Seeing this amusing example of “Geography Fail” triggered this post. What’s wrong with this picture?
So as we confront yet another example of how Americans can’t even manage to correctly render maps of our own, very real world, I find myself contemplating the nature of maps in fantasy.
They’ve become a staple of epic fantasy, particularly those of doorstopper size, to the point that Diana Wynne Jones ruthlessly skewered them as a cliche in her seminal The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Note: I haven’t seen the revised version, which I’m told has a different parody map; the original was Europe upside down, with names that are anagrams of Our World names.) TV Tropes has a few choice things to say about them too. (Warning — I have never managed to visit TV Tropes without losing several hours of time browsing and laughing my nether regions off. Here there be lulz; click at your peril.)
It’s easy to make fun of fantasy maps — and yet we continue to see them throughout the genre, even when authors don’t want them (e.g., Terry Goodkind). It’s gotten to the point that an epic fantasy sans map doesn’t actually feel like epic fantasy to some readers. I was at Worldcon this past weekend, schmoozing and doing all the usual stuff debut authors need to do to promote their book. I handed one of my Advanced Reader Copies to an author whose work I admired, in hopes that she would read it and offer a favorable review. She thumbed through it, looked impressed by the teaser blurb, but then frowned and said, “I thought this was epic fantasy? There’s no map.” At which point I was obliged to explain that it had all the other tropes of epic fantasy — world-spanning scale, one brave heroine fighting impossible odds, Fate Of The Universe At Stake, the usual. Just no map. She still looked a bit dubious, but said she’d read it. Here’s hoping.
I got anxious enough about this during the early production phase of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I actually drew a map. This was a mistake, of course, because I know diddlysquat about cartography and plate tectonics and had probably put a continent in the way of some critical Gulf Streamlike current, thus making the whole planet uninhabitable by human beings. But I worried that readers would protest that the story wasn’t Epic enough, despite warring gods and exploding mountains and such, without a map to illustrate the epic-ness. So I finished the map, then asked my editor if she wanted it. Here’s proof of how good she is — she demurred, noting correctly that it’s a good thing not to adhere to the overdone cliches of the genre. Amazing that I needed a reminder of this, but that’s how deep the programming runs.
Because I didn’t really believe I needed one. I feel the same way about maps as I do about depictions of characters in novel cover art — I know they supposedly sell more books, but I hate it when my mental image of the story is messed with by someone else’s rendering. When I finished my crappy map, I didn’t actually like it. For one thing, the underlying story of the series spans thousands of years. Imagine how much human civilizations in our world have changed in, say, the last two millennia. Which era would you choose to map? How would you depict shifting national boundaries, cities destroyed and rebuilt, and so on? On top of this, I make a point in the series of noting that this world’s rulers routinely obliterate nations that annoy them, literally wiping them off the map. Even the gods get in on the planetary renovation act, sinking continents and boiling oceans now and again. The survivors move to an undamaged location, plant a flag and name the new territory after the old, and hope they’ll manage to last a few centuries before the next displacement.
Trying to map all this made the world, complex and dynamic in my imagination, look simple. Static. Small. Which is partly a testament to my mapmaking (non-)skill, but also partly the purpose of a map — to render something as vast as a landscape into a comprehensible, graspable, quantifiable representation. Necessary for explorers, but for readers? I think it actually diminishes the epic fantasy experience.
So here’s my question for all of you. Fantasy maps: necessary? Desirable? Or an evil that must be stopped? You’ve got my vote, obviously, but maybe I’m atypical. I’d like to know what some other fantasy readers think.