Monday, 12 August 2019

Why do I like this book?

The book in question is a 1945 Atlas of the Soviet Union.

Well, it's not purely the content. I mean, it is interesting - but feel obliged to apply the occasional pinch of salt. This was published just as the grand wartime alliance was ending - so the creators may be a little too tempted to believe official Soviet figures. Perhaps that's uncharitable, but I feel caution is called for here.

Anyway, I like this book. I appreciate the old Penguin format anyway, but the let's not judge the book by it's cover. Take a look at the inside. There are maps detailing variously the boundaries, infrastructure, landscape, products and industry of the Soviet Union. The variety of such things is considerable, but perhaps no more than might be expected from a book of this kind. Though I wonder if the modern equivalent would be as comprehensive.

How many varieties of cross-hatching can you conceive of?
(Enlarge if you wish)

Your setting could aspire to such agricultural complexity.

These figures are presented as fairly isolated from external context; Stalin's regime is not dwelt upon or dissected. Though there is perhaps an implicit degree of praise for the extent of industrial development. Putting this aside to think about worldbuilding, one's fictional creations should aspire to such variety.

To concentrate on matters more widely applicable for a moment, consider the layout and appearance. There are only two colours used, beyond the colour of the paper. I appreciate the textured, slightly tan colour of the paper - this might be down to age, though I'm not sure how white this would have been to begin with - rationing can't have done much for paper quality; it certainly limited supply.

Speaking of paper...

This is simple and clear. Again, to compare to a hypothetical modern equivalent, I suspect it would take hyper-detialled relief maps or photographs and overlay information on them. Too much information? Perhaps. But this is purpose designed for the book.

Even the graphs and stick to this rule. Two colours, with differences represented by different patterns. I recall having a collection of historical maps of this kind - I still like this black and white effect. I like the idea that this is a way of presenting information that could be relatively easily produced with pencil. You don't even need a penny paintbox.

(That said, there is plenty of Red for Russia.)

There are other, quieter details. Looking at the maps or graphs and the explanatory texts, the font for the paragraph is sans-serif and plainer, whereas the text on the maps is in a heavier, seriffed font. This not only gives it, to my mind, a bit of gravitas but also definitively differentiates it from the paragraph.

A reminder of how much of Central Asia the USSR contained.

Why talk about this now? Well, by happy coincidence Skerples's Magical Industrial Revolution setting is coming soon and has a Kickstarter - and this does a very nice job of describing an industrial state. The detail here is worth examining if you are world-building: there are numerous crops and industries described; to feed people, to feed cattle, to clothe them, move them, entertain them, to give them chemical stimulants.

But I also look at this and wonder if one day we will look up and all the draughtsman - the simple sketch artists, the magazine illustrators, typesetters, blueprint-makers and the designers - will have gone. There will be a gentle replacement with stock photographs, computer-generated cartography and the sheen of digital mock-ups. Perhaps that is putting it a bit too far. But I'm still going to preserve this book, both in my library and on this blog.


  1. Schools teach nothing anymore, so it won’t be long.

    I love old books too. Especially reference books. My favorite is an astronomy book from 1928. It was my grandmother’s 4th grade text book. Just excellent draftsmanship.

  2. The mid-century map style reminded me of my teenage wargame design efforts, laying hex grids over the US Army official history maps, which are also very clear and efficient, if a bit focused on elevation at the expense of ground cover. Here's the Normandy campaign:

    1. Roger I really miss your blogging. You are a big influence on me.

    2. Looks pretty dense stuff! I'll have to dig out the maps as well.