On Maps and Authorial Authority in Fantasy (guest post)

Should fantasy novels have a map?

No, for three reasons. First, almost every fantasy author lacks the necessary geographic skills. Not only do you need to understand the interaction of tectonics and geology with climate, vegetation and the distribution of fauna, you also need to grasp historical and contemporary migration, settlement, trade and cultural patterns. You even have to know something about toponymy and the way this varies within and between cultures. Unless you’re an expert (and even with a Ph.D. in geography, specialising in cartography. and a lifetime of academic teaching and research behind me, I often feel out of my depth) you’re going to look silly in the eyes of an expert, as evidenced by these recent discussions.

Second, your story should be self-contained. If it needs to refer to a map, surely that’s evidence of poor writing. And if it doesn’t refer to it, what use is the map? In fact, shouldn’t we be moving away from those tired old epic fantasies where you need a map to work out where the hell you are?

Third, and most important, due to western hegemony, maps have become instruments of colonial and capitalist oppression. While their makers have convinced us they’re neutral, objective and value-free scientific documents, maps have been used to dominate, divide and deceive. Maps are gendered, constructed using masculinist language. They are coded in the language of the military, as all ‘base’ mapping is funded initially for military use. Why else is the British mapping agency called the ‘Ordnance Survey’, and their chief cartographer the ‘Surveyor-General’? Their subject matter is what makes money or controls people, and they have been imposed by the West on other cultures as a grid to straighten them out – in many cases literally, as with the north/south and east/west road grids slapped on to indigenous lands around the world, obliterating indigenous places and names. Go read up on the Radcliffe Line and come back to this discussion after you’ve dried your eyes.

So, as I was saying, every author needs to draw a map. Was I saying that? I was, really. Even if your map doesn’t end up in the book, if you’re creating a secondary world or a modified earth, you need to keep your story spatially straight. Even though you’re unlikely to ever become an expert, if you’re creating a secondary world you should understand enough geography to convince a reader they can trust you. Forget about the experts: they’ll always find a flaw in your work because they refuse to suspend their disbelief. You’re aiming at enough verisimilitude to get readers to trust you.

And here’s where a good map can work wonders. There’s a gazillion books out there. Who’s a reader to trust? You can signal to your reader by means of a well-conceived, thoughtful and comprehensive map that you’re one they can commit their time to; or you can put in a cursory map and convince them to go somewhere else. If your map’s not above average, please don’t include it. Or consider getting a professional to assist you.

Frontispiece map from the author’s current work in progress.
This is a thematic map of a secondary world showing earthquake frequency. It forgoes all the pointy-witches-hats and faux-medieval dressing, serving as an artifact for the story, having been drawn by one of the characters.

Sounds like a lot of work? If you’re writing in a secondary world you’re already doing the work required, or you should be. You’ve had to think about all the pesky geography I listed above. You’re on top of the all-important minutiae lending your story moment by moment believability. You’re striving for consistency and verisimilitude. A map is a visible expression of this.

But shouldn’t your story be self-contained? Sure it should. So let’s not put a cover on a book either, or a blurb on the back. These are devices for short-cutting the reading process, after all; to give the reader some idea of what’s coming, of the flavour of the experience in store for them. As is a map. In fact, your map plays an important role in keeping your story self-contained. Imagine a Lonely Planet guide without maps. You want to explore a new country, but you have to go somewhere else to get that necessary spatial overview. Defeats the purpose of the book, right? In the same way, if you don’t give readers the opportunity to pop their heads above the canopy of your story and get a look at the terrain – to see how far they’ve come in both a literal and metaphorical sense – the may well get lost in the forest of your words.

But my fantasy story doesn’t involve travelling! It takes place entirely inside a person’s clutch-purse! Do I need a map? Well, does the purse have geography? Do you have competing social organisations? Are there territories? Do they have conflict? Are the boundaries and liminal zones important? Would it benefit the reader to see these? Would it help establish the ‘otherness’ of your story in their minds? I bet it would.

And what of the notion that maps are devices to dominate, divide and deceive? Ah, here we have a chance to do what we authors do best: to subvert the hegemonic discourse. By all means, use the language of oppression, but remake it. Co-opt it! You don’t have to draw a pointy-witch’s-hat faux-medieval map. You can draw an oblique perspective. You can fill your map with misdirection. You can scrawl annotations over it and make it an actual artifact of your story. You can make geological maps, three-dimensional cutaways, cartoons, whatever suits your story. In fact, I await the day when authors realise they can be as creative – and subversive – with their maps as they are with their text.

I wish I’d thought this through when I began writing my fantasy trilogies in the 1980s. But now I have, and I’m hard at work on something I hope will subvert fantasy cartographic tropes. If enough of us do this, remaking the language of maps, perhaps maps will become relevant again. They still have plenty to offer us.

Dr. Russell Kirkpatrick is a New Zealander currently living in Canberra. His two fantasy trilogies are published by HarperCollins and Orbit (UK and US). Until 2014 he lectured in Geography at the University of Waikato, specialising in cartography. His atlases have won prestigious awards, including from the British Cartographic Society.

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