Four Map Stories

I have not forgotten my Maps in Science Fiction and Fantasy project, though it’s lain fallow for a bit while I juggled other things. Here are a few short stories about maps that I’ve encountered over the past few months.

“The Map” by Gene Wolfe (Endangered Species [New York: Tor, 1989], 20-36) belongs to the universe of The Book of the New Sun (one of my favourite works) and features one of its secondary characters. A former torturer named Eata now captains a boat along the river Gyoll. He is hired by a man with a map seeking treasure in the dead parts of the great city Nessus. The Book of the New Sun belongs to the dying Earth genre, and Wolfe’s Urth is extremely old and layered; as such the map may no longer be reliable.

Those spidery streets might—or might not—be the very streets that stretched before him. That wandering line of blue might be a stream or canal, or Gyoll itself. The map presented an accumulation of detail, and yet it was detail of a sort that did nothing to confirm or deny location. He committed as much of it to memory as he could, all the while wondering what feature or turning might prove of value, what name of street or structure might have survived where there was no one left to recall it, what thing of masonry or metal might yet retain its former shape, if any did. For an instant it seemed to him that it was not the treasure that was lost, but he himself. (30-31)

In the event he has to be rescued; Eata seems to be of the opinion that maps are rather good at getting their owners into trouble, and not much else. The map, in this story, is a symbol of obsolescence.

“The Mappist” by Barry Lopez (Light Action in the Caribbean [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000], 146-162) is neither science fiction nor fantasy, but has genre appeal. Matthew Cheney (more on whom momentarily) considers it an homage to Borges; I’ll let him describe the story: “it tells of a narrator’s obsession with a pseudonymous author of remarkable travel guides and maps, works of such detail and care that they capture the ‘essence’ of whatever city they describe. The narrator eventually tracks down the creator of these works, the reclusive Corlis Benefideo, and visits him, viewing new maps Benefideo has created, maps of remarkable depth and brilliance.”

When he placed the next map in front of me, the summer distribution of Swainson’s hawks, and then slid in next to it a map showing the overlapping summer distribution of its main prey species, the Richardson ground squirrel, the precision and revelation were too much for me.

I turned to face him. “I’ve never seen anything that even approaches this, this”—my gesture across the surface of the table included everything. “It’s not just the information, or the execution—I mean, the technique is flawless, the water-coloring, your choice of scale—but it’s like the books, there’s so much more.”

“That’s the idea, don’t you think, Mister Trevino?” (159)

Benefideo is capable of mapping impossible things, but he claims it’s just a matter of hard work. “The Mappist” is a quest for “an elegant order [that] has disappeared” (161), but the maps are sui generis, the mapmaker unique.

“A Map of the Everywhere” by the aforementioned Matthew Cheney (Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, eds. [Easthampton MA: Small Beer Press, 2007], 207-221; Kindle version; audio version) is a beautifully written story that evinces Beckett in its absurdism. Its rather feckless protagonist, Alfred, drifts from job to job until a strange trio sends him to see a cartographer.

“You must dig a hole to China,” one of the creatures whispered.

“I was digging for faith or direction,” Alfred replied. “I have no interest in China. I couldn’t even find it on a map.”

“Then you have need of a cartographer,” another of the creatures said. “I have known many cartographers.”

“They are a strange breed, cartographers,” another of the creatures said.

“They live in hovels and garrets,” another of the creatures said. “They seldom shave.” (210)

The cartographer Alfred ends up seeing is the questionably gendered Günther Lopez (whose name has to be a tip towards the author of “The Mappist”). Visiting the cartographer does not yield tangible results in the cartographic sense, but in the end, at last, Alfred does leave with a sense of direction, if not literal directions—and that seems to be what the cartographer stands in place of.

Finally, I want to mention The Dala Horse,” a delightful story by Michael Swanwick (, 13 July 2011) that isn’t about maps, but it does feature a talking map, as well as a walking, talking knapsack, both of which accompany a fleeing Swedish girl who is trying to find her grandmother’s house.

Carefully, so as not to tear, the map unfolded. Contour lines squirmed across its surface as it located itself. Blue stream-lines ran downhill. Black roads and stitched red trails went where they would. “We’re here,” said the map, placing a pinprick light at its center. “Where would you like to go?”

“To Far-Mor,” Linnea said. “She’s in Godastor.”

“That’s a long way. Do you know how to read maps?”


“Then take the road to the right. Whenever you come across another road, take me out and I’ll tell you which way to go.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, but it isn’t; this is a tale in which technology is indistinguishable from magic, where “we taught things how to talk and think”; Swanwick’s map is a satnav in fantasy clothing.

Update: Since this post is getting a bit of attention, I should mention that these are only the map stories I’ve encountered most recently. See The Map Room’s Fiction About Maps category for earlier examples.