Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography

The March 2020 issue (PDF) of Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society, has as its theme the mapping of space. It also has something from me in it: my review of the third edition of Nick Kanas’s Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography. An excerpt:

It’s important to remember a book’s target audience—its imagined ideal reader. In the case of Star Maps this is Kanas’s younger self, who came to map collecting via his lifelong interest in amateur astronomy. “I was frustrated that there was not a single book on celestial cartography that could inform me about the various aspects of my collecting,” he writes in the preface to the first edition. “What I needed was a book that not only was a primer for the collector but also had sufficient reference detail to allow me to identify and understand my maps. Nothing like this appeared, so I decided to write such a book some day” (p. xxi). In other words, for a compendium this is a surprisingly personal book, one that reflects his own journey into the subject and, presumably, his interests as a collector.

I’ll post the full review on The Map Room once I’ve checked my draft against the published copy. In the meantime, check out the issue of Calafia (PDF) in which it appears. (Update, 24 Jun 2020: Here it is.)


Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography
3rd edition
by Nick Kanas
Springer Praxis, Sept 2019
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop

In Search of Lost Islands

We expect maps to tell the truth; indeed we need them to on a fierce and primal level. “I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe,” wrote Charles Blow last fall; he was writing in response to Trump’s petty defacement of a hurricane forecast map with a marker. The reaction to Trump’s stunt, was, I thought, revealing. It’s part and parcel with what Matthew Edney refers to as the ideal of cartography: striving toward a universal, unbiased and perfect map.

When a map has a mistake on it, when it’s wrong, it does something funny to our heads. We obey our phones and dashboard GPS navigators even when they send us off a cliff. We concoct nutty theories about ancient civilizations because a 16th-century portolan chart had a funny bend on a coastline. We wonder, because someone wrote “here be dragons” on a map, whether dragons were actually real. We make brain pretzels trying to force maps to be truthful even when they are manifestly wrong.1

Maps have to tell the truth. They simply have to. Maybe that’s why stories about mistakes on the map, and the havoc those mistakes cause, fascinate us so much. Which brings me to three books, all published for the first time in 2016, that talk about map errors of an older kind: islands and other features that appeared on maps, sometimes for centuries, that in the end turned out not to exist.

Continue reading “In Search of Lost Islands”

Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy

It turns out that I wasn’t finished talking about the maps drawn by Christopher Tolkien. My latest piece for Tor.com, “Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy,” went live at Tor.com this morning. It looks at the collaborative process between J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher as father and son tried to make the narrative agree with the map, and vice versa; takes a deep dive into Christopher’s mapmaking technique; and tries to assess the impact of his maps on fantasy mapmaking.

Previously: Christopher Tolkien, 1924-2020.

The Territory Is Not the Map

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.

Continue reading “The Territory Is Not the Map”