Critiques of fantasy maps have more to do with the shortcomings of fantasy worlds than the maps that depict them.
There’s something I’ve noticed about the recent round of debates about fantasy maps, something I’ve been noticing about discussions of fantasy maps in general. They don’t talk about fantasy maps in terms of their cartographic merit. That is to say, they don’t judge fantasy maps as maps.
When Alex Acks vents about fantasy maps, it’s because the mountain ranges in Middle-earth don’t make sense, not because the cartography of Pauline Baynes or Christopher Tolkien wasn’t up to the task. It’s more that the territory is shaped to fit the story rather than the other way around, less that the maps of said territory frequently lack a scale. When Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza says that “Game of Thrones has such a terrible map it could be presented as a parody of bad fantasy maps,” he’s not saying that the cartography of the various Song of Ice and Fire mapmakers, such as Jonathan Roberts (The Lands of Ice and Fire), James Sinclair (books one through four) or Jeffrey L. Ward (A Dance with Dragons), is deficient. He’s saying that the Game of Thrones geography is terrible.
If all maps must necessarily be selective, choosing what to show and what to leave out, surely map books must do the same. That thought came to mind as I perused Treasures from the Map Room—no relation—a book that presents maps from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, collected and curated by the Bodleian Map Room’s senior library assistant, Debbie Hall.
“Although maps have formed part of the Bodleian’s collections from early on, they have been collected actively only since around 1800,” Hall writes in the introduction. Broadly speaking, the Bodleian’s map holdings come from a combination of bequests and legal deposit requirements. The latter in particular means that the Bodleian’s holdings of British maps—including virtually every Ordnance Survey map and a large number of commercially published maps—are very extensive. The bequests are sometimes much better known: maps named for their owners and donors rather than their creators—the Gough Map, the Selden Map—falling into the Bodleian’s hands.
Hall organizes her selection—some 75 maps—into seven chapters organized by theme: Travel and Exploration, Knowledge and Science, Pride and Ownership, Maps of War, The City in Maps, Maps for Fun, and Imaginary Lands. Sometimes those themes make for unlikely juxtapositions: Hall mentions the Tabula Peutingeriana and American highway maps in very nearly the same breath; and Maps for Fun, a chapter dealing with tourism, recreation and travel, includes a 15th-century Holy Land pilgrimage map—Reuwich’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam—alongside the MountMaps 3D Navigator Map. But apart from that the chapters present us with some very interesting maps indeed: Travel and Exploration gives us the Gough and Selden maps; Knowledge and Science discusses Mercator, Ortelius and early astronomical maps, John Speed, Christopher Saxton and the Ordnance Survey; Maps of War gives us fortifications and plans, siege and trench maps, but also silk escape maps of World War II; Imaginary Lands ranges from Hole’s Poly-Olbion maps to Leo Belgicus, Tolkien and Lewis, and the art of Layla Curtis.
We get, in other words, a taste of just about everything—but only a taste. The breadth of Treasures of the Map Room is both a blessing and a curse. We’re made aware of the volume and diversity of the Bodleian’s map holdings, but we never get a chance to drill down beyond the most cursory of examinations, never more than one example of something. On the other hand, Hall’s approach brings to the fore maps that might not otherwise be included in books like this—books that can privilege the rare and the ancient over the more mundane but more significant. For example, the map I found myself staring at the most was the 1864 Ordnance Plan of the Crystal Palace and its Environs, a 1:2,500 map of incredible detail and delicacy. You might find yourself lingering over some other map. Discoveries like this are, I suspect, the whole point of book that is, after all, about a library’s hidden treasures.
I received a review copy from the North American distributor for this book, the University of Chicago Press.
Atlas Obscura, the website, has been aggregating an online database of unusual and interesting places around the world for the past several years. Atlas Obscura, the company, has been expanding at a rapid pace these past few years, hiring former Slate editor David Plotz as their CEO in 2014. One result of said expansion has now come to fruition in the form of Atlas Obscura, the book, out this week from Workman Publishing. Written by co-founders Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras and associate editor Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura is basically a curated subset of the online Atlas Obscura experience.
Like the Atlas of Cursed Places (reviewed here), Atlas Obscura is not an atlas per se. There are maps, but they exist to locate the subjects of the essays that make up this book. Those subjects—those weird and wonderful places—also appear on the website, but the essays are different; in the sample I compared, the book’s version is considerably briefer and more dense. This is to be expected: when you have fewer than 500 pages to work with, you have to make some zero-sum editorial decisions. Fewer, more fulsome pieces, or more pieces of shorter length. Atlas Obscura has opted for the latter, with pieces that are frustratingly, tantalizingly brief, each followed by a little information on how to get there (or, in some cases, whether you can get there). Even then only a fraction of the places that appear online appear between the book’s covers.
But browsing a website is not the same experience as reading a book. No one would try to go through the entire Atlas Obscura database; the book allows for a big-picture look at the sort of thing found there. A curated subset, as I said above. A taster’s menu. The book also rewards serendipity and pleasant surprises: whether you’re reading from beginning to end (as I did for this review), looking for specific continents, regions or countries, or flipping through pages at random, you’re bound to encounter an entry you hadn’t expected to come across. If there’s value in a hard-copy (or electronic: Kindle, iBooks) version of something freely available online in expanded form, it’s here. And let me be clear: that’s not nothing.
I received an electronic advance review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.
Ricci (1552–1610) and Verbiest (1623–1688) were both Jesuit priests, in China to spread Christianity; their maps, produced in collaboration with Chinese calligraphers, artists and printers, produced a fundamental rethinking of China’s place in the world. Not that China wasn’t at the centre of these maps, as the essays in the accompanying catalogue point out, but these maps filled out the rest of the world, which was previously a marginal afterthought in Chinese cartography.
Pulling back the academic veil can be fascinating. I remember one day 25 years ago in my first year of university, when my history professor paused to tell us about his current research project (a biography of an early 20th-century French politician). For a half hour he held the class rapt as he detailed the long effort required to nail down one specific detail in his subject’s life. For me it was a revelation: history was detective work, and therefore exciting stuff. That may have been the moment that sent me to graduate school in history (and not just me—that professor generated more graduate students than anyone else in that department).
I was reminded of that day as I was reading Mark Monmonier’s memoir, Adventures in Academic Cartography, which does much the same thing as my prof did back then: pull back the veil to reveal an entire academic career that was hidden from our view. Monmonier is a familiar name to those of us interested in maps, having published a dozen books—scholarly, erudite but accessible to the lay reader—over the years. (I’ve reviewed three of them myself: How to Lie with Maps, his essential text on how maps persuade and deceive; Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, a look at the politicization of the Mercator projection; and From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow, on the politics and controversies behind place names.) But, like my professor, we are largely aware of only one aspect of his career: in Monmonier’s case, the books. Adventures in Academic Cartography, which he self-published in the fall of 2014, fills in the blanks.
The first thing to keep in mind about Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places (Black Dog & Leventhal, October 2015) is that it’s not an atlas. Rather, it’s a collection of brief essays about a series of unique places around the world. In that I suspect it’s much like Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands or Aude de Tocqueville’s Atlas of Lost Cities (English translation forthcoming next year). All of these books shared a publisher in France; all of them appear to have been conceived under the influence of Calvino.
The Atlas of Cursed Places’s essays are about places in the world that are, for one reason or another, particularly horrible, by dint of their history or geography. There are navigational hazards and environmental disasters, and sites of old horrors that were entirely human-made. Ghost towns, war zones, slums and mausoleums. Animal infestations. Each are engrossing, but the essays barely get started on their subjects: turn the page expecting more and you find yourself already on the next one. Each essay is an act of cruelty (very meta given the subject matter), whetting readers’ appetites but denying us the feast.
In the end this is an exercise in curation: the choices are fascinating, but the essays are affective rather than substantive. In that sense this book is an even lighter read than Alastair Bonnet’s Unruly Places (which seems to have much less Calvino in its book DNA).
(While not an atlas proper, this book does have a lot of maps illustrating each essay. But their effect is disorienting: each cursed place is indicated by a star on an old and out-of-date map, usually a plate from a century-old atlas.)
I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places (first published in the U.K. as Off the Map) is a light, entertaining exploration of some of the world’s more unusual places. Bonnett, a social geography professor at Newcastle University, has written 47 short essays about locations that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make any sense: the exceptions, the asterisks, the ink blots (in at least one case literally) on the map.
These range from the deeply frivolous to the profoundly injust: from bits and pieces of New York City transformed into environmental time capsules and art projects to places meaningful to the author; from rendition sites and pirate bases to Bedouin settlements in the Israeli Negev desert; from destroyed landscapes to Potemkin cities. The places often feel almost science-fictional; and in fact several of them evoked settings in existing science fiction works, like Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis.
All in all, a pleasant diversion for the geographically minded, though I did have one quibble: the book calling latitude and longitude “Google Earth coordinates,” as though degrees are as proprietary as the KML format.
E. Forbes Smiley III was a well-known and well-connected map dealer, an expert who helped build the Slaughter and Leventhal map collections. Then in 2005 he was caught—on videotape—stealing maps from Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Libraries he had frequented scrambled to check their own holdings and found additional maps missing. Smiley, who cooperated with the authorities, would eventually be sentenced to 3½ years for stealing nearly 100 maps from the British, Boston Public, New York Public, Harvard and Yale libraries, among others. The libraries believed he stole many more.
With The Map Thief, Michael Blanding presents a book-length exploration of the Forbes Smiley affair, which stunned map collectors and map libraries alike in 2005. Its publication, coming nine years after Smiley’s arrest and four years after his release from prison, is something of an anticlimax, especially for those of us who followed the case so closely as it unfolded (I blogged about it more than 60 times, myself).
Map thieves fascinate us, even if they themselves are not that fascinating (see, for example, the essential blandness of Gilbert Bland, the subject of a previous book about map thefts, Miles Harvey’s Island of Lost Maps), because of what they steal. As stolen goods, antique maps are a curiosity: like art, but more stealable, because there are few copies, not just one.
If somebody who was vaguely interested in maps wanted a book to get them started, I think I might point them toward A History of the World in Twelve Maps, written by Renaissance Studies professor Jerry Brotton. This book first appeared in September 2012 in Great Britain, where it’s now out in paperback. The U.S. edition came out last month in hardcover.
It’s a history of cartography that takes a rather unique approach: instead of providing a straight narrative history, Brotton focuses on twelve maps (or, more precisely, mapmaking endeavours), ranging from Ptolemy’s Geography to Google Earth. But Brotton does a lot more than talk about just twelve maps.
Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps does what it says on the tin: you really will find out more than you ever wanted to about the sea monsters that appeared on medieval and renaissance maps. (Van Duzer defines them as anything that a contemporary reader would consider exotic, whether it was real or imaginary, so walruses appear along with krakens.) It’s a dizzying catalogue of them, all kinds of them, from medieval mappaemundi (actually, there’s a Roman map in there too) all the way to Ortelius and the late sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century sea monsters were giving way to sailing vessels, and to a loss of ornamentation and illustration in general.
But: sea monsters. What was up with them? For the most part this book gets lost in the weeds, focusing in detail on monster after monster, but Van Duzer does sketch out an argument in the introduction:
First, they may serve as graphic records of literature about sea monsters, indications of possible dangers to sailors — and datapoints in the geography of the marvellous. Second, they may function as decorative elements which enliven the image of the world, suggesting in a general way that the sea can be dangerous, but more emphatically indicating and drawing attention to the vitality of the oceans and the variety of creatures in the world, and to the cartographer’s artistic talents. Of course these two roles are compatible, and sea monsters can play both at the same time. (p. 11)
Van Duzer goes beyond the map in his discussion of sea monsters. For one thing, he points out the non-cartographic sources of sea monsters, such as works of natural history, and compares them to the monsters on the map. He also looks at the economics of sea monsters, which were embellishments that cost extra and may have required a specialist artist: “if the client commissioning the chart did not pay for sea monsters, he or she did not receive them” (p. 10).
For my part, it seems to me that sea monsters in renaissance maps are also holdovers of medieval iconography, sort of a cartographic appendix. Being a big-picture sort, I glazed over a bit at all the detail, but this sort of detail is exactly the sort of thing that illuminates the subject. Between this book and The Art of the Map (reviewed here), I’ve learned quite a bit about the margins and empty spaces of old maps lately.
Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons (Wesleyan University Press, February 2013) is a book-length examination of the use of maps and settings in fantasy literature. Maps and settings. Which is to say that maps are not the sole focus of this work: mark that. There are four main chapters, only one of which deals with maps; the remaining three deal with the issue of borders and territories, the relationship between nature and culture in fantasy cities, and the relationship between ruler and realm. Taken as a whole, this book discusses the role of place in fantasy.
But I won’t be discussing that whole here: I am no literary scholar, and can’t say much of value about the chapters that do not discuss maps—nothing that would rise above the level of a last-minute undergraduate paper, anyway. But maps are something I can say something about, especially fantasy maps, since I myself have been paying attention to them over the past decade, first during my time blogging at The Map Room (see the [old] Imaginary Places category) and since then more sporadically, but with more focus, for my fantasy maps project.
From compass roses to cartouches, to sea monsters in the oceans and people and animals in the margins, these elements were used to fill up the otherwise empty corners of a map (of which there were many in this period), set the tone for the map, or otherwise provide information. Most of these elements are gone today (most: National Geographic still makes use of insets and commentaries). Even most fantasy maps, which ape in many ways the maps of this period, may have little more than a cartouche and a compass rose, and are spare in comparison to their historical kin.
Reinhartz organizes his book by elements: ships, sea monsters, plants, animals and people all get their own chapter. With what seems to be a rather small sample of maps, he often returns to the same, familiar maps to discuss a different element. But because The Art of the Map spans more than 300 years, we are not looking at a specific style or usage: the differences between a 16th-century portolan chart and a 19th-century bird’s-eye map of a city are quite substantial.
This book does not make a specific, scholarly argument about these map elements; it’s an appreciation of them, illuminating their essential character by repetitive example. But its intense examination of antique maps’ marginal elements may well open your eyes to, and appreciate, parts of the map that, as present-day readers with present-day map-reading habits, you may well have glossed over.
Simon Garfield’s On the Map is the third book of its kind that I’ve encountered, akin to Mike Parker’s Map Addict (review) or Ken Jennings’s Maphead (review): Maps 101—an introductory book for people who are interested in maps but don’t necessarily know a lot about them, written by an enthusiastic generalist. But Garfield’s book is more peripatetic and less focused than the others.
On the Map covers a huge amount of ground in its 400-plus pages, from the Library of Alexandria to Apple Maps (but only the announcement; the subsequent fracas came too late). There is no narrative thread tying the chapters together, and some chapters, arranged by theme, span centuries; they’re interspersed with sidebars called “pocket maps” that deal with a smaller subject in a bit more depth. It’s an excellent survey of what’s been happening with maps over the past decade; you’d be better served by reading this book than by plowing through eight years and 4,055 posts of my former map blog, though you’d arrive at the same point in the end.
Because of that blog, I am the worst audience for this book: nothing really surprised me. Those who have been paying close attention to this subject will not find much new material: this is a survey. In fact, there were several instances where I knew that Garfield was telling the story too briefly, and leaving stuff out. In his rush to cover everything, he glosses over a lot of detail. Prodigious in scope but limited in depth, this book is a view from a height. There are chapters, even paragraphs, whose topics have been addressed with entire books. On the Map is only the start of your trip into maps; it will only whet your appetite for more.
When Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation was published in the U.K. in 2010, I despaired of ever being able to lay hands on a copy easily. A book documenting the first century or so of the history of the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national map-making body, is not likely to have much commercial potential outside Britain: no surprise that a U.S. edition has not come out. [Update: A paperback edition became available in the U.S. in 2013, after this review was posted.] But I recently discovered that, like at least one other book otherwise unavailable on this continent, it is available to North Americans as an ebook (and has been for a year: see how observant I am). So spent the $10, downloaded it to my Kindle, and settled in to read a book I’d heard about for years but didn’t imagine I’d be able to lay hands on without some effort.
Inasmuch as a history of field surveying and copper-plate engraving can be made anything other than dull, Hewitt has managed to produce a narrative that fairly crackles with interest. She starts at the bloody Battle of Culloden, not only as a way of setting the stage for the Military Survey of Scotland, a predecessor to the OS, but also as a rationale for mapping the whole of Britain’s territory in the first place. From there we’re led through the Scottish Highlands, joint French-British observations to measure the distance between their observatories, the triangulation of Britain and the survey of Ireland. The narrative closes with the publication of the last maps of the First Series and the expansion of the OS’s works into city maps. Along the way we get glimpses into the equipment used in the survey, such as the theodolite, and the mapmaking process; there’s a lovely section on how the OS dealt with Irish placenames, and digressions into art and poetry.
It does read a bit traditionally, in the sense that it is an institutional history seen through the lens of those in charge. It’s a history of those making the maps; the impact of those maps is less thoroughly covered. And if you ask me, it ends too soon — just as the OS is getting started. A lot more could still be written, I think.
Paul Schenk’s Atlas of the Galilean Satellites (Cambridge University Press, 2010) collects all the imagery gathered by the Voyager and Galileo missions of the four major moons of Jupiter (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io, all discovered by Galileo in 1610) and assembles them into global, quadrangle and area maps. But this heavy, 400-page tome begins with a confession. “This Atlas is not what it should be.” The failure of the high-gain antenna on the Galileo spacecraft meant that far less data could be transmitted back to Earth during its nearly eight-year mission than had been planned. Large tracts of the moons are mapped in low resolution; the fuzzy images yield little detail. But until another mission is sent—the Juno probe now en route to Jupiter will not be studying the moons—this is all there will be for the foreseeable future. For decades, in fact.
The Atlas of the Galilean Satellites therefore represents a treasure trove of all available imagery of these four moons. The further out you go, the less imagery there is: outermost Callisto gets 49 pages of plates, innermost Io, with all its interesting volcanoes, gets 89. Despite the inevitable blurry patches, there are some extraordinarily high-detail images here. One problem, though, is that the global maps are unlabelled; I found it difficult to place features that were labelled on the quadrangle, regional and detail maps in their global context. Also worth noting is that—and I suspect this is the norm for extraterrestrial mapping—these are not maps per se, but spacecraft imagery labelled and put on a map projection.
One issue that has been noted elsewhere—for example, in Emily Lakdawalla’s review last November—is that several copies of this book have been defective, with pages falling out. My own copy is fine, but seems a bit fragile. (UPDATE: Laying it open flat once was enough for several pages to come loose.) The signatures appear to be glued rather than sewn—a textbook example of the badly built British book—which is inexplicable given the size of the book and weight of the glossy paper, to say nothing of its cost. Because, at $165 (£95) list, this book is extremely expensive; ebook versions are just as exorbitant. Cheaper copies can be found elsewhere with a little digging: I got mine via AbeBooks for less than $30, shipping included. Honestly, given the risk of the book falling apart on you, that’s the way to go.
This atlas isn’t really aimed at beginners or people with a casual interest in the solar system. The price reflects that, as does its rather technical nature and organization. Those with a serious jones for the solar system will not be deterred by these or any other reservations.