At Longreads, Adrian Daub has a long, discursive, in-depth essay about fantasy maps, fantasy novels with maps, and what it meant to grow up loving same. It’s so full of good bits and covers so much ground that quoting just a paragraph would mislead you into thinking it was just about that one thing. It’s piece I’ll be returning to often, I think.
Science fiction/fantasy novelist Alex Acks, a geologist by training, has some issues with Middle-earth’s mountain ranges. “Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them.” Basically it comes down to how Tolkien’s mountain ranges intersect at right angles—and mountains don’t do that.
And Mordor? Oh, I don’t even want to talk about Mordor.
Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. […]
To be fair to J.R.R. Tolkien, while continental drift was a theory making headway in the world of geology from 1910 onwards, plate tectonics didn’t arrive on the scene until the mid-50s, and then it took a little while to become accepted science. (Though goodness, plate tectonics came down—I have it on good authority from geologists who were alive and in school at the time that it was like the holy light of understanding shining forth. Suddenly, so many things made sense.) Fantasy maps drawn after the 1960s don’t get even that overly generous pass.
And here I thought Tolkien’s mountains were better than most—but then I’m no geologist, and also than most may not be saying that much.
It’s like Uncharted Atlas, but for cities: the Medieval Fantasy City Generator is a web application that “generates a random medieval city layout of a requested size. The generation method is rather arbitrary, the goal is to produce a nice looking map, not an accurate model of a city.” As was the case with Uncharted Atlas, the effect is accidentally damning: if an algorithm can create a fantasy setting indistinguishable from a human-made product, what does that say about the human-made product? [Ada Palmer]
Noting for future reference: The Cartographer’s Daughter, a middle grade novel by Kiran Millwood Hargrave that came out last November from Knopf. “[W]hen a series of mysterious events shakes the community, it’s Isabella—daughter to the island’s only mapmaker—who will lead a party of explorers into the forest in search of answers.”
The nomination deadline for the Corlis Benefideo Award has been extended to April 15. The Award, given by the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), “recognizes imaginative cartography,” which is defined in part as “the potential … to transform our ways of seeing and understanding our world, and to trigger imaginative reaction from its audience.” It’s named for a character in “The Mappist,” a short story by Barry Lopez, and if you’ve read the story you’ll understand how appropriate the name is. (The story can be found in two of Lopez’s collections: Light Action in the Caribbean and Vintage Lopez.)
Nominations for this award are accepted from anyone, not just NACIS members.
Christopher Rowe’s short story “Another Word for Map Is Faith,” which imagines an alternate America ruled by a theocracy that treats maps as infallible, and territory to be corrected to conform to the map, was the first speculative fiction story I encountered in which maps were a central role. (I soon found other examples.) It appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which hasn’t made it easy to track down. But it’ll be included, along with nine other stories, in Rowe’s upcoming short story collection, Telling the Map, which comes out from Small Beer Press in July 2017. Check out that entirely appropriate cover: as Rowe notes, “[t]he concept for the cover originated with Gwenda Bond, who was inspired by the maps of Pauline Baynes.”
An exhibition of fantasy maps, Worlds Imagined: The Maps of Imaginary Places Collection, opens Friday at Texas A&M University’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives. “The maps included are part of an ongoing effort by [Texas A&M’s] Maps and GIS [Library] and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection to develop a shared collection of maps of imaginary places. Cushing is known worldwide for its collection of science fiction and fantasy materials, even housing [George R. R.] Martin’s personal collection of memorabilia.” Worlds Imagined runs until 10 October 2017. [Thanks, Alex.]
It also occurs to me that Dalché’s paper is a must-read for writers of fantasy novels (and fantasy map makers), who might also fall into the trap of assuming that their characters would use their maps the same way as a modern map reader would.
Map to Globe is an online tool that allows you to transfer a flat map onto a globe. Adam Whitehead has been trying it out with fantasy maps. Some work better than others. Westeros is not one of them, “because the maps of the North and the lands beyond the Wall need to be adjusted so they work on a globe.” Think of it as sort of a Mercator problem in reverse: imagining a flat map rather than a round world: the flat map’s lack of distortion is the issue.
As discussed before, in creating the maps of Westeros and Essos for A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin has not really taken projection into account at all. On his maps of Westeros, the Wall is 300 miles long but the distance between Deepwood Motte and Winterfell (hundreds of miles to the south) is also said to be 300 miles long and the south coast of Westeros—3,000 miles south of the Wall!—is said to be 1,200 miles long. These are all in perfect scale to one another, which is not really possible when you look at the maps as a representation of what the planet actually looks like.
Growing up, people hissed that I was born to be a mapmaker, being half of one thing and half the other. In our language, the word for mapmaker is also the word for traitor.
Alix E. Harrow’s fantasy novelette, “The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage,” published today on Tor.com, is set in an alternate turn-of-the-century America in which mapmakers from west of the Mississippi use magic to tame a chaotic, ever-changing land for the benefit of colonizers from the east.
They need mapmakers, you see—a few traitors like myself to hold the land still. They need us more than anything in the world, if they ever want to fulfill that destiny so manifestly their own, “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.”
Without us, the land won’t lie still. It writhes and twists beneath their compasses, so that a crew of surveyors might make the most meticulous measurements imaginable, plotting out each hill and bluff and bend in the river, and when they return the next day everything is a mirror image of itself. Or the river splits in two and one branch wanders off into hills that shimmer slightly in the dawn, or the bluffs are now far too high to climb and must be gone around. Or the crew simply disappears and returns weeks later looking hungry and haunted.
Not for the first time, we have a story in which the relationship between map and territory is more than just descriptive. To map a place is to fix that place in place. This is a story that uses maps, memoir and footnotes—the trappings of late-19th- and early-20th-century exploration—to say some sharp things about the colonialism of that era.