Maps, Fantasy, Culture, and Boundaries

I attend very little programming at science fiction and fantasy conventions because I’m too busy socializing with writers, readers, and publishing professionals I don’t have a chance to see except at conventions. At AussieCon last year in Melbourne, Australia, I happened to sit next to New Zealand writer Russell Kirkpatrick for an hour of scheduled book signing. Since we were not busy in the second half of the hour, we got to talking.

Russell is a geographer. He knows maps. He is passionate about maps from a thoroughly knowledgable point of view.

I am a world building dork. I love maps.

At the end of the autographing hour I felt we had just gotten started, but he had to run because he was giving a two hour seminar-workshop titled MAPS, FANTASY, CULTURE, & BOUNDARIES.

TWO HOURS of maps, fantasy, culture, and boundaries. Catnip!

I was out of my chair and following him to that seminar in a flash. It turns out that not only is he a knowledgeable geographer and a dang good writer, he’s also a fine teacher. If you ever have a chance to attend any sessions he gives on maps or geography and/or how they function with fantasy world building, do so. Furthermore, about three quarters of the way through the session, I had a REVELATION about the next set of Crossroads books, wrapped around the issue of from what perspective a world can be expressed and therefore mapped.

Here are a few of my notes on the session. They are not written down in chronological order but rather in an order I’ve put together to try to make the points flow. From here on out, direct quotes or paraphrased comments by Kirkpatrick will be in italics. My comments and thoughts will be in normal type.

We are constrained by a point of view.

We are constrained by boundaries.

The map is an expression of your intimate contact with the world you know. It’s not the map you need to get right; it’s the expression you need to see right.

For people building worlds, these points are crucial. They are true for actual maps but also for the map the writer, and later the reader, begins building in their head as they create the space they are navigating through either as its creator or as one who is traveling there. The idea of constraints matters in a number of ways, but it particularly matters for a world builder.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make a blanket statement: No one builds a world from an objective place. While building a world, I believe one must constantly negotiate the balance between the experiences and subjective assumptions I bring into the world and the experiences and assumptions that are meant to exist in the world itself, that are meant to represent this specific world’s way of being rather than my own way of being. That is, I can think like I do, but I also need to know how the people in my world think. The two aren’t going to be the same.

Furthermore, maps are not objective. It is commonplace to define a “western-style” map as an objective measure of the land, but it isn’t. Mapmakers are always making choices about how a place is represented and what matters enough to put on the map.

But don’t take my word for it. Let me return you to Prof. Kirkpatrick.

Maps are not value-free representations of the world.

Most cultures share land. Maps that see land and people as resources, or map only those things that can realize financial gain, are an impositional grid. They disembody the land without us in it.

Cartographers can focus on what is visible, tangible, static, and scientific, or they can focus on what is invisible, intangible, dynamic, and human.

Cadastral maps created land as commodity, with property boundaries and named owners. They divided up the land like a carcase being cut up. Topographic maps are paid for and designed by the military. They are like a conversation between two people that you are overhearing.

Maps influence the ways you see the world.

Okay, so the quote about topographic maps being like a conversation between two people that you are overhearing made sense to me in context, but seems rather mysterious now, maybe as if it were a conversation I heard only part of or that I’ve half forgotten.

Fortunately, I was able to email Russell and ask him, and here’s what he had to say:

Topographic maps, I argue, are a coded conversation between the state (who funds them) and the military (who dictates what is on them). When the general public use them they are, in effect, overhearing a conversation never meant for them.

The point to come back to as a world builder is to always remember that you, the one who is drawing the map, are making a series of decisions about what matters enough to go in the map, and about what and how it is represented.

The writer is in a constant process of determining what is important enough to be visible.

Think about visibility. If a place isn’t on the map, then you can’t go there on the map. If a place isn’t on YOUR map, the map in your mind of what matters about the world you want to write about, then you the writer can certainly not go to places you’ve never thought about, places you think don’t matter enough to warrant notice. Matters that aren’t visible to you.

I believe that it is crucial to pause and reflect on what may be invisible in your own personal map as well as the map you are creating. What do you want readers to see? What do you want to see? What are you seeing? What could you be seeing that isn’t visible to you right now?

As Russell said:

Maps can make visible geographies people already knew but which had never been visible before.

Maps can make us want to move beyond the border.

As world builders, writers can go over the same sort of terrain over and over again because it’s the landscape people are familiar with. I think most readers recognize these maps, and often choose to return to places that have familiar contours. I do, too, at times.

But the beauty of fiction in general and fantasy and science fiction in particular is that we always have a chance to move beyond the border, beyond the boundaries, to make visible what we’ve ignored, to see the world in a way we haven’t looked at it before.