Of satellites, maps, and worldbuilding

It’s kind of mind-boggling how much technology has changed our relationship with maps over the past decade. I remember when my mental approximation of geography was based either on (depending on the appropriate scale) globes with pastel continents on them, Mercator projections, or road atlases. While those primitive geospatial approximations still have utility in certain contexts — and retain a certain retro chic, of course — satellite imagery is pretty much the basis for every map we encounter in our daily lives. (Most of us never have the pleasure of turning the hefty pages of 6-foot-tall atlases). Since Google Maps isn’t exactly. . . aesthetic . . . most of the time (although it can be, if you browse it on a large enough screen) it’s nice to have things like this now and then:

It’s hypnotic, isn’t it? (via It’s Okay to Be Smart).

Of course there’s one area in which old-fashioned maps haven’t been supplanted by satellite imagery: maps of fictional lands. (Here are a few, including some of my favorites — the awesomely unrealistic maps of L. Frank Baum’s Oz — and here is a tumblr.)

I was completely obsessed with fantasy maps as a child; many an original fantasy saga of mine made it to the map stage, which of course required fairly well-developed history, politics, religion, climate, language, and culture (in one case I wrote a whole illustrated encyclopedia), then petered out as I put off the chore of writing a plot because it just seemed so much less rewarding. There’s actually a word for this activity – worldbuilding – which makes it sound much more respectable than what it was in my case: “I’m motivated more by visuals than by text and my attention span is way too short to write a whole trilogy.” I think my attraction to worldbuilding is hardly unusual among fantasyphiles.

Anyway, I will say no more about fictional maps because Nicholas Tam has written an absolutely wonderful essay on the topic, covering the worlds of Tolkien, Faulkner, Baum, Jordan, and many more.

Tam’s take on maps as yet another layer of narration in a fictitious world is dead on; his dislike of highly wrought, but informationally weak, maps is also dead on, as far as I’m concerned. Tam laments the fact that fantasy maps are too often merely pretty, at the expense of being narratively complex:

Fictional maps introduce the complication of having, at minimum, two layers of authorship: the layer outside the text that has the power to dictate and reshape the world, and the layer that belongs to the reality of the world. It’s clear that the author is in the first and the characters are in the second, and that having the first speak for the second passes for a kind of ventriloquism or free indirect discourse. But these are not the only stakeholders in play. The “narrator” of the map, if it’s discernible as a separate voice, can belong to either layer or both. And once we introduce the other living participants—the readership and the publishing apparatus—determining who influences our perception of the fictional space becomes considerably trickier.

For one thing, it isn’t safe to take it for granted that immersion in a world means the same thing as immersion in the author’s mind, as if the goal of literature were some sort of telepathic telos of lossless communication. Among other problems, this attitude towards literary immersion as a matter of filling in the blanks has no way of dealing with deliberate ambiguity.(source)

This is such a great essay, I can’t recommend it enough. And at the end (it’s very long), Tam shares a number of valuable links – including other essays on fantasy maps (Johan Jonsson doesn’t really like them and seems to think drawing a map without getting around to writing the story is rather appalling, but Matthew Cheney completely disagrees and points out the affinity of RPG players for maps, and then there’s this essay at Cold Iron & Rowan-wood).

Toggling back and forth from satellite imagery to street view on Google Maps ought to heighten awareness of the bounded, translated, edited nature of maps — it’s so obvious what disappears and reappears in one view vs. another. But in a way, I feel the opposite is happening, and the stylized version seems inevitable, not the product of choices. There just seems to be so much less for a cartographer to do when mapmaking is basically making a satellite image readable (not that you can’t use Google Maps to make art, too – see these for example). Which makes traditional maps, those unreliable shared approximations of our world, even more enchanting to me – and why I find David Imus’ craft so impressive.

At the moment, I have a bunch of old maps from discarded books and road maps and atlases spread all over our dining room, and I’m chopping them up and putting them back together, and I’m not at all sure where it is getting me, but it’s endlessly interesting. Worldbuilding was always my favorite part of imagining. And I’m honestly surprised more artists don’t work with maps, completely independently of fiction or RPGs or real places.

More on maps:
Jonathan Crowe’s The Map Room (a blog)
Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps
F*** Yeah Fictional Maps (tumblr)
Adrian Leskiw’s alternate-collage road maps (via the Wayback Machine, since I can’t find them anywhere else)

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