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.