“The Delusive Cartographer,” a fantasy short story by Rich Larson published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2015, plays with the familiar trope of a lost treasure map. In this story that map is hidden in a prison, which the story’s two rapscallions must break into in order to retrieve the map. Larson throws in more than one plot twist to confound things; the final paragraph’s reveal is well set-up but still surprising.
As you probably know, I’m keenly interested in fiction where maps are part of the story. The latest example of this comes from my friend Fran Wilde, whose story, “An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands,” went live on Tor.com this morning. This is a story that challenges our ideas of what a map is for and what a map does—what a map maps—as travellers from another world discover that their destination is already inhabited, and try to map themselves into a safe space in between the settled areas—which is a real twist on the colonial uses of maps in history. It can be read for free online; an ebook is also available at a nominal cost.
The Consolation of Maps (riverrun, June), the first novel from Irish writer Thomas Bourke, is set in the world of map exhibitions and map dealers. From the publisher’s book description: “Kenji Tanabe finds maps easier to read than people. At the elite Tokyo gallery where he works, he sells antique maps by selling the stories that he sees within their traces: their contribution to progress, their dramatic illustrations, their exquisite compasses. But no compass or cartography can guide him through the events that will follow the sudden and unexpected offer of a job in America.” The description and reviews (see GeoLounge and the Irish Times) portray this as more a literary novel than a mystery or thriller; I’ll have to check it out for myself. It’s only published in the U.K. but is available elsewhere through third-party dealers; Amazon UK will likely deliver regardless of the address. Kindle and iBooks versions will be geographically restricted, of course.
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.