Not the Territory: In defense of (Good) SFF Maps

There have been a slate of articles lately about maps in fantasy. Alex Acks has talked about the terrible geology in Tolkien’s Middle Earth Map and then gone on to tell why they aren’t a fan of fantasy maps in general. Adrian Daub has talked about his love of maps, but the problems of Eurocentric maps. There are others, some of whom have been gathered by Camestros Felapton.

We’re at the point in the cycle where a defense of the form, of countering the arguments put forth, and by gum, as an amateur cartographer in my own right, I am the person to do so. It might be facile to hashtag #notallmaps, but, really, not every map is a geologic mess,not every map is a Eurocentric western ocean oriented map, with an eastern blend into problematic oriental racial types. Not every map has borders which strictly follow natural barriers and does not have the messy irregularity that real world maps and borders have.

Let’s look at one of the two maps in Kate Elliott’s Cold Fire. The Spiritwalker (Cold Magic) versus takes place on an alternate Earth which is far more glaciated, amongst other changes. The first novel takes place in the northwest of Europe. The second novel, Cold Fire, brings our protagonists across the ocean to the American continents:

So, see, here, Elliott has provided fantasy grounded in the Americas, with American geography, and a geography which is influenced, determined and changed by the more glaciated world.

Glaciated worlds seem to be good for authors to break the molds that lead to the same old same old maps. Here is a somewhat colder, darker world by Stina Leicht in her Malorum Gates novels. Note that this is primarily a political map and is oriented so that readers know where the major polities are, rather than having readers follow the progress of people explicitly.

Other authors also break the mold. In Beth Bernobich’s River of Souls series, we get a mostly political map, and no, the political borders do not follow rivers and mountain chains in a facile manner. And the ocean is to the east of the land mass:

I suppose that, with two Hugos to the series to her credit, N.K Jemisin’s work would not need introduction at this stage. Readers of that series, though, will note that the maps are explicitly geological, splitting up the Stillness into tectonic plates. And note, Jemisin’s continent is oriented to the Southern Hemisphere, not the northern.

And then there is this map, from Tex Thompson’s One Night in Sixes.

This is a map I love because it is precisely an in-world artifact. This is a map as used by the characters, changed and remarked for current conditions. Oftentimes, a map in a fantasy novel will be in “god game mode”, an omniscient point of view at the reader, not the character level. Even if characters traverse the entirety of the map, Tough Guide to Fantasyland style, they often aren’t seeing the world of the map as the map. The style and technology of a map is often at odds with what the characters already have.

This map, here, though, is an exception to that. It’s an in-world artifact, and thus has value as part of the narrative, rather than illuminating the narrative, doing double duty thereby.

Maps are not the territory, and not every fantasy or SF novel needs a map. Certainly, Sturgeon’s Law for everything else applies for maps in SFF as well. However, I hope these maps indicate, there is plenty to love in fantasy maps.