Ian's Book Review

"For Want of a Nail"

(Robert Sobel, 1973)


For Want of a Nail is a singular work in published alternate history. Unlike the masses of fictional works set in alternate worlds, and the occasional description of an alternate history for the purposes of overt what-if questions and roleplaying sourcebooks, its format is of a nonfiction book from an alternate world. Specifically, a history book written just like a real history book, but detailing the history of an alternate timeline. The writer, Robert Sobel, is a business historian and he has written a book that (other than the fact that the events it describe never happened), is distinguishable from a real history only by the copyright page and the subtitle "If Burgoyne had Won at Saratoga". It comes complete with footnotes (and rather interesting ones), a bibliography consisting of fictional books and some very old but real works, an introductory map, and a critique by another historian (fictional, one assumes, though it may be one of Sobel's real-world colleagues in disguise).

As suggested by its format, For Want of a Nail reads like a history book (one focusing on political and economic history primarily, with occasional references to social and military history). It is thus a bit dry if you don't like reading history books, but personally I found the attention to even the smallest colorful details fascinating, while the book as a whole moved along at a good clip - it's about 400 pages of actual text, in the format of a survey history of an alternate North America. It covers 200 years, from the American Revolution to the time when Sobel actually wrote the book (1971). If it were a real history book, it would be considered a fairly interesting one.

My opinion is pretty easy to sum up - I consider For Want of a Nail to be the greatest work of alternate history that I have ever read, bar none. Note that I'm referring to "work of alternate history" in the sense of creating and describing a detailed and plausible alternate world, not in the sense of telling an interesting story. There are alternate history novels which I've enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed this book, but they generally excel in the departments of story and plot, which serve to cover up implausible or simplistic alternate histories. The timeline of this book - in terms of plausibility, interest, consistency, depth, and attention to detail - has set the bar for all other timelines. It has more detail and depth than any other timeline ever created by a long way, with 400 pages of pure, unpadded alternate history. The next biggest timeline in terms of sheer level of detail is the Draka series, a distant second with maybe half that much alternate historical material scattered throughout four times as many pages. It's hard to even come up with the second best timeline in terms of quality, because everything is so far behind. Not that there aren't plausibility problems with the book - there are some, which I'll come to in a bit - but they are so minor compared to those of most alternate histories that they hardly seem to exist at all. Even the soc.history.what-if newsgroup's finest, on deliberate quests to produce very plausible timelines, have never significantly exceeded FWOAN's realism.

First, I shall introduce you to the basic premise of the timeline. The divergence occurs in the American Revolution (the first main difference being a British victory at the Battle of Saratoga). Eventually, Britain is victorious over the rebels, many of whom flee to Mexico (the area that is Texas in our own history). Eventually all of British North America is joined under the loose Confederation of North America, while the former republican rebels form their own nation of Jefferson. They expand through conquest, and soon the continent of North America is split between the two rival nations, the Confederation of North America (CNA) in the northeast and the United States of Mexico in the southwest. The development of these nations is chronicled over 200 years, and as they later become much more powerful and important, the last quarter of the book focuses on affairs all around the world while in the earlier parts, the focus is always primarily on the North American continent. Events do go very differently from our own timeline around the rest of the world, but despite the focus on North America, they are highlighted adequately so that a good idea of what is going on in the rest of the world is given. In fact, with the events in the rest of the world being complex, divergent, and quite interesting when shown in depth, one gets the sense of a very diverse and complex world out there. The reader is only shown one part, as in any survey history, but what is missed is missed in terms of interest, not essential facts - the quality of the book leaves you wanting to know what's going on in the entire world, but there isn't nearly enough space to do it all justice in detail.

I shall again bring up the Draka series, the only published AH which approaches FWOAN in detail, as an example. In both alternate histories we are given detailed information on one of the societies, the most divergent and most interesting, with information on the rest of the world being much more in the form of a summary. The Draka series still leave you with the impression of having adequately covered the alternate history of the rest of the world, because most of it isn't very divergent at all, and what we know about it from our history can be assumed to be valid unless we're told differently. In For Want of a Nail, there is a great sense that there is _much_ we are not being shown. What we know of the rest of the world shows it as being very different from that of our own history in a great many respects, with alternate societies as complex as that of the CNA and USM hiding all over. I had considered attempting to make a map of the entire world of FWOAN, but found it was impossible - glimpses of a history of Russia radically different from ours leave me guessing at what their borders are, I just _know_ that colonialism in African and Southeast Asia in this world went radically differently, South America was rather different early on and it is perfectly in keeping with the timeline to expect it changed much after the last major description in the book, and more. More than any other timeline, and just like a real history, Sobel has created and described a timeline such that every additional detail he gives just raises more questions, and highlights more complex and different factors operating in the alternate world, rather than neatly closing off avenues of inquiry and raising contradictions.

There are, of course, still some plausibility problems with the timeline - most of them arising in the later portions. I would classify Sobel's timeline as extremely strong well into the nineteenth century, strong into the twentieth century, and "merely" good from about the 1920s on (the last 50 years of the timeline). Early on I have one quibble - the French Revolution fails as a sort of spinoff from the failure of the rebellion in America, with Napoleon prominently on the Royalist side. I don't believe this is at all assured, or perhaps even the most likely outcome - French society had so many problems that a radical revolt was basically assured, and an absence of the successful example of the American Revolution would probably not have a sufficient effect to prevent the King losing all or most of his power. The resulting prevention of the Napoleonic Wars does, however, lead to an interestingly divergent history of Europe.

A general problem I have with the timeline is that it is too free of conflict - there are a lot of times when one would expect a war to be very likely, and in a few too many of them to be entirely satisfying to the plausibility-minded, war does not happen. This is a minor quibble that becomes more apparent later on. The CNA and Britain also have less formal ties than one would expect - after the first 50 years or so, they are friendly to each other but in terms of formal assistance, no closer than the US and the UK were in our own history. The questions often raised in alternate history discussions about what effect closer ties between the UK and North America would have on world politics are thus sidestepped by Sobel. I think one could come up with justifications for his decision - it's probably less likely than much closer ties, but not very much less likely - but it's sometimes unsatisfying to see the CNA, in a position very different from that of our USA, develop along one of its potential paths that is close to our own history. There are also a few annoying historical figures showing up way after the point of divergence. Most of them are fairly obscure and thus won't be noticed by most people, and there don't seem to be any once we get into the 20th century (other than Sobel himself - which we can certainly forgive). The really annoying one is Thomas Edison, who is not only an inventor like in our own timeline, but invents something like three times more major stuff than the real Edison ever did.

Most of the weaknesses, as I've said, occur later in the timeline. There is a major war in that timeline's 20th century, and its conduct is weak in many respects - Sobel is an economic historian, and in the way the war actually goes, there are several aspects that display a less than complete grasp of the logistical bases on which actual wars are grounded. Let's just say that Sobel's war has some major differences from the way I would have had one occur, given the same timeline. Sobel also isn't original in creating any new ideologies for his alternate world - he deletes Communism and Fascist totalitarianism, certainly a good thing since those exact movements would not develop in such a divergent world, but the one alternate movement he creates never gains power anywhere. I find Sobel's world, where every regime is democratic, conventionally authoritarian, or some blend of the two, less believable than a world in which at least one more extreme form of government took hold somewhere. There are also some problems with the technology, in terms of inconsistency. Television is developed _very_ early (around the turn of the century), and is ubiquitous quite soon after, automobiles and airplanes are developed at a similar point to our own timeline... yet the atomic fission bomb is not developed until the 60s, there is no mention of a hydrogen bomb being developed in the timeline at all by 1971, the idea of putting bombs on rockets doesn't occur immediately, and there is no mention of any form of space program.

Basically, there are several problems with this, especially with the atomic bomb and television. In our own timeline, TV _couldn't_ have been made around 1900-1910, the required electronics were just not nearly advanced enough to display a picture even if it could be transmitted. The earlier developments in Sobel's timeline imply it is at least somewhat more advanced in electronics, and if it's not more advanced in the related physics at that point, there is pressure which should drive it ahead. Discoveries in relativity and quantum mechanics would, given what we know, likely happen near the same time they did in our history, or even earlier. It would be most consistent to have them accelerated by at least a decade. These are the discoveries that led to the Atomic Bomb - in our own timeline it was known in the 1930s that a bomb could be built, and one was constructed within 10 years because the United States was engaged in a war and decided to give its nuclear weapons project large amounts of funding.

In Sobel's timeline, there is a world war which is very similar in terms of when it occurs to our own WW2, and from mentions of some of the technology used in it (airplanes and aircraft carriers are at least as important as in our own war, for example), it is also similar in terms of technology. To be consistent and plausible, people in their world should discover the concept of nuclear weapons well before the war - or, at the latest, some time during the war. Even if they discover it _after_ the war, the timeline is experiencing hostility and cold war after it finishes. They're likely to discover a bomb is possible some time between 1920 and 1950, and when they do, the major powers will get nuclear research projects underway which will likely succeed in 10-15 years (nothing as intense as the Manhattan Project, because the CNA - the only power with resources comparable to our USA - is under a pacifist leader).

The problem is that the Atomic Bomb is developed by Kramer Associates, a multinational corporation based in the Pacific, in the mid 60s - and when it gets the bomb, the major powers _begin_ crash nuclear programs, most of which succeed in 2-4 years. In other words the bomb is developed pretty late, but the development dates put the time of likely discovery of the theoretical principles back into the late 40s or early 50s, or further. Basically it is very inconsistent with the rest of the timeline that the bomb is developed so late, that the major powers weren't all working on it already, and that the actual discoverer was Kramer Associates.

That, however, brings me to the only really glaring problem of the whole timeline - Kramer Associates. Kramer basically starts out as a monolithic, government-supported corporation in Mexico, with control of a lot of important natural resources and their exploitation. Due to friendly relations with Mexico's government, it emerges to become the largest corporation in the world - and then it successfully diversifies, becomes a true multinational, and moves out of Mexico. At this point things begin to get very implausible - it just grows and grows and grows. By the end of the timeline, Kramer Associates is more powerful, and richer, than any nation except the CNA, it has effective control over many Pacific countries, it played a vital role in the global war, and it was the discoverer of the atomic bomb. Given the personalities and aims attributed to its leaders, it can basically be described as the Enlightened Supercorporation. It is far more successful than it has much reason to be, and that's after Sobel has a lot of things go very well for it throughout the timeline. The more I think about it the more annoying it becomes, actually - Kramer Associates is almost a toned-down, economic Domination of the Draka, in the sense that its leaders are too smart, it has too much technological success, and luck seems to go its way the great majority of the time.

This is, in actual fact, probably attributable to when the book was written (and by who). Sobel was a business historian, writing in the late 60s/early 70s. This was a period when the accepted view was that large, monolithic/monopolistic corporations worked very well, that command-based economic practices and pure Keynsian controlled economics was the road to success, and that the big old companies with governments in their pockets were around to stay. Of course, we have since learned that this view has profound flaws, both in and of itself and in terms of its relevance to the modern world. Bell was broken up, the Zaibatsu and their relationship with the government led to Japan's current economic problems, the Asian Tigers got hit with collapse due to problems their growth-oriented economies were not prepared for, resource-based cartels such as OPEC and DeBeers lost their power. And last but not least, we saw how the information revolution began changing our economy and in the process, who was on top of that economy. In record time, the grand old dinosaurs of the electronics and information businesses were crushed by the likes of Microsoft. Today we know a lot that Sobel didn't about the kind of problems Kramer Associates would experience, so what to him probably looked like an interesting and possible what-if, appears to us as incongruous and implausible as old science fiction novels that casually assumed the Soviet Union would be a competitive threat well into the 21st century.

All in all, the plausibility problems with For Want of a Nail are very minor compared to those of most alternate histories, are only really annoying near the end, and despite them my final analysis is that it does create a believable alternate history. It is the best work of alternate history I have ever read, the most detailed, and the most polished. It has no plot, story, or characters beyond those of a history - it is a "nonfictional" window into an alternate world, but one which I predict anyone interested in alternate history for its own sake will find a valuable read. Were it a bit more easily available I would call it a "must buy" for everyone, unfortunately it is hard to find and available only in hardcover. So go down to your local library and see if they can get it for you!