THE political disintegration of the Soviet Union has been a quickly unfolding drama for most of the world. But here in the glow of light tables and the library-like calm of the National Geographic Society's cartographic division, the mapmaker's job of plotting political upheaval in exacting lines and colors will take many months.John Q. Public can watch the world change before his eyes on the television screen, but he can't hold the detail of new world realities in his hands until mapmakers can sort it all out. "We're waiting for the dust to settle," explains John Garver, the Society's chief cartographer. "To put out a map now would be preemptive. We don't even know what the Soviet Union will be named." Boundaries, spellings, and names change constantly, so maps and atlases are revised frequently: every five to 10 years at the Geographic Society and annually at Rand McNally, the world's largest commercial mapmaker. But world events of the past two years rival World War II and the 1960s decolonization of Africa in the magnitude of map changes, say cartographers. So the map publishing patterns have been altered greatly. Rand McNally will publish the first complete new edition since 1949 of its popular Cosmopolitan World Atlas, says company spokesman Conroy Erickson. The Geographic Society's latest atlas - the revised sixth edition - was published last October and included the reunited Germany. But the Society's mapmakers anticipate that the massive changes in the Soviet Union will cause at least 40 map plates in the atlas to change. Further, because of interest generated by the Gulf War, the reunification of Germany, and now the Soviet changes, the 240,000 copies of last year's revised atlas are expected to be sold out by Christmas, says Mr. Garver. So a revision or a completely new seventh edition is expected to be published within nine months. A tour of the 73-member cartography division suggests the upheaval of detail a new Soviet map entails. A roughed-out version in pencil on tracing paper tacked to a wall will evolve into a full-color, computer-generated product over the months. "This is a cartographer's nightmare and blessing," Garver says. "It's a nightmare to have to do all this work to change the maps of the Soviet Union and Europe, but the blessing is we continue to be employed and needed." Work spaces in the cartography division are cluttered with history books necessary to research everything from spelling to facts like population figures. A typical map plate could have 2,000 place names, and each must be researched to some degree, explains Harry Kauhane, assistant director of the cartographic division. Wholesale changes in former Soviet republic place names - from local parks and streets to cities and nations - signal a huge job for his staff, he says. For example, spelling discrepancies from one language to another will have to be reconciled, and new place names will have to be officially confirmed. Even locations of cities will have to be rechecked, Mr. Kauhane says. The espionage mentality of the cold war meant that Soviet maps throughout the years would intentionally erroneously plot locations of cities to stymie military targeting, he explains. While the work to revise maps may seem enormous and time consuming, mapmakers also acknowledge that technology has revolutionized the speed and accuracy of cartography. Government intelligence agencies, for example, are producing immediate map updates, explains Ron Bolton, chief of aeronautical charting at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "When the National Geographic [Society] talks about a nine-month change, that can sound like a long time," he says. "But in the old days, even just 10 years ago, these kinds of things would have taken years to draw out with a pencil and no computer data base to draw on, and no automated resetting of type. It was so labor intensive, we couldn't have afforded to do [changes like this] in short order."