These Fractured States: An Overview of Balkanized Americas

Adventure and excitement waits for those travelers brave enough to explore Anglo-America…

Treasure troves of colonial history await in the eastern aristocracies, but current events in the region make this a destination for only experienced travelers. The crusaders from the Christian Confederation of Carolina march north seeking to convert all to their way of life. The Burgesses, the lords of the Commonwealth of Virginia, stand firm against their advance, despite the fact the rest of the world has rejected their way of life. Be polite but avoid conversations with fanatics of either side as their long-winded monologues on philosophy and religion can ruin your appetite.

If you can complete the mountain of paperwork necessary to enter the Republic of Texas, you will find the most advance cities in the world neighboring wind-swept plains and lush forests. Mind your manners, however, as the corporate oligarchy does not tolerate disobedience from anyone. Human Resources agents are notorious for their lack of compassion and most nations refuse to tangle with their Lost Prevention forces even if it means condemning their citizens to a labor camp in the Lakota oil fields.

Those with a taste for the east in the west should visit the Empire of California. The young Empress Sarah II of House Norton prepares to celebrate her second year on the throne, promising excitement for those wishing to witness the anniversary celebrations and the duels between bored nobles and drunken cowboys. Visit a chashitsu while in the capital. California’s membership in the Pacific Co-Prosperity Sphere can make a traveler mistakenly believe they traveled to the center of the Empire of the Rising Sun.

Okay. Perhaps what you just read is not plausible, but it is an example of a scenario where the United States of America failed to come together or else fell apart sometime in the past. This common trope can be found across speculative fiction, but you find it most often with those authors who dabble in alternate history.


I wanted to talk about this trope ever since the news hit about all of those state secession petitions on We The People. Now anyone with half a brain could probably figure out why these are petitions are ludicrous, they nevertheless inspired me to write about balkanized Americas and why I feel more authors should experiment with the trope.

The name for the trope derives from the geopolitical term “balkanization” used to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a region or state into smaller regions or states. These states are often hostile or at least do not get along with each other.  It is not nice to describe a nation’s history using the term balkanization, yet it is a popular term and brings to mind the collapse of Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and, more recently, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

You can pretty much break up any nation you want as long as the nation is significantly large enough and has a regional population differences. What if the pro-independence movements in the Russian Civil War had been more successful?  What if the military cliques of Warlord Era China evolved into actual nation-states? What if Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Northern Ireland decided they did not want to be a part of the “United” Kingdom anymore? Balkanizing America, however, is the most popular use of the trope. Why? When you balkanize a country, you make their history worse for everybody. America has been on top for a long time and it can be fun to knock them down a peg in your fictional universe.

Armageddon2419My first experience with the trope happened with Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five. There the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time and experiences moments from his life randomly, with no idea where he will end up. In one scene we visit the future where Pilgrim gives a speech to a crowd in Chicago. In this future the United States has been divided into different nations for the sake of peace. The “future” for this book is 1976 (the book was published in 1969) making the novel retro-SF. Did Vonnegut craft this future just to shock the audience or did he believe the United States couldn’t last as a united whole? Slaughterhouse-Five is not the earliest example of balkanized America in fiction. Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories featured the “Airlords of Han” ruling over a fractured America.  The characters and setting of the novella eventually evolved into Buck Rogers.

Other examples of balkanized Americas include the Crimson Skies universe (a dieselpunk universe where the United States falls apart in the 1930s), The Mirage by Matt Ruff (a parallel history where the unified and secular Arab fights a series of conflicts with the divided and fundamentalist American states) and The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove (The states never adopt the Constitution and eventually declare independence). Just analyzing these three works and you start to see similarities: 1) An independent, and often French, Louisiana, 2) a “CSA” flying the stars and bars, 3) Expanded Texas, 4) a Mormon nation called “Deseret” and 5) flyover country, either ignored or controlled by a larger state.


These American nations appear time and time again in SF. They have become so common they have evolved into clichés and often showcase an author’s ignorance about the people in a state. Many will find it easier to envision Texans as being cowboy-wannabes, but what about the predominantly Hispanic areas of West and South Texas, the ethnic Germans of Central Texas and the liberal, tech-savvy city of Austin? Yet we continue to see an independent Texas (for example, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series or The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) survive as a powerful and industrialized, yet strangely homogeneous, nation-state.

Balkanized Americas can be found outside of science fiction. Fantasy works use the setting, including Tales of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card. In this world the thirteen colonies never existed. Instead we find a Puritan New England still under the control of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, a Stuart kingdom-in-exile in the Southern Crown colonies, a United States founded by Benjamin Franklin in the Mid-Atlantic States, the republican Appalachee founded by Thomas Jefferson and an independent Quebec with Napoleon Bonaparte as general. Tales of Alvin Maker gets credit for having a unique setting that uses Native American states and little known European colonies such as New Sweden. Card’s universe is one of the most imaginative balkanized America I have encounted and, if they ever get the MMORPG off the ground, it will be exciting to play in such an fascinating world of historical fantasy.

800px-Fiat_Lux_Canticle_mapOf course the question remains: how exactly do you break up the United States? Popular methods include having the Constitution failed to be ratified or a Confederate victory in the Civil War followed by both nations breaking up. Or you can you blow the damn thing up. For example, you can create a balkanized America after a nuclear war. This can be A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and includes such post-war nation-states as the “Texarkana Mayorate”. Another example includes Orson Scott Card’s The Folk of the Fringe which features the Mormon state of Deseret. Natural disaster can also destroy America as it did to the United States in the popular, young adult series: The Hunger Games trilogy. Although North America is once again united under the nation of Panem, it does seem the Capitol ignores the outlying districts as long as they continue to supply them with resources and tributes for the Hunger Games.

The post-apocalyptic stories above highlight an important fact: any balkanization of the United States in the 20th century or later would result in a crapsack world. Regardless of how you feel about the United States, any disruption to world’s largest economy and the nation with the most active nuclear weapons could be potentially disastrous. Recently Slate published an article by Jon Davis which envisioned what would have happened if the United States broke up and the individual states began fighting amongst each other. Near the end we find the continental United States controlled by Texas (of course), the Californian led Democratic Union of States and the militaristic (Restored) United States of America. Spoiler alert: we only avoid nuclear holocaust when a mysterious agent explodes four high altitude nuclear devices, which disables the Americans’ ability to make war…but causes chaos when we lost all of our shiny toys.

the-waveDavis’ scenario biggest flaw, however, is the lack of any coverage on how the rest of the world deals with the fall of the global superpower. If you want an idea of how the rest of the world would handle the loss of America, check out the Wave trilogy by John Birmingham (Without Warning, After America and Angels of Vengeance). An unexplained wave of energy hits North America on the eve of the Iraq War, incinerating all of the humans of the continental United States (along with most of eastern Canada and northern Mexico) except for an enclave around Seattle. Birmingham stated he overheard a protester say the world would be a better place without America, inspiring him to write the series. Birmingham showed his disagreement by portraying global economic collapse, environmental devastation, civil wars, genocide, authoritarian governments and the Samson Option. Some might find the novels controversial, but I think we can all agree the loss of most of North America could make things difficult for the rest of the world.

Despite all the examples above, I still feel the trope needs more coverage within literature. Author can comment on the partisan gridlock of America by showcasing a world where the states decided the democratic process failed and struck out on their own. Authors can also make use of the rich early history of the Americas to create original cultures and nations (what if the British colonies are isolated only to New England and Virginia?). The balkanized America trope can be used equally by speculative fiction writers and mainstream literary authors. All it takes is some good research and a lot of imagination.

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  1. This is a great blog, Matt. I'm going to be looking out for the Wave trilogy.

    This trope hit a low point for me with Richard K Morgan's "13 / Black Man," which uses the Jesusland scenario — he's a Brit but that's no excuse for being so credulous. A much more interesting near-future (post-apocalyptic) balkanization scenario was presented in Jeff Carlson's "Plague" trilogy. Very highly recommended.

    1. Thanks!

      I saw one of the Plague books in my local library. I thought about picking it up, but I decided to go with something else. Now I regret my decision.

      Yes the Jesusland scenario pops up a lot and is usually wrong. It is related to the Flyover Country problem I mentioned in my blog when authors tend to paint the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states the same as the Bible Belt.

  2. You're welcome.

    Everything you say is true, however, I still think there is a way to get those little details in without any info dumps. Have you ever read Osama by Lavie Tidhar? Good book and one plan to cover in my next post featuring DBWIs. Anywho, although an alternate history, the book is never clear exactly what the POD is, yet it lets us know it is an alternate history by the little details we get from the protagonist (for example when the character passes a statue of dead WW2 war hero Charles de Gaulle or by the absence of common every day items like iPods and computers).

    Obviously most authors don't use the vast majority of the research they do for a novel, but its the details that excite a reader's imagination and a good author knows how to work them in.

  3. Thanks for the interesting essay!

    I enjoy the balkanized USA trope whenever I come across it, but I think one of the biggest challenges in getting it right is its complexity. Regardless of when (or why) the balkanization occurs, the social, political, and economic (which together bring on the military) consequences snowball rapidly. The multiple and complex changes in every location feed back into the changes in every other location. Of course, that's a huge part of the fun with alternate history. 🙂 But from a narrative standpoint, it is difficult indeed to pack that much complexity into a story that retains decent characterization and forward momentum. I suspect that might be a big factor in why so many authors choose to gloss over "flyover country" or to homogenize otherwise complex areas: sometimes, those cool alternative historical details might just get in the way of the underlying story.

    Which I think is too bad, 'cause I love those little details. But I can see the argument against 'em, too. 🙂

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