The Great Nebraska Sea Picture

From my Alien Space-Bat scenario thread...

"The Great Nebraska Sea", original US-only story by Allan Danzig


In the year 2011, the US is still united in spite of the sea which splits it nearly in two, although there have been rumblings. There are currently 49 states: the two Dakotas have merged, Puerto Rico has gained statehood, Oklahoma remains underwater and several small “remnant” states still cling stubbornly to their Senatorial representation. (Actually, Arkansas, having seen a population boom of migrants to its sunny, sea-washed Ozark Archipelago, has almost as many people as OTL). Although some nasty storms blow up the waterway in hurricane season, the great inner sea is full of shipping: the remarkable Ekranoplan ferry system carries goods and people across the waters at nearly 300 miles an hour skimming over the waves, giant nuclear-powered cargo containers carrying a quarter million tons of cargo, long-range “trucker” hovercraft able to travel on land as well as sea, private ships of all sizes. No foreign fishing boats, though: in spite of foreign grumbling, the US has declared all of the new Sea to be internal waters, 24-mile limit be damned.

Still, in spite of the easy boat and plane travel, and the massive new highway system threading the narrow Dakota borderlands between the Sea and Canada, there has grown a certain remoteness between the Eastern landmass containing the often squabbling power centers of the New South, the Upper West, and the Northeast, and the more coherent West led by California, with “peninsular” rump Texas and Louisiana still something of a world of its own. Sunny, high-tech, and looking across the Pacific to Asia, the West grumbles nowadays of being tied to a more backwards and racially troubled East. This is perhaps more a matter of perception than anything based in economic or social reality, growing out of maps and the frequent talk of an “eastern” and “western” US that have been part of the ongoing national dialogue since the Disaster.

To some extent, this is counterbalanced by the increasing sense of another identity, a “Nebraskan” identity tying together the dwellers along the shores of the new sea, the farmers who have benefitted from the new climate, the cities which have grown from land-locked hick towns to international ports, the millions who have moved to areas formerly too unappealing climate-wise. To many of these people the Sea is a unifying thing, and some of the strongest anti-separatist voices have come from the communities lying within a hundred miles of it.

Nixon remains a controversial president, although for different reasons than OTL. His decisive and energetic handling of the Disaster impressed enough voters that their representatives in many cases grew cool on impeachment, even after the establishment of Martial Law in nearly half the nation: anti-Nixon maneuvers rumbled on to the end of his term, but Nixon stayed the course until 1976. Today, the major dividing line is not re Watergate or Vietnam but whether his handling of the Disaster was brilliant (the non-Theocratic right) or dreadful (the Left and some of the more ferocious Millenarians): the “competent, given the limits he was working under” viewpoint is rarely heard for all the yelling.

The overlap between the Right and Millenarian religion is weaker than OTL, many religious people having been rather put off by Nixon’s coolness re turning the US into God’s Country (in preparation for Jesus’ immediate arrival) by legal decree. A third-party movement drawing members from both Republican and Democratic parties nearly put Billy Graham in the White House in 1984, but the economic recovery of the later 80s, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the lack of further Signs and Portents took some of the wind out of their sails, and the splitting of the movement between the Imminent Millenarians and the less radical Salvation Front, with the consequent vicious mutual hate-mongering and occasional assassinations has not done them any favors.

The US economy’s collapse brought down pretty much the whole rest of the world with it in ’74, which however failed to bring about a World Soviet Revolution. Indeed, as it drastically shrank the market for Soviet and eastern European exports, which when combined with the increase in food prices due to the US being on short rations, it proved rather destructive to the soviet economy as well: ’74 was a very hungry year in the USSR: not until ’77, with the expansion of European and Latin American production, would the food situation fully stabilized, and the Kiev Food Riots of ’75 brought back ugly memories of the collapse of the Czarist regime.

Although the Red powers took advantage of the immediate chaos, with the North Korean invasion of the south and the USSR taking a stronger pro-Arab stance during the Yom Kippur War (Haifa burned in retaliation for the nuking of Damascus), the basic strategic situation remained risky: when Nixon drew the line over Israel (unwilling to follow losses in Korea and Vietnam with one in the Middle East), the Soviets eventually climbed down and a negotiated peace rather than an outright Israeli surrender followed. With the following Soviet difficulties, it remained arguable whether the decline of the US really compensated for inherent Soviet weaknesses.

However, the slow and painful recovery of the European recovery from the crash, political turmoil and rising millenarianism in the US, some deft political pressure and maneuvering on the part of the USSR, and the European impression that the US had risked WWIII to save the Israelis, of all people, led to an alienation of the US from western Europe that led to the breakup of NATO by the early 80s, with Europe taking a tack of heavily armed neutrality (“Finlandization”, grumbled US talking heads) and a removal of US forces. Europeans also felt the USSR could be “domesticated” by bringing it into closer economic union and association with Europe, and followed a program of economic engagement in the 80’s (“Paying tribute”, grumbled US talking heads).

Although increased foreign investment and a shift of national income from the military to consumers made possible by the lessened US threat helped raise the Soviet standard of living, and the root and branch struggle to reform the farming system finally made the USSR once again self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs by the mid-80s, other problem areas were neglected: the increasingly gerontocratic leadership failed to learn any other lessons from the 70’s than “food is important.” Huge sums were spent on prestige projects such as the ’85 Moon shot and the expanded Siberian railway system, and on supporting third-world “progressive” regimes while value added economic growth shriveled. With a shrunken global economy, oil prices never rose as high as OTL after the initial embargo shock, reducing Soviet outside income.

By the late 80s, economic stagnation combined with increasing unrest in Eastern Europe (if anything increased by the withdrawal of the US from the European theatre: it’s easier to revolt if you’re not worried about it bringing on WWIII and the End of Civilization) had brought things to a point of crisis.
In retrospect, a major reorganization of Eastern Europe to make it an economic asset again rather than a drain was probably a poor idea, especially when combined with a default on European loans and threats to cut off Europe from natural gas supplies if such loans were not rescheduled. When Eastern Europe spiraled out of control, the Western states were not helpful at all.

A rump USSR is still around in 2011, having emerged from the so-called “New Time of Troubles” of the 90s shorn of most of Eastern Europe and most of its non-Slavic territories. It’s probably only stubbornness that keeps it calling itself the USSR rather than Russia: the resentful, Red-Brown one party regime currently running the place is more Slavic-nationalist than Socialist, although they keep many of the old buzzwords, and retain ties to various “left” dictatorships in Africa and the Middle East . Capitalism has shakily emerged, with rather more state intervention and less gangsters (the Gulags remain in operation) and the per capita GNP is roughly on a par with OTLs Russia. It still largely feeds itself: heavy import tariffs on foreign grain, potatoes, etc. keep Russian-grown foodstuffs competitive with goodies from abroad. Major areas of unrest during the 90s, the western Ukraine and the Caucuses region remain under special military rule, as are the Kazakh majority areas. (The Ukraine is pretty quiet nowadays: snarky foreign observers think that it remains a special military zone because of the greater opportunities for corruption).

The Korean People’s Republic actually mellowed in the later years of the first Magnificent Leader, opposition being confined to the tiny enclave of Cheju Island: the trend has followed under his son, and nowadays The Korean People’s Republic is hardly more tyrannical than OTL Syria and hardly more economically screwed up than OTL Cuba. It still does maintain 2 million people under arms and has had nuclear weapons since the late 1980s, and people still are a bit jumpy about Korea nearly going to war with Japan when that country’s secret atom bomb project came to light in 2003.

Japan was hit hard as the rest of the world by the economic collapse, but in the long term it missed the “bubble” prosperity of OTL’s 1980s and the subsequent collapse: it is a “normal” industrialized nation nowadays rather than a world-beater, but maintains a decent (EC average) rate of per capita economic growth, and perhaps due to more confidence about the future, it has a higher birth rate (if still not enough to prevent slow population decline). On the down side, the sense of being in a Bad Neighborhood (frequent Korean muttering about the Japanese Menace – always a popular theme – didn’t help) and uncertainty about US commitments has led Japan to conclude that they needed a nuclear deterrent of their own – which has in turn led to what is becoming a full-blown nuclear arms race with Korea. The US and Korea’s ally China are currently trying to defuse the situation: the Koreans are being…difficult.

Since the sad date when Israel was forced to return most of its 1967 conquests (it did hold onto Jerusalem), the political complexion of the Middle East has undergone various mutations, and is currently rather complex: Israel is currently allied to Turkey and of all people the Saudis in an alliance vs. the left-radical regimes and the right-nationalist “neo-fascist” ones which want to see the end of the Arab monarchies, the unification of the Arab world, driving the Israelis into the sea, etc. The Saudis are simultaneously allied with Iran (Shi’a but not Mullah-run: the Soviet intervention in the Iranian civil war rather butterflied the course of Iranian politics) specifically to contain Iraq, which with its atomic weapons and orbiting satellites fancies itself a regional Great Power. Israel is even more heavily armed than OTL: nowadays only the USSR and the US have more atomic warheads, and two of the three Israeli missile-carrying subs (bought from the Koreans) are on patrol at all times.

Central Asia is a mess. Although Afghanistan avoided the Soviet invasion of OTL, it has become the site of a fierce proxy war between hostile neighbors Iran and Islamicist Pakistan (Pakistan in this world never got the economic and political boost from being the US’s platform for Afghan interventions, and sunk into failed-statedness and Islamic revolution by the 90s). Fortunately for people’s nerves, this world’s Pakistan has yet to develop the nuke.
Currently tensions are high with India (not too different a place from OTL), which is finally working to establish a Pax Vivendi with the Kashmir Muslims: the major worry in Islamabad is that they will actually offer enough concessions to succeed.

Burma is still called Burma, and is a fairly conventional left-wing dictatorship propped up by China, the SLORC takeover having been butterflied: it’s unpleasant, but not as much as the OTL version. Singapore, lacking territory for expansion, has become the world’s first franchise nation: its Philippine knock-off (autonomous within the Philippine state) has been successful enough and economically beneficial enough to the Philippines that there is talk of building a third one in Australia, which is looking to boost a sluggish economy in the NE.

White South Africa, even more isolated than OTL, was slow and reluctant to trust the Africans in the face of the continuing Red Menace, but as in our world Mandela was freed to act as a peacemaker, and in a longer and more torturous process than OTL the nation became free. The current government is more aggressive in pushing its influence abroad than OTLs version, and after “restoring order” in Zimbabwe there is some talk of incorporating the state into a Greater South Africa: Botswana and Namibia are also on the “to join” list, which makes local leaders nervous.

Castro died under mysterious circumstances in 1999 while visiting an international socialist conference in India: some say he was killed by order of the “Emergency Committee” running the USSR at the time: he had certainly had some harsh words for their handling of the situation. The Cuban Communist regime did not long outlive him. Bolivia went communist for a bit, but it was only 24-month Communism. The Red insurrection in Columbia, a more serious affair than OTL, tied up a lot of US soldiers in the South American jungles for a while, as guerilla activity spread into Venezuela and Brazil. Fortunately, Brazil and Venezuela were not Laos or Cambodia or even North Vietnam.

Canadians worry about the US, worry that having lost all that territory, the US might look north for new lands, just as they do whenever they lose the Confederacy in AH. As it is, the US has pushed the Canadian government to allow US rails and roads to run north of the border, so all US east-west land commerce would not be confined its current narrow little strip of Dakota: negotiations continue. And Americans do talk. Some note that with Canada as part of the US, the US will only have a big inlet, rather than being virtually split in two…

The world is generally leftier than OTL, with something of a drag effect on the world economy: the capitalist nations had a bad time of it in the 70s and well into the 80s, and the Soviet collapse was less systemic, while the US in the 70s rediscovered the value of government employment and public works in time to choke the Reagan Revolution in its cradle. Although the Socialist Tide has continued to recede, it has not gone entirely, and there are still some vigorous socialist movements in the third world, most notably the Africa-centered (but with some Latin American influence) Populist-Agrarian movement, with its emphasis on economic development at the level of the peasants and villages rather than Big Steel things, which includes a lot of what is actually micro-capitalism but which the theorists refer to “proletarian markets.” So far, there have been some successes at raising rural living standards, and if the Millennium has not arrived yet, it has not convinced the poor masses of the world that There is No Alternative to hard-core capitalism.

The Chinese are also “leftier” than OTL, the less promising international trade and investment situation as the 1980s began making the Chinese more dependent on developing the internal economy and increasing productivity and less on cheap exports than OTL: China is poorer, but there have been some benefits- the educational system is superior to OTL, for instance. China is still a crap dictatorship, but it gets along better with the US, partially due to the fact both still have poor relations with the Soviets. (Less cheap Chinese crap crowding the store shelves removes another source of tension).

Leftist regimes multiplied in the 70s and 80s, but many collapsed or turned away from Soviet-type economics after the Soviet Empire messily crumbled in the 90s: the USSR nowadays props up “leftist” regimes as a matter of great-power prestige and a stubborn insistence on still being recognized as a leading power, shitty as their economy currently is. The Derg held onto power in Ethiopia longer than OTL with Soviet support, and their collapse took down the old Ethiopian imperial state with it, while the chaos spilled over into Sudan and cracked that state in two.

Atomic weapons are even more widely distributed than OTL, and the death of 50,000 Syrians and 80,000 Israelis in 1973 form a worrying precedent: it is possible to use atomic weapons in warfare without the world ending. The USSR used a couple minimal-yield “tactical” devices against rebels during the Time of Troubles: and the British compensated for a lack of US support and limited naval capacity during the Falkland Islands conflict by simply vaporizing an Argentine naval formation. (The Argentines still hold that they wuz cheated).

The EC, dominated by an Italian-French-German triumvirate, is smaller but more closely unified than OTL, leftier, more “continental”, and less enthused re expansion; following a program of armed neutrality since the late 70s, the Community is contemplating taking Spain and Yugoslavia abroad, but after East Germany was hugged to the bosom of the West in 2002, they no interest in pissing off the Soviets by moving much further into Eastern Europe (although EC companies are happy to snap up post-communist bargains throughout the area). Having suffered most of a decade more of Communist rule and bloody rebellion in the cases of Poland, Romania, Hungary and East Germany, the East is in poorer shape economically than OTL: politically, it tends towards the authoritarian. The US, which has broadened its interests abroad as the economy recovered and confidence returned from the late 80s on, has got involved, which pisses off both Soviets and the EC.

The world is less unified: globalization is less advanced, economic barriers are higher, governments are less willing to trade local jobs for theoretically superior overall economic performance: the 70s did not turn the Capitalist modern nations Red, but it was an economic blow rivaling the OTL great depression, and has left a lasting uncertainty about the future which makes trusting in the Free Market to overcome all seem absurd. (Global warming is little doubted: people are all too familiar with seas rising and swallowing the lands). Europe is rather less responsive to the US lead, and Japan is likewise a far more independent actor. There are far less US bases abroad.

Technology is a bit less advanced, the economic collapse of the 70s having seriously impacted R&D. The internet is relatively crude, and cell phones are still mainly phones. On the other hand, US self-inflating life raft technology is truly amazing.

The filling of the new Inner Sea, by increasing the ratio of land to water, has had uncertain and perhaps un-calculable effects on global climate. Rather more noticeably, shallow as the new sea is, it has drained water away from the oceans: global sea levels have dropped by nearly 33 inches. Although tiny by the standards of an Ice age (during the last one, drops up to 120 meters took place), and having only a minor effect on the map (which, lazy bugger that I am, I have not shown), the sudden nature of the drop has had major effects world-wide. Fishing and clam-digging grounds have been seriously disrupted. Tidal life, of the rooted-to-the-spot variety, has been devastated. Coastal mangrove swamps and tidal wetlands were also hit hard. Grayson’s Purple-Spotted Fiddler Crab went extinct. The sea suffered a plague of icebergs in ’74, ice shelves cracking as the level of buoyant waters dropped. Many harbors have had to be dredged after suddenly becoming shallower.

Most important in human eyes, however, has been the exposure of thousands of square miles of new land: given the low slope of the continental shelf, a drop of under three feet can move the shoreline hundreds of feet. (Results in river delta areas were often more complex: although land was exposed, the sudden drop in sea level led to changes in the flow of the rivers, sometimes washing away land as well as exposing it). Some island nations actually saw noticeable percentage increases in their area. Although much of the exposed new land is not worth much (being sand or infertile mud), land is valuable in many crowded countries and a global “land rush” took place in the weeks and months after the Disaster. In many cases it led to violence, death, and even the overthrow of governments. Many were ruined trying to make a living on salt-soaked soils. Other managed to make something of it, even trucking in new soil to build up the land. A rash of new hotels went up (some to be wrecked in the next storm season, waves rolling across the almost flat exposed sea bottom).

Global warming theorists have grumbled about this: thanks to the sea level drop, humanity had gained a useful buffer zone against future sea level rises. And what have we done? We have filled it up with people.


One thing that long encouraged a religious interpretation of the Disaster which killed 14 million Americans (also some 400,000 Caribbean folks in the way of consequent tidal waves, but they get less memorial TV time) was the inexplicability of it. Established theories of geology could not explain it. Half a dozen new schools of geology arose to explain it, flourished in their day, and went down to dusty death as the continued evolution of planetary science blew elephant-sized holes in their innovative ideas.

An actual explanation began to emerge in November, 2008, when a survey ship using sound waves to seek oil below the sea floor near the edge of the sea picked up a very odd-looking echo. The head of Nebraska Oil, inc., a man of Nebraskan birth and little trust in the government, kept it on the quiet until a oil platform could be moved to the area and a drill lowered.

What the drill brought up were chips of a metal-ceramic substance unknown to material science: apparently the outer shell of what lay 1000 meters below the floor of the new sea, what looked like a broken crab – a crab a bit bigger than Godzilla, which looked as if it had been digging up from some greater depth when it stopped moving. A press conference – with full satellite hookup – was held not long after.

Since then, three other machines – for what else to call them- have been found at varying depths below the new sea floor. None appear to be functional, and the depths at which they lie has made close investigation so far impossible, although the wearing out of many diamond-tipped drills has brought up a variety of fragments of exotic substances. Current theory holds that the Disaster was in fact a deliberate Terraforming – or other-planet-forming – effort by being or beings unknown. Why it went no further, how the machines got down there, and if it might start up again, remain unknown, An international effort has got under way to use the most modern geological tools to search everywhere beneath the Earth’s surface for any other machines – active ones especially. International hostilities have temporarily been put on the back burner. And people are watching the skies. [1]

[1] Nah, not Lovecraft per se, although I suppose it has a Lovecraft feel: it's just good ol' Alien Space Bats. I couldn't find a convincing "in universe" explantation of how the central US sank: it's geological nonsense, and the story is supposed to be in the "real world" - it's not a setting where changes in the shapes of the continents take place in (near) historical time, as in the Conan-universe. I thought of coming up with some sort of elaborate Alternate geology to explain it, but even by 1963 standards it's just bad science. So I just said the heck with it and decided to let the ASBs make an appearance for once...

PS - to clarify, the Dakotas merged, Oklahoma sank entirely and was abolished, and the tiny remnants of Mississippi, Arkansas, Nebraska, and Kansas still hold representation in the Senate and the house

Re Singapore: I was reading "Snake Agent" by Liz Williams (recommended: most fun I've had with Chinese mythology since Barry Hughart), which is set in the future (but not our future) in a "franchise city" called Singapore-3, which made me think...and I've always been fond of putting at least one odd thing in my maps.
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