Maps and Fantasy

There are so many unquestioned assumptions and shallow statements in a new article at Strange Horizons, "The Reader and the Map", that it would be exhausting to detail them all, and they're suffiently obvious that I doubt I really need to. Nonetheless, the topic of maps in books is an interesting one in some ways, and my frustration with the essay mostly stems from wishing the material had been treated with more depth and insight.

The first book review I ever published was in the fanzine Niekas when I was in my mid-teens, a review of L.E. Modesitt's The Magic of Recluce, a glowing review that, if I remember correctly, made only one criticism: that the book didn't have a map. I was not a regular reader of fantasy novels at the time (I was a science fiction snob; I read Recluce because I knew the writer and he'd assured me it was a rational, scientific fantasy novel, a fantasy novel written by a science fiction writer), but I was a regular player of role-playing games, and I liked RPGs as much because of their detailed maps and books of rules and information as for the imaginative play, which was usually a let-down compared to what I could create in my head from the raw material.

At Readercon this weekend, China Mieville said, in his guest of honor interview, that one of the things he notices in both the audience for his work and in himself is a tension between a desire for otherworldly mystery and a desire for detail, detail, detail. He noted RPGs as an expression of this tension, a sublimation of geekiness within the rules and tables and worldbooks of the game that was often at odds with the fantastic potential of the material, and sometimes of the source material itself -- he noted that the game of Call of Cthulhu seemed to utterly miss Lovecraft's point: Cthulhu goes from being a creature so great and terrible that it can't possibly be described or comprehended to being a creature with 100 hit points. (I may be mangling China's argument, since it's based on memory, so please blame me if you disagree, not him.)

This tension between the desire for that-which-is-so-amazing-it's-incomprehensible and that-which-can-be-quantified is one most of us who are readers of SF probably share to some extent or another, and it can be a productive tension, perhaps even one of the foundational tensions in fantastic literature, the tension that propels much good fantasy writing into a realm that borrows from traditions of allegory, surrealism, and slice-of-life realism but doesn't comfortably fit into any one camp, and, at its best, is therefore richer than each.

M. John Harrison has said of his Viriconium series:
"What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" is an inappropriate question, a category error. You understand this immediately you ask it of the inscape of, say, Samuel Beckett or Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t want it asked (and I certainly didn’t want it answered) of Viriconium, so I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because -- like Middle-Earth -- it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological. "Viriconium" is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).
I assume Harrison's sort of fantasy is of the kind that Johan Jönsson says "a map would be totally uncalled for", but it's hard to tell, because he barely explains how and why maps are called for or uncalled for. Apparently, only quest fantasies with multiple volumes call for maps, but why is this? Crime and Punishment doesn't need a map? Then why do some editions come with one?

Maps possess an air of objectivity, and a good map can of course be extremely useful, but they are entirely subjective and in many ways fictitious. In Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi notes that a map "fires the imagination" through "the balance of detail and blankness, suggestion and opportunity". A map is a selection, a fantastic creation where landscape is simplified and arranged and colorized. A map is an expression of choice, imagination, and ideology as much as a story is. I wonder if there are fantasy novels that make this a part of their structure -- it would be fascinating to read, for instance, a new Viriconium novel that included maps as part of its structure of subversion. That we accept the maps in standard fantasy trilogies as accurate says as much about our expectations from those works as does the presence of the maps themselves.


  1. Well, I would personally find it interesting if you would be so kind to take the time to mention at least a few of what you see as my worst mistakes.

    The essay isn't really about maps, though. It's about how maps in fantasy books are regarded by the readers. Or at least it was, I just realized, when I first submitted a short essay just about half as long as the one you can read on Strange Horizons now. Anyway, I never intented to write an essay about maps; the essay I see when I read my own words is about the reader and how the map affects the way she sees a fantasy book. But I'm, of course, not suited to judge, and if the essay is read as an essay about maps, I've most definitely failed.

    Crime and Punishment doesn't need a map? Then why do some editions come with one?

    That's very interesting. I own a few editions myself and would never even have guessed that there actually were editions with maps. But then, I have never even seen an English edition.


  2. I was thinking about the accuracy of fantasy maps not long ago. James Barclay's setting is so strikingly oblong that I assumed it must be a pre-modern, topological, depiction of the land ...

  3. I agree with Johan that courtesy alone ought to dictate at least an example or two to back up such a sweeping condemnation. And I take the responsibility of literary critics to include supporting their statements, and to ask themselves why they are making them.

  4. I could go on at far greater length than you would want about role-playing games, but basically it all boils down to a philsophical difference between those who play them regarding the purpose of the mechanisms. Some people see them as a set of game rules that are there to be learned and exploited, just like the rules of any board game. Others see them simply as a useful underpinning to the simulation that should not be allowed to get in the way of the experience.

    The argument you put forward is valid, but you might also ask whether an artist's impression of Cthulhu (or a plush Cthulhu toy) devalues the true, mindboggling awfulness of Lovecraft's creation. The answer is, "only if you let it."

  5. I love the idea of a Viriconium with complementary and contradictory maps.

    For TWENTY EPICS we mostly played the maps for laughs (as we did the index). -- because starting an epic fantasy with a map is a convention, but messing with that kind of convention is a great way to get to the reader.

    Heck, Hal Duncan got a whole book out of it. :)

  6. And then again, there's house of leaves whose text acts like a map itself.

    I dunno- I like maps. I think they can be fun and useful as a sort of artifacts of the world itself. I don't think they are required- and I think too many are just used as part of a genre obligation (and are un-necassary).

    My favorite map was the one in Gene Wolfe's Wizard/Knight.

  7. I think you are arguing--or assuming--two different theses that you're treating as one: (1) that readers go to fantasy for rules, regulations, and simplification; (2) that this desire is expressed as a desire for detail and quantification.

    I don't quite want to argue with (1), as I think it is true, but not the whole truth. (Readers also go to mystery, mainstream, horror, and every other genre that exists for simplification, rules, and regulations; readers also go to SF for wonder, complexity, strangeness, unease, and the numinous.) The second statement, however, makes an unsupported relationship between "simplification" and "detail." China Mieville's and M. John Harrison's books are no less full of *details* than any other; it's simply that the details they choose to present are different. I think you've mistaken "detailing" for "systematic coherence." Harrison, at least (I haven't read Mieville), has simply replaced a coherence of world-building with a coherence of effect, or, if he prefers, ideology.

  8. I ignore maps on the endpapers of fantasy novels because I have the worst sense of direction in the world.

    Have you read Franco Moretti's essay on maps? It's worth a look, provocative argument in any case; and my friend Eric Bulson has a book coming out soon from Routledge called "Novel Orientations: Maps, Narratives, and Modernity, 1850-2000" that might be of interest.

  9. Okay, since more detailed criticism was asked for, here we go:

    The first two sentences set up the basic thesis -- how do readers "view" maps in fantasy books, and "what impression does the map give before the story has had a chance to tell us what it wants to say" -- interesting questions, both filled with possibilities. We're then told about a survey that has been done, is not scientific, involved a few hundred answers from fans, and contains "some interesting insights". Here it would have been helpful to have more information about this survey, but that's not the greatest weakness of the article, so I'll let it go.

    The next paragraph tells us that most readers like maps. They use words like "professionalism" and "thoroughness" (or, rather, the author uses them, since they aren't direct quotes from the research material). Then we are told, "In many ways, the map was perceived as a natural part of the book", a statement that needs some explanation -- what ways? how? Why "natural"? We get more statements in the rest of the paragraph, statements that we'd assume are summarizing ideas that will be explored in more detail later.

    The next paragraph moves from readers to writers, and the first sentence is a strange one, because it begins with aspiring writers and then ends with what could be seen as a criticism of the detail obsession that causes a desire for maps in the first place: "A few of those with their own literary ambitions had drawn or begun working on their own maps, in some cases without getting around to the actual writing." Okay, but this seems to be coming, if not out of left field, at least from a base without a player on it. Speculations about why creating maps might be appealing to aspiring writers follow. This seems to me to be an unnecessary paragraph.

    The next paragraph opens with a sentence that is one big unquestioned assumption: "The very idea that maps and fantasy belong together is of course a cliché in itself." Of course? Why is this so? Who says? Then we get Crime & Punishment and Jane Austen, where the idea of a map in her work is "laughable". Why? I'd be perfectly happy to have a map in a Jane Austen book. Maps can be nice things. Plenty of historical novels have maps in them, so why not Jane Austen? As I said, there are at least two editions of Crime & Punishment with maps in them -- I've got the Signet Classic one right here -- so why is it so strange for there to be a map? The rest of the paragraph raises a complex idea and doesn't seem to recognize its complexity: "A bleak way to look on the phenomenon is that the map is there as a crutch to help our understanding of our beloved heroes' travels on their world-saving quest, or so that we can understand the strategic movements of armies of good or of evil. This would support the idea of the conservative fantasy reader who wants what he or she knows and who is only comfortable with innovation of the genre as long as it is kept within well-defined boundaries." The tone is sarcastic and dismissive ("crutch", "beloved heroes"). The premise assumes maps are present in heroic fantasy novels that are consolatory and escapist, but clearly those aren't the only books that include maps. Then the "conservative fantasy reader" is described as a person who doesn't want innovation. What's the connection between these two sentences? Is the function of a map solely to illustrate quest adventures? Is the lack of a map somehow innovative? Is a map an essential part of the genre of the quest fantasy? Why? What's the evidence?

    Then we are told there are some fantasies "where a map would be totally uncalled for". I addressed this in the post. Then: "There are also books that have maps, but where they do not really matter." Why not? Books are listed that "could have worked just fine without their maps", but we're not given any specific reasons why. (The Year of Our War is listed, about which John Clute said, "the absence of any maps, in a fantasy novel with lots of names and campaigns and dynastic shifts from one armed house to another across the Land, seems to be another deliberate dislocation move.") Then we're told that there are books where "the lack of [a map] does not make any real difference" -- how so? Why not? Then: "Modern fantasy novels that don't necessarily have to have a map tend to have one or more." This statement is based on what evidence? The previous sentences in the paragraph don't support it, so it seems to come out of nowhere. Then: "Maybe this is to be on the safe side, or maybe it's because the authors and editors are as much stuck in the traditions of the genre as anyone else." More speculation. More announcement of the map as a "tradition of the genre", an announcement that needs far more evidence to be convincing and far more consideration of the contradictory evidence (other genres with maps, major books without maps, types of maps, etc. etc.).

    First sentence of the next paragraph: "In order to appeal to the reader, the map should look as if it belongs in the setting of the book." Sez who? Is this drawn from the survey? How many people thought so? Why? We're told about computer-generated maps and medieval worlds. Interesting idea, the dichotomy between those two things. What are examples? Then we're told "It does not speak well of the writer" when there are things such as "silly names" (what determines if something is silly? what if the novel is comical?) and "geographical impossibilities" (right, because fantasy novels shouldn't contain impossibilities).

    Next paragraph: "'Which is the most popular fantasy map?' easily becomes, 'Which is the most widely read book?' since it is difficult--and unwise!--to have an opinion on something you have not read." So was this question asked, or what? Why can't I have an opinion on a book I haven't read if we're talking about maps? Certainly, I could tell you whether I thought the map was interesting on its own, without relation to the text. Why is it important to know the "most popular fantasy map"? Are people thinking about maps separate from the books that contain them? This sentence could have led to all sorts of discussion: "Another popular map was the one in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea cycle, since it is simply so different from many other fantasy maps, rather than being a map which accurately describes the setting of the story." How is that map "simply so different"? What does that difference say? Should the Earthsea books be included in the same category as the quest fantasies beloved by the supposedly conservative fantasy readers who don't like innovation? How do these things relate to each other? No distinguishing is done. We move on to Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan. We're told "the map" (is there only one?) in The Wheel of Time series got criticized (why? for what?), which is surprising because the series sells well. What is the relationship between sales and maps?

    The next paragraph actually gives some specific criticisms of Katherine Kerr's Deverry. An interesting statement is made at the end of the paragraph: "I would also be much intrigued if anyone had ever managed to get any help from the map of the underground city of Menzoberranzan in R. A. Salvatore's Homeland, a map with a note which speaks for itself: 'Only major stalagmites are shown for clarity.'" What do you mean by "help"? Is that what a map is for? Why are stalgmites important in Homeland?

    More general assertion of the map as a genre convention, with discussion of the influence of Tolkien, but this is just statement and opinion, no real analysis, just the sort of "X believes this, but Y disagrees" that is little more than empty blather. Tolkien is asserted as the primary force on "modern fantasy", but this is a fairly narrow definition of fantasy, and to equate "modern fantasy" with "contemporary publishing practices" seems like a bit of a leap to me.

    Conclusion of the survey section of the article: "Regardless of what the participants in the survey thought of the raison d'être of the map in fantasy books, most answers contained the rather obvious conclusion that a map implies travels. If no one is to get from point A to point B (and to points C, B, and Q) there is no need of a map to illustrate it. To many readers, the map also seems to point to a certain kind of fantasy and give the impression of an impending epic story." So the conclusion is: The only things people agreed on were the most basic and obvious ones. Which suggests the survey was useless. It could have been made more useful if the author investigated the assumptions more deeply -- "a map implies travels" why? What if it doesn't? What about a map of something static? A map of something aspired to? What are we talking about with this word, "map"? If nobody travels, there's no need to illustrate it? That seems like an awfully impoverished idea of what a map can do. Maps suggest "a certain kind of fantasy" and "give the impression of an impending epic story", but is this always the case, and should it be? Does that kind of fantasy equal "modern fantasy"?

    The last two paragraphs of the article are personal opinion from the author, the maps he likes and a reiteration of the basic points that have already been reiterated without much support.

  10. It seems to me that a map in a fantasy novel is the only place where you can write "Here there be dragons" and really mean it.

    Maps and fantasy have a long history.

  11. Thanks.

    Well, "The Reader and the Map" isn't an essay of academic depth. Agreed. It wasn't intended to be one. The survey on which it's based was, as pointed out, somewhat informal. It concentrated on what the paritcipants thought, not why they thought the way they did. Whereas it would most certainly had been most interesting to make a better, deeper and more reliable survey, that's simply not something I – unpaid and just for my own pleasure – have the time to do. I simply wanted to write a short essay to point at certain trends and currents in the answers I got, which I felt was interesting enough that I would have wanted to read something about them.

    I do agree with some of your criticism, and the essay could have been clearer (and, as I've been told elsewhere, it could have included more numbers). However, some of the criticism seems to steam from the fact that the essay I wrote wasn't the essay you wanted to read.

    (And, yes, things like
    Is the lack of a map somehow innovative?
    I a map an essential part of the genre of the quest fantasy?
    First sentence of the next paragraph: "In order to appeal to the reader, the map should look as if it belongs in the setting of the book." Sez who? Is this drawn from the survey?
    Then we're told "It does not speak well of the writer" when there are things such as "silly names" (what determines if something is silly? what if the novel is comical?) and "geographical impossibilities" (right, because fantasy novels shouldn't contain impossibilities)
    were drawn from the survey.)

    The lack of distinguishing between different types of fantasy literature by so many readers was, by the way, something that intrigued me and an important reason to why I did the survey from the very beginning.


  12. I completely agree that there are a lot of interesting possibilities within these ideas, Johan, and I'm glad you're asking the questions, which is why I was reluctant to offer such a sustained critique -- I hoped the conversation would continue, and that your article would be a beginning; I feared a point-by-point critique of the article would cut off the conversation. But you've responded with grace and more friendliness than I probably would have been able to muster in the face of such criticism, so I really hope that you continue to explore these ideas. And if we're ever in each other's vicinity, I think I owe you a drink. ;-)

  13. Your point-by-point critique said as much about yourself, Matthew, as the article in question, and Johan has indeed responded well. As one of your regular readers, I'm relieved that you've recognised this. There are far too many 'me-blogs' where no real conversation is possible.

  14. Having taken a look at the article I think you are right, it could have been a lot better. There were rather too many unsupported assertions, some of which were easily supportable with a little effort. I also thought the article tended to treat fantasy as a monoculture. It isn't. I have reviewed books that I felt would have benefited from having a map, books whose maps were entirely irrelevant, and at least one book where I got the distinct impression that the author had started with the map and then written the novel in such a way as to ensure that everywhere on the map got visited.

    Johan, if you can make it to Finncon Jeff VanderMeer and I will buy you that drink and then bully the money out of Matt.

  15. Interesting issue with Mieville. In the editions I've read, "Perdido Street Station" has an (arguably unnecessary) map of the city that largely creates atmosphere, while "The Scar" and "Iron Council" don't. However, I found that the geopolitical elements of "The Scar" and the urban warfare in "Iron Council" were so difficult to understand without maps that the lack of them in the books was damaging - that unlike in the Vriconium case where you have a deliberately formless world the political realism meant that a map was required as a storytelling means.

  16. Quote:
    "This tension between the desire for that-which-is-so-amazing-it's-incomprehensible and that-which-can-be-quantified is one most of us who are readers of SF probably share to some extent or another."

    I couldn't agree more.

    Now, one can choose to see imaginary maps in fantasy fiction purely as a stylistic device, that creates "suspension of disbelief"... like fake "newspaper articles", "diaries" or "eyewitness accounts". But I do suspect there's more to fantasy maps than just technique.

    A map in the imagination also reflects the mind of the writer and the reader. Landscapes in SF and fantasy are not simply geography, but also "psychic landscapes". (The classic example of "psychic landscape" is that it starts to rain when the protagonist gets sad.)

    Salvador Dali made the most of this concept, with his surreal landscapes that were expressions of the psyche.

    Medieval maps expressed the map-drawers' anxieties and desires, in the way they drew monsters and fantastic kingdoms beyond the borders of the known world.

    Herein lies a great and unexplored opportunity. Why not simply admit: these are maps of the human mind, not of some "secondary reality" or "Midgard". By analyzing the writers' own fantasy maps, we may find unexpected depths and peaks. (Or, as in the case of some, a barren plain of the imagination. ;-))

  17. I admired the use of maps by Piers Anthony -- ones that punched the geographical puns. I considered putting something similarly basic, in my first novel, "Rarity from the Hollow." However, it's an ebook and the copyeditor didn't sound too thrilled about the idea, so I dropped it.

    On the other hand, while nothing specific is coming to mind, I have also felt annoyed by maps that augmented because the words failed to properly place me in the setting.

    Good topic.

    Robert Eggleton

  18. Now Cheryl's offering to let me buy drinks for people. I want to see the map that led to that. :)


  19. See, these maps promote heavy drinking, they must be stopped!

    Support your local Mapaholics Anonymous chapter.

  20. Hi Matt -

    I'm in the interesting position of writing several novels that are almost entirely centered upon, but do not include, maps.

    The series title 'The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica' sums it up nicely; it's about an atlas of maps to supposedly imaginary places. Simon & Schuster and I discussed early on, whether (since the book is illustrated anyway) we should include maps - but then the question was where, and how many, and are we giving away too much at any point in the story if we do?

    So, we left them out. In the first novel (HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS), the Geographica is a mystery - and I didn't WANT to solidify or quantify it too soon. In upcoming volumes, it'll be a given, as will many of the lands in the story. So we're now discussing actually creating and publishing (as a companion volume to the novels) an actual Imaginarium Geographica.

    My emotional response? In at least one extended series I love (Brooks' SHANNARA novels), they're absolutely invaluable. Love them. And if it wasn't for the maps in those books (and others), I may not have ever started writing mine.


  21. A recommended reference work in this discussion: THE DICTIONARY OF IMAGINARY PLACES (still available at

    The very amusing book includes geographical maps and descriptions of places like Wonderland, Oz -- and even The Law (from one of Franz Kafka's stories). Great fun!

  22. There are two reasons why fantasy novels tend to have maps:

    1) They're so often set on imaginary worlds. I don't necessarily NEED a map of Russia in the book itself to understand "Crime and Punishment." I can go out and get one almost anywhere if I think it would help me understand what's going on.

    2) Tolkien did it.

  23. That last line poses a very interesting question. Why should a map of a pseudo-medieval world be any more accurate than a real-world medieval "T-O" map? Now I'm tempted to draw up maps for a book I've been working on - which previously didn't have any maps - but make them the sort of maps intended to teach the area's religion instead of for navigational purposes.

  24. Matthew, any criticism that ends with someone promising to buy me a drink is great criticism, as far as I am concerned.

    I'm not really that bothered, actually: I either think that you're right or that you're wrong. If you're right, then great, hopefully I'll, with your help, do better next time. And if I think you're wrong, then why should I care enough to feel hurt?

    I do hope that someone else will be able to explore these ideas more deeply than I have had the time and possibility to do. However, if I have a question and no one else will answer it, I usually try to eventually find the answer myself, yes.

    Lee, thank you for your support.

    Cheryl, I've actually been thinking about going to Finncon. I'm in Stockholm the week before, so it wouldn't be impossible for me to get to Helsinki. I haven't decided yet, but if I do go, I'll make sure to find you.

    Jeff, I suppose some of us are lucky enough to show our generous personality even when we're not aware of it, eh?


  25. Johan, you're welcome. It's not that I don't think that your article is above criticism. Matthew has some good points. But more and more I feel that a critic has a moral as well as aesthetic responsibility.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)

Compulsory Genres

Writing in Crisis