET

It is the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium. The first generations of peoples born at the turn of the 21st century mature in a world still settling into an uneasy but hopeful peace. The previous century, they are told, was a pivotal moment in world history. Though the territorial extent of states historically fluctuated with wars of conquest, this was due to special conditions which were deemed not universal and not necessarily a component of the backdrop to the human condition. The language of conquest largely gave way, and after two world wars and a rapid process of decolonization and territorial partitions, the world has entered a steady period of relative stability. Conflict is instead characterized by low intensity conflicts, more often within states than between, and peace deals.

The Great War at the beginning of the 20th century set the foundation. In the wake, empires came crashing down. In the West, old monarchies vanished into thin air, and new political systems were found. In the East, the old ways regained a foothold to challenge foreign intervention, and political elites direct modernization to have more continuity with their local histories. In all corners of the globe, leaders ascended and charted new paths to lead their nations to statehood. Instead of sowing hate, influential leaders from the United States and Brazil ushered the world into a new global normal, founding the Society of Nations.

 

Deemed in the West as a retrenchment by some and a gift by others, the mode of thinking behind the Society concedes grounds for condemning and contradicting imperialism and various notions of  Western supremacy. This was the most radical turn of international politics after the war, but ironically, it was the Society's more accepted conservative side, that of mitigating inter-state violence for the sake of preserving global commerce, that spurred the founding members to come together in the Second World War to defeat fascism in the European and Asean theatres of war and bring peace to the long internal conflicts that turned into the Serican theatre. In the pragmatism of brokering alliances in eastern Europea and the Emporic rim, and in making peace deals in eastern Serica, ideals of socialist communism, neocolonial capitalism, and insular corporatism were grafted onto the Society.

Though now with its own internal issues and contradictions, the Society was seen as a collective liberating force after defeating the Axis. Instead of America taking its turn at empire-building—as the country that stood the most to profit from victory—it was the Society that collectively came onto the world stage as a global enforcer. With the war over, some western European states, still clinging onto their colonies, become quick victims of the victory that liberated them as they were compelled to pivot to the social promises espoused in the Society. The Society's internal bureaucracy burgeoned from the war, proved capable early on in being the channel for liberation movements to dismantle even the most domineering empires. With further treaty processes, the international organization became not only a site for seeking justice and arbitration, but itself turned into a powerful arbiter in international affairs. For the first time in the world, peace on Earth seemed to always be within-reach, enshrined as a possibility, and a new creed of people, referred to as the cosmopolitans, took centre stage in global politics. 

 

The cosmopolitans' post-war humanist fervor lead to the proliferation of Auguste Comte's Religion of Humanity, which first found fertile grounds in Brazil, but also the United States. They champion numerous universalist projects. Visible Speech is adopted as the de facto international phonetic system used in both academia and language learning materials. Intersign—inspired by the sign pidgin, Plainsign, developed in the Great Plains of Hanunea—becomes the world's first official universal language.

 

In the following decades, the Society continues to support independence movements and decolonization processes, summon coalitions for numerous peacemaking missions, and even annexes territories as perpetual global reserves to end mass atrocities against historically marginalized Indigenous peoples and gross environmental degradation. National armies demobilize and societies demilitarize. Political ideologies, though disparate in nature, have their prescriptions tempered, their supporters traumatized by the new scale of moral degradation and material destruction reached by humanity.

 

And yet, despite all this, in the fresh years of the next millennium, new generations of political actors with new motivations creep in from the margins. Some forget to heed old lessons. Others outright challenge with dauntless ambition. A divide is forming among the cosmopolitans on how to order the world, and all the while a great comet appears in the night sky...

A WEALTH OF NATIONS

In Altera, everything is strange yet familiar. The focal point in this world is the nation. Each one is a constellation, a sum of actions. Time and space, after all, is made sense by tracing out plots in the thickness of things to reveal a world riddled with formative events, of actions and reactions that form and divide, and which make sense the world in divergent yet similar ways. These constellations or nations, that is, illuminate a dazzling array of imaginaries which bind and yet promise.

Just as the way in which the backdrop is set affects the actions done on stage, with such complexity woven into fabric of the world, technological progress slows down, communication seems burdensome, and everywhere there is a wanting in geographers. Prescriptions for the fast track to utopia are quick to be dismissed, missions to civilize the myriad others are recalled, and stillborn is the plan to open up the world into a single market to capital and turning dynamic individuals everywhere into dull consumers. What matters most in this world, it seems, is figuring out where the lines of solidarity can be drawn and to insist to co-existence without having each party spiral down into cynical relativism and hardened insularity.

 

In the middle of the 20th century, various leading nation-states decided to form a new kind of world united in difference. Though all over the earth people continue to be suspicious of the state as an institution or even continue to resist state power, hundreds of newly formed states found their place onto the world map, and the nation-state became the arena into which most political conflicts are channeled through. Compared to our world, many more nations have made it to become nation-states—that is, countries. Some nations grew into their own states or amalgamated with others. In other places, power creeped in and climbed to the forefront, or the nation was captured only to be later released along with dozens of others, forever changed, in the rare moment in  history when the zeitgeist is the self-determination of peoples. 

The capacity of the nation-state, however, spells both a blessing for certain peoples and cultures but also the demise of others. Behind each nation-state, that is, country, is an intersection of narratives, norms, laws, religions, aesthetics, and practices. As social structures are overlaid with systems of control and leveraged by power—often directly by states themselves—there will always be dominant nations of the majority and nations who find themselves as the minority. But in the world of Altera, this is what has been bargained. Despite this, the world of Altera is every bit more colourful than our own, and pluralism within societies is often still the norm.

 

The nations of Altera sprawl over a globe inoculated with an alternate form of Liberalism. Ideals of co-existence come to the forefront in international debates, eclipsing discussions on how to develop material wealth. The cult of modernity and the fetishism for technological progress are replaced by a different kind of universalist optimism that seeks to unify all the peoples around the globe without flattening it. Talks of free trade are kept on hold, as world leaders choose to solve other problems rather than attempt to navigate the many contours of norms and political systems through the lens of profitability and cheap labour.

The second half of the 20th century undoubtedly belongs to the countries in the landmass of Gemina, far removed from the tragedies played out in Ecumina. Here, the fields and factories have been unscathed by war. America's own social contradictions, as well as Brazil's, having left behind their bloodiest moments in history to the 19th century, are curtailed more seriously before the turn of the 20th century, and their societies are carried into the next era with precocious civil rights movements and institutional trends of democratic socialism. Thus, a coalition of states from Septentrea, Crucea, Libya, Guinea, and northern Europea, headed by the United States, carry the torch of the Society's foundational principles in global politics, oriented towards the idea of co-habitation on a planet of natural wonder, recognizing it as having been tarnished by humanity's flaws but also illuminated by its imaginaries, its creativity and ingenuity. Meanwhile, on the rise are the communist republics of eastern and northern Asea, as well as the corporatists monarchies in eastern Serica, each seemingly their own poles in the world, and each offering their own promises and problems that need solving. A seemingly fourth pole is the logic of the company, which holds sway in western Europea, and continues to hold much of the Emporic Rim captured, and which is also steadily making inroads into the politics of America and Brazil. 


Nevertheless, a world made up of nation-states continues to be the status quo enforced by the League, though unlike in our timeline, the norms of self-determination have been carefully outlined so as to circumscribe the norms of state sovereignty in key circumstances. And as the League has been gifted powers of oversight, the international law of non-intervention does not apply to League mandates. Not only does the League engage in peacekeeping, it also has the capacity for peacemaking and other intrusive measures, fundamentally transforming the nature of conflict and setting the stage for a new normal in international affairs...

Main_Unframed.jpg
avatarcompass.png

CHOROGRAPHICAL ART

Atlas Altera is a work of chorographic fiction. It comes from a love of the uniqueness of place and to share that love through maps and narrative characterizations. It is a celebration of geography, history, and languages, as well as all the marvels that lie in us—us in all our own ways. Recognizing how world maps and place descriptions hold imaginary possibilities, it is a creative attempt at creating the backdrop we deserve. As Johann Herder believed poetry can give people their nations, it is hoped that here lies a backstory which may lead some back to a world of wonder, one worth cherishing.

In Atlas Altera, the cultural diversities in our own timeline—peoples and their dialects, knowledges, wisdoms, practices, foodways, traditions, beliefs, myths—are brought to the forefront. The world is rich in these things, but not enough, and not now. Those on the margins or at the brink of being extinguished are given space on this map if only to give more urgency to certain causes or to pinpoint where solidarity needs to take place.

 

This project could be labelled chorographic ironism. It is re-description, an exercise for depicting places and their pasts in new ways. It is about picking up plot lines that had been abandoned in our history, for though people die, culture lives on among the margins and as long as a single person remembers. The intention is not to aggrandize any historical or present nation, nor is it a revanchist stab, but instead, it is to spotlight the cultural diversity that we have inherited in the present, and for which we stand to lose in our lifetime.

The countries that appear on the map showcase as much contrasts as there are similarities in our world, and explores every twist and turn in history to allow for more outcomes and possibilities that could have been. In most cases, a country in Altera is a cartographic representation of a real and existing ethno-linguistic group. Almost every language family is visible in the territoriality configured in Altera. In fact, some 197 real language families are represented in Atlas Altera—as many as the number of countries in our current world, the national languages of which in total represent less than 20 families—with at least one language still alive from each family making it onto the map.

 

This is not, however, a utopian project. Not everyone makes it onto the map. Swathes of real world territory change hands. Some peoples stay as minorities. Wicked problems and intractable conflicts persist in Altera, if only for more realism, historical continuity, and complexity. Violence and mass atrocities do happen, though the path to correction may seem more resolute in this fictitious timeline. Ultimately, the project of Altera is about mitigating losses and inspiring something akin to hope, but not quite.

Videos & Podcast Episodes

Listen in to backstage discussions

in the map room! 

SPECIAL GROUNDS

The thinking behind Atlas Altera differs from most works of alternate history in that instead of choosing one point of divergence in our history, it investigates a plethora of points in our history that could have lead to the preservation of more difference. In this way, the undertaking contrasts with works of fundamentalist alternate history in that it does not reflect a realistic methodological approach, though a reasonable degree of consistency is followed in creating the timeline. 

But as the goal of the project is to capture on a map as many different aspects of our world as possible, the world in Atlas Altera is in its own way very real. This is a fictional project to surface the human wonders that exist within and under the current nation-states of our world, often hidden, subsumed, or persecuted. Even fantastical interventions in the geographical landscape offer more protection or insulation for certain peoples that would have been swallowed up in histories of expansion, all the while minimizing the effects on earth's delicate natural systems.

In this sense, the project straddles the grounds of liberal alternate history and hard fantasy, all the while building from knowledges gleaned from the fields of anthropology, linguistics, geography, and history. The medium of this project is a form of storytelling, one that refrains from fetishizing great men, empires, and essentialist attributes. It provides a slow and intimate way for the reader to come to understand far away places, because place matters.

Explanations - Marginalia - Etymologies

Access bonus materials on Patreon

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Atlas Altera is a work of fiction.

 

The base of the main political map is partly a tracing of a world map graphic by Martin Vargic and uses a world relief map produced by Natural Earth Data. Unless noted, derived maps and other graphics are original work.

Graphic content also features contributions by a community of supporters, such as Matteo Cavallo and Varjagen.

Thanks for subscribing for updates!

Signature.png