There is an assumption there … fantasy books have maps. Which is odd, since I have read hundreds (possibly thousands) of novels without maps, many of them set in regions I’m unfamiliar with. The fact is that for a great many works of fiction maps are irrelevant, they are about what people are doing in their lives, if Sarah goes to visit her uncle in Vostok it is sufficient for me to know it took her several hours on the train and when she got there the forests were covered in snow. I don’t need to look it up on a map. It doesn’t matter. […]
In Red Sister the vast majority of the story takes place within a circle a few hundred yards across. The small amount of traveling is simple. The rare references to remote places are similarly simple. The habitable world is a corridor fifty miles wide and tens of thousands of miles long, following the equator. The empire is flanked to the west by one country behind a mountainous border, and to the east by a sea with another country on the far shore.
A map would be a long skinny thing on a page that was 90%+ white space. The detail would be hard to see and invented by me entirely to fill the map … no other reason.
On the other hand, Betsy Dornbusch, author of the Seven Eyes trilogy, finds that working out the map when writing a story—even when it’s in a real-world location—does aid the writing process. “It helped SO MUCH to map it early and while I wrote. Gave me ideas, provided realism and worldbuilding issues, helped the story immensely,” she wrote on Twitter. See the entire Twitter thread beginning here.
While we’re on the subject of fantasy maps, here’s Camestros Felapton with a thing: “I thought I’d look at the most classic of fantasy maps again but from a different perspective. Part of the problem and the attraction of Tolkien’s original map is the additional detail and a sense of a bigger explorable world. What happens if we strip that away and while we are at it making the right-angle problem a bit worse?” What happens is my eyeballs bleed: that’s what happens. (The right-angle problem is probably a reference to Alex Acks’s critique.)
It might be facile to hashtag #notallmaps, but, really, not every map is a geologic mess, not every map is a Eurocentric western ocean oriented map, with an eastern blend into problematic oriental racial types. Not every map has borders which strictly follow natural barriers and does not have the messy irregularity that real world maps and borders have.
He offers up some examples of what he considers the better sort of fantasy map. Notably, and one I didn’t know, a map from Arianne “Tex” Thompson’s One Night in Sixes:
This is a map I love because it is precisely an in-world artifact. This is a map as used by the characters, changed and remarked for current conditions. Oftentimes, a map in a fantasy novel will be in “god game mode,” an omniscient point of view at the reader, not the character level. Even if characters traverse the entirety of the map, Tough Guide to Fantasyland style, they often aren’t seeing the world of the map as the map. The style and technology of a map is often at odds with what the characters already have.
The difference between maps for the reader and in-world maps is an interesting point, one I plan to look at in more depth in a future article. And I’ll have more to say on fantasy map style, and fantasy map design, shortly.
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]
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.
Fantasy maps increased in number during the 20th century due to the rise of science fiction and fantasy writing, and the birth of television and video games.
Many of them are products of the wildest imaginations, and are immersive places of escapism. Yet all of them retain vestiges of the ‘real’ world in which they were created—whether because of a particular feature illustrated in it, the way in which it has been drawn, or even the ‘real-world’ contexts which inspired it.
Harper’s examples aren’t what someone well-versed in fantasy fiction would expect: they include Milne and Tolkien, but also Sleigh’s 1918 map of Fairyland (above), San Serriffe, and other maps of the unreal from outside genre fiction. (A reminder that fantasy map does not only mean map accompanying a secondary-world fantasy novel in the Tolkien tradition.)