12 July 2006

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.