How to Make a Fantasy Map

Map from The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley; map by Isaac Stewart

So today Tor.com posted something very much relevant to my interests: a piece by illustrator Isaac Stewart that describes his process for creating a map for a fantasy novel. In this case, The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley, who very helpfully provided a sketch from which Stewart could work.

This is utterly fascinating for me, because a significant gap in my research into fantasy maps has been the process of creating them. It’s sort of left me feeling like a wine taster that has no idea how wine is made. Stewart (who has also done work for Brandon Sanderson’s novels: his maps for The Alloy of Law have already caught my attention) takes us through every step, from inspiration through Photoshop.

Earlier this year I published an article pointing out that the main difference between historical and fantasy maps was information density: a real medieval map is full of detail, because cartographers don’t dare waste vellum; fantasy maps are relatively sparse—largely, I suspected, because only so much detail can legibly fit on a map printed for a mass-market paperback. That was an educated guess on my part; it’s interesting to see it confirmed:

A map meant to fit in a hardcover book (and subsequently a paperback) can’t be as detailed as a real-world map and still be legible. Even though I treat the map as a product of its fantasy world, it has to be understandable to modern audiences. Usually this means I can’t copy the exact style of my reference, but I can use it for inspiration.

I’ll be referring to Stewart’s post often, I think.

Maps of Mercury

H-12 Michaelangelo

The USGS has released quad maps of the planet Mercury as a set of PDF files: “The 1:5 million-scale series of Mercury maps divides Mercury into 15 quadrangles, H-1 through H-15 (five Mercator, eight Lambert Conformal, and two Polar Stereographic quadrangles). The base mosaic was produced with orbital images by the MESSENGER Team and released by NASA’s Planetary Data System on March 8, 2013. This new global mosaic includes 100% coverage of Mercury’s surface.”

Two Detailed Rail Maps

Northeast Rail Map

A couple of supremely detailed rail maps to bring to your attention, both of which show every line and station of long-distance, regional and commuter rail networks. There’s one for California, which uses a Beck-like, diagrammatic design, and one for the Northeast Corridor (see above), which opts for geographic accuracy. Despite the differences there’s a lot of overlap on the two design teams. Creative Commons licensed, with printed posters available.

The Barrington Atlas Comes to the iPad

At a list price of $395, the print version of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton University Press, 2000), was more expensive than some iPads. Which makes the forthcoming iPad version of the Atlas, described in the announcement as “complete content of the classic reference work,” a veritable bargain at only $20.

In 102 interactive color maps, this app re-creates the entire world of the Greeks and Romans from the British Isles to the Indian subcontinent and deep into North Africa. Unrivaled for range, clarity, and detail, these custom-designed maps return the modern landscape to its ancient appearance, marking ancient names and features in accordance with modern scholarship and archaeological discoveries. Geographically, the maps span the territory of more than seventy-five modern countries. Chronologically, they extend from archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire.

It’ll be available on November 21: plenty of time for me to get a new iPad Air by then (it works on all iPads except the original).

Previously: Barrington Atlas.

World of Equal Districts

World of Equal Districts
I’ve seen a lot of maps that redraw national or subnational boundaries in the name of equal population (here’s a recent example) but the World of Equal Districts is the first I’ve seen to do it for the entire planet: it divides the world into 665 districts, each of which has around 10 to 11 million inhabitants. This is the electoral district map for a planetary parliament. [Boing Boing/MetaFilter]

Sea Monsters and the Carta Marina

Carta Marina (top)

Book cover: Sea Monsters (Nigg)It looks like 2013 is the Year of Sea Monsters on Maps. Earlier this year we saw Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (my review); now comes a new study that focuses on a single sixteenth-century map and its many illustrations of seagoing critters: the Carta Marina (1539) by Swedish ecclesiastic Olaus Magnus. Joseph Nigg’s Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus’s Marine Map was published last month in the United Kingdom by Ivy Press; in the United States and Canada it’s available from the University of Chicago Press under the title Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map. From the University of Chicago Press page:

Nearly two meters wide in total, the map’s nine wood-block panels comprise the largest and first realistic portrayal of Northern Europe. But in addition to these important geographic elements, Magnus’s map goes beyond cartography to scenes both domestic and mystic. Close to shore, Magnus shows humans interacting with common sea life—boats struggling to stay afloat, merchants trading, children swimming, and fisherman pulling lines. But from the offshore deeps rise some of the most magical and terrifying sea creatures imaginable at the time or thereafter—like sea swine, whales as large as islands, and the Kraken. In this book, Nigg provides a thorough tour of the map’s cartographic details, as well as a colorful look at its unusual pictorial and imaginative elements. He draws on Magnus’s own text to further describe and illuminate the inventive scenes and to flesh out the stories of the monsters.

Buy at Amazon

My New Article on Fantasy Maps: ‘Here Be Blank Spaces’

NYRSF logo My short essay on fantasy maps, “Here Be Blank Spaces: Vaguely Medieval Fantasy Maps” appears in issue #300 of The New York Review of Science Fiction, out today. I wrote it in response to several books I read rather closely together earlier this year: Reinhart’s Art of the Map, Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, and especially Ekman’s Here Be Dragons (links to my reviews). Taken together, these books highlighted a key difference between fantasy maps and their real-world counterparts from medieval and early modern Europe: fantasy maps are full of blank spaces; real-world maps were not.

Issue #300 of the NYRSF should be available to subscribers now. If you’re not a subscriber, you’re in luck: issue #300 is being made available for free (it’s the NYRSF‘s 25th anniversary, and the publishers are offering it to celebrate and in hopes that you’ll subscribe). Download it from this page. I’ll eventually have it up in the Articles section as well.

Update 8/28: Read the article here.

Ian Silva’s Koana Islands

Koana Islands (Ian Silva)

Wired Map Lab has the story of Ian Silva, who’s been posting astonishing road and transit maps of the imaginary Koana Islands to Reddit; the Islands now have their own section on the site, replete with a travel guide. It’s as serious an undertaking as William Sarjeant’s Rockall, Jerry Gretzinger’s Ukrainia, or Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia.

I admit it: I love geofiction—creating imaginary worlds through maps—and I always get excited when I encounter a great new mapmaker. This is no exception.

The World on an Egg, circa 1504

In an article published this week in the Washington Map Society‘s journal, The Portolan, map collector Stefaan Missinne has announced the discovery of a small, engraved globe that he says is the first to depict the New World. From the WMS’s press release:

The previously-unknown globe, which is about the size of a grapefruit, was made from the lower halves of two ostrich eggs, and dates from the very early 1500s. Until now, it was thought that the oldest globe to show the New World was the “Lenox Globe” at the New York Public Library, but the author presents evidence that this Renaissance ostrich egg globe was actually used to cast the copper Lenox globe, putting its date c. 1504. The globe reflects the knowledge gleaned by Christopher Columbus and other very early European explorers including Amerigo Vespucci after whom America was named.

Ostrich egg globe
The Portolan (Washington Map Society)

The Lenox Globe—also known as the Hunt-Lenox Globe—was cast in 1510; interestingly, prior to this announcement, it was the only map or globe to contain the phrase hic sunt draconeshere be dragons. This globe has the phrase as well. In the Washington Post coverage, two map experts—John Hessler and Chet Van Duzer—are quoted expressing a certain amount of skepticism (especially about the purported da Vinci connection). I also suspect caution is warranted here: the history of antique maps contains several examples of groundshaking discoveries that turn out to be dubious at best.

Tube Map Live

Tube Map Live icon Andy Drizen’s Tube Map Live (iTunes), a free iOS app (native iPhone and iPad versions) that shows the real-time positions of London Underground trains on the iconic Tube map, using official data. Hypnotic visualization, but the app essentially promotes Drizen’s £1.99/$2.99 Tube Tracker: tapping on trains or stations calls up an advertising popup. Via TUAW.

Pluto’s Problematic Cartography

We’re still two years from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, but the cartography of the solar system’s most famous dwarf planet—based on Hubble imagery—is already several kinds of problematic, as Emily Lakdawalla explains in a post that also explains how the cartography of other worlds is done. (Key challenges include defining the north and south pole—which one is which?—as well as a prime meridian.)

Wired Map Lab

Two years ago, after I brought The Map Room to a close, despondent readers asked me where they could go for their map fix, now that I was denying it to them. At the time I couldn’t point to a map blog that covered maps in general, rather than a specific niche (e.g., online maps but not antique maps). Last month, though, saw the launch of Wired Map Lab, a member of the evil empire of Wired‘s science blogs. Looks like it’s off to an ambitious start.