ISOT – Transporting Nations Across Time and Space

Have you ever wondered what would happen if country/city/province X was sent back to year Y? Would they change the geopolitical landscape enough to satisfy the wildest revanchist fantasies, prevent wars and atrocities, or jump-start technological development to give us all flying cars and weekend vacations on the Moon centuries ahead of schedule?

ISOT (Island in the Sea of Time) is a term coined by S.M. Stirling for eponymous trilogy of alternate history novels, and now used widely in the alternate history community to describe a territory transported by unnatural means to a different time, different place, or even a different timeline. Both alternatehistory.com and counter-factual.net have abundant scenarios involving ISOTs to the point where “to ISOT” becomes a common verb.

There is, however, one aspect of an ISOT scenario that is very rarely addressed in those scenarios – the psychological and the logistical impact of it. Today’s post will attempt to take a brief look into logistics of an ISOT scenario, and why it would probably turn disastrous in a matter of days.

Let’s imagine that without warning, the world around us changes. All of a sudden, we find ourselves surrounded by unfamiliar places, people, and cultures. Maybe that 7-11 store on the corner is now a Burger King, and the gas station is now a library. That alone would probably cause quite a few people to panic due to disorientation. But that is not all.

When you try to use your credit card to put fuel in your car, it no longer works, even though you were in no danger to run short on funds. Your cell phone does not work, and your calls to familiar contacts are answered by complete strangers. Driving home, you see unfamiliar streets, some of which have signs in a language you don’t understand. And when you finally make it to what looks like your neighborhood, you cannot find your house, no matter how you try, while local residents eye you suspiciously.

What you have just experienced is an ISOT, on a personal scale. You will have no information on the world you have found yourself in, no means to replenish your financial resources, most tools and devices you have brought with you may be worthless or useless, and you will have no support network to help you through this. Chances are, unless you happen to be imperturbable and impossible to disorient, you are probably on the verge of full-blown panic, and even if you manage to compose yourself, you will have found yourself with no money, no place to stay, and no friends to rely on.

The same problems will affect any larger entity transported through time and/or space. Even if some countries or entities are mostly self-sufficient at a basic level, modern life requires a wide variety of materials and other resources. It is no accident that many of our consumer products are made in China, or that much of our oil is imported from Canada and the Middle East. There are numerous other products and resources essential to our way of life (or, more accurately, to our standard of living) that are imported from elsewhere. And some of those resources might be actually necessary for our society to function – for example, while no one would miss plastic toys sold for under a dollar at WalMart, we might need to have continued supply of uncommon minerals or metals to maintain our technological base.

Any ISOT would instantly require us to find new sources for the materials our society needs to function, just like a person in my earlier example would need to find ways to pay for food and shelter. And it is the one thing that cannot be put off until it is convenient. It is a basic need that must be addressed immediately.

While this does give an advantage to societies at lower technological level, even those societies might have needs they cannot address internally. More advanced societies might be very hard pressed to maintain their technological level, standard of living, or even to meet their immediate needs without resorting to emergency measures. And herein lies the next dilemma.

A single displaced person will be already disoriented and probably very, very afraid. A nation may have a hard time imposing control within its own territory, especially once it becomes clear that something had happened. While a dictatorship or a nation accustomed to tight government controls over every aspect of its society might be able to keep the population in the dark until some kind of solution is developed, most first-world societies would find out soon enough that something is awry. Yes, it is possible to essentially shut down even a first-world nation with a tradition of open press and personal freedoms, but the proverbial cat will be out of the bag soon. The longer the state of emergency lasts, the more resistance will it face if the population is not used to it. In such situation, it may even lead to civil war if no information is released by the government.

When some form of information does become available, it is bound to cause widespread panic. If there is no rational explanation for ISOT, people are likely to come up with all sorts of irrational explanations, from acts of God to alien intervention to, well, you name it. These explanations are very likely to cause additional social unrest, just like a displaced person might wonder if he or she is insane due to the lack of explanation on how he/she ended up in a strange new environment.

Every religious leader will try to offer an explanation fitting within his/her chosen religious framework. Every poorly understood fringe group will claim that the “event” is in some way a fulfillment of their prophecies or predictions. Many more fringe groups may consider the “event” a carte blanche to take actions deleterious to the society at large, from attempts at peaceful secession to violence. Individual people convinced that the shortages are coming and the end of civilization is near may resort to clearing the store shelves, looting, or other undesirable behaviors.

The law enforcement will be stretched to the limit, and military will have to step in to provide additional manpower. Even then, there is a possibility that some sections of the military may not obey the government orders, especially if the government cannot come up with a quick, coherent response.

As government authority deteriorates, the costs of maintaining the state of emergency will become apparent. On the bright side, ISOT means that all of the nation’s debts have disappeared. Conversely, there are significant costs to maintaining a nation that is suddenly producing very little, has resource shortages, and requires large force to keep peace. A nation would have to dig deep into its reserves and hope that it can maintain sustained operations for long enough before it can establish some sort of relations with its new neighbors, and secure the key resources.

Ah, neighbors. Remember our hypothetical displaced individual getting odd looks? A nation appearing out of nowhere would almost certainly cause panic in the outside world. Perhaps the rest of the world sees it as an apocalyptic event. Maybe it validates a prophecy in some religion, or perhaps it can be interpreted in religious terms. Maybe the newly emergent country had replaced a major power, or a major resource producer, throwing the geopolitical picture into flux. Maybe the new arrival is significantly more (or significantly less) technologically advanced than its neighbors. And maybe the “event” had triggered a mass panic that could only result in trigger-finger military responses.

The newly arrived nation may be fully unprepared to defend itself militarily if it does not know what it is facing. Some of its more technologically advanced defenses might be rendered irrelevant, as they were built to deal with a geopolitical situation in its original world. It would have no idea as to the capabilities of its potential enemies, their motivations, tactics, armed force compositions, and so on. Perhaps the most dangerous attack comes from the least expected direction – for example, maybe the United States is transposed into a timeline where the location of Canada was occupied by an aggressive, expansionistic, and technologically advanced nation deciding to invade the new arrival before asking questions.

Even if no other nation makes an immediate hostile move, there is a question of knowledge. Just like our traveler having no idea where he or she is, and who can be of help, a transported nation would be on its own. It would arrive into a world already defined by long-standing cultural, political, and economic trends, with no idea of its alliances and geopolitics. It may be so different from the other nations on the planet that there are barely any diplomatic common grounds. It may speak a language considered extinct in a new world, or it may be surrounded on all sides by unfriendly powers with ideologies completely opposed to its own. Even if none of these issues occur, diplomacy will be anything but a given, and may take more valuable time before the nation’s immediately needed resources run out.

To put it simple, an ISOT event would be a massive logistical nightmare. While asking what would happen if a nation was transposed to another time/place/timeline is certainly a valid discussion topic, the answer may be very well dictated by whether or not a nation survives the ISOT to begin with.

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3 Comments

  1. A story with a single person might be interesting, but outside of a very personal level it may not have a great impact.

    Chris

    Reply
  2. Interesting article Alex, and quite an important point.

    Minor quibbles:

    “Your cell phone does not work, and your calls to familiar contacts are answered by complete strangers. Driving home, you see unfamiliar streets, some of which have signs in a language you don’t understand.”

    If signs are in a language you don’t understand, maybe try “your phone isn’t recognised by any of the existing networks”, “the mobile phone technology used in this world isn’t compatible with your phone”, “the numbers you dial aren’t recognised as they use a completely different numbering system”, “mobile phones haven’t been invented” or even “this world has no concept of ‘phone'”.

    “While a dictatorship or a nation accustomed to tight government controls over every aspect of its society might be able to keep the population in the dark until some kind of solution is developed, most first-world societies would find out soon enough that something is awry. Yes, it is possible to essentially shut down even a first-world nation with a tradition of open press and personal freedoms, but the proverbial cat will be out of the bag soon.”

    Try pretty much any nation which isn’t the equivalent of North Korea, it you mean a modern state in our timeline.

    The cat will be out of the bag withn seconds to anyone with a shortwave radio or Internet access (and possibly satellite TV). Imagine, say, going back even a decade or two and you can’t access yourfavourite websites, and the SW radio is picking up stations that no longer exist reporting news which is years old.

    Reply

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