Too Long for Twitter: I don’t like fantasy maps 41

I made the mistake of mentioning on Twitter that some day I would vent about why I hate fantasy maps, and that got enough people asking that apparently today will be that day.

DISCLAIMER THE FIRST: These are my personal opinions as a reader. If you, as a reader who is not me, happen to love fantasy maps and can’t get enough of them, that’s totally fine. This is not a judgment on you. We are allowed to like different things when we’re talking pretendy funtimes and not, say, fascism.

DISCLAIMER THE SECOND: Some of my fellow writers may read this. I want you to please understand that this is not a personal attack on you for having decided to make one of those fantasy maps. Readers have different preferences, and I’m sure you have readers who will like maps as much as I don’t like them. And in fact, despite my preferences as a reader, as a geologist, I would be more than happy to help make sure your fantasy map doesn’t contain horrendous geography for a reasonable fee. Because if they’re gonna be out there, I’d like for your maps to be good ones. And I actually do enjoy maps as objects of art, weirdly enough.

We all on the same page now? Good.

Why I Don’t Like Fantasy Maps: A Short List by Alex Acks

  1. Most of them are terrible. Like geographically, geologically terrible. You’ve already probably seen me complain about the map of Middle Earth. From my experience as a reader, and I’ll readily admit that I have neither had the patience nor time to read every fantasy book ever written, the majority of fantasy maps make me want to tear my hair out as a geologist. Many of them are worse than the Tolkien map, and without his fig leaf of mythology to justify it. (And sorry, it’s not a fig leaf that works for me.)
  2. Corollary: If your fantasy map is terrible, you have probably already lost my willing suspension of disbelief before I even dive into the book. Sorry, but this is what an MS in Geology will do to an otherwise easygoing person.
  3. Corollary: Looking at these maps will often make major worldbuilding issues lunge out at me that otherwise might have slid by. Like, for example, the question of where the hell your massive population center is getting its water when it is located nowhere near a river. Or the question of where they’re getting their food from. And so on.
  4. A lot of fantasy maps stand out very glaringly as lands that have been artificially created around a story that was already written, rather than organic geographies that shape the stories and peoples. This will often point back at the previous three points, because features and geography that are located to suit a story aren’t necessarily going to make any goddamn geographical sense. I find this artificiality annoying.
  5. There’s a tendency in certain fantasy maps to make most country borders follow things like mountain ranges or rivers. This, frankly, looks extremely weird.
  6. The number of people who don’t bother to put a fucking scale on their fucking map astounds me. A map without a scale is functionally useless.
    1. We failed student projects in field lab for not doing this, because without a scale, a map (or diagram, or picture) is meaningless.
    2. Putting some kind of scale or other surveying marks to indicate how distance on a map relates to measured distance is not a recent invention. (Even if the measurements weren’t terribly accurate at times.)
    3. If you don’t put a scale on your map, then it’s basically a relativistic perception exercise for whoever the cartographer was… which could almost be interesting if one of the characters made the map, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in a book I’ve read.
  7. I get extremely offended as a reader if understanding a book requires me to check an appendix or look at a map for what’s happening to make any sense. It breaks up the flow of reading, and a lot of times, it’s something that could be taken care of in the text.
    1. There is literally only one book I can think of as an exception to this: The Killer Angels. Which is not a fantasy novel; it’s a historical novel that closely follows the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s got some very detailed maps of the battlefield over each of the days in it that it does help to consult for understanding of things like troop movements and line of sight. I have never run across a fantasy novel that hits this level of detail, and honestly I doubt I’d be interested in one.
    2. ETA1: OH WAIT I LIED! There is one other exception, and it is a fantasy map! The map of the Stillness that NK Jemisin has at the beginning of The Stone Sky is A+ and has a scale. I didn’t feel the need to consult it during reading, but it warmed the rockles of my geologist’s heart to see all the plate boundaries laid out for the supercontinent.
  8. If the map isn’t required for understanding of the text, I’m left wondering why it’s even there. It’s not necessary. It’s more information than I need.
  9. I’d rather have the space to imagine things for myself.
  10. I don’t like that the ubiquity of unnecessary maps in fantasy literature puts pressure on me as a writer to follow suit. As someone who has drawn or otherwise generated many a map as a function of my job as a scientist, you can’t make me.

41 thoughts on “Too Long for Twitter: I don’t like fantasy maps

  1. Reply JohnD Aug 25,2017 15:59

    Amen and preach it! I agree on almost every point.

    I feel about fantasy maps the way I do about alien biology: there are so many, many wonderful examples in real life that you can pull from, why make your own up? And if you are going to make your own map/biology up, why do it so badly?

    And I agree on the Broken Earth. The science is absolute and utter crap, but the lyricism of the story more than makes up for it.

  2. Reply Nick Aug 25,2017 16:14

    Thank you for your rage! I enjoy the existence of maps in books, but never, ever refer to them. That might be because I just can’t follow the damn things. I also struggle with left and right…

  3. Reply camestrosfelapton Aug 25,2017 17:03

    I love fantasy maps as things in themselves with all their absurdities… but I agree: they rarely add any value to an actual story and are usually nonsense.

  4. Reply Russell Kirkpatrick Aug 25,2017 22:02

    Your point about maps not being required for an understanding of the text might need more thought. Lonely Planet guides worked because they combined text and maps. Remove all the maps and navigating your way through a strange country is more difficult. No matter how well-written the text, sometimes we need to rise above the limits of our own sight and get a sense of the scale of the place: how far have we come? What’s over the horizon?

    • Reply Alex Aug 25,2017 23:56

      …I’m talking about maps in fantasy novels. Why would I have a problem with maps in a guide book?

      • Reply Russell Kirkpatrick Aug 25,2017 23:59

        If you see readers as travellers in your secondary world, maps offer an overview not available from any one place in the text, serving a function similar to that in a travel guide. Sorry, I thought the parallel with Lonely Planet self-explanatory, but on re-reading I realise it is not so.

        • Reply Alex Aug 26,2017 00:12

          I’m sorry, but I still don’t find your parallel to be suitable. Novels and travel guides have completely different purposes.

          Or if there’s a novel that’s the same as a travel guide, I haven’t read it and have no desire to do so.

          • Reply roseisawritersorta Aug 26,2017 23:13

            The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was specifically set up as a tour guide. But on the other hand it’s purpose was to satirize the clichés and sillyness of fantasy novels, and it did so to lethal effect.

            So the map was there to point out that you are indeed going to have to visit all those oddly named places, in order to finish your tour.

  5. Reply Lucille Aug 26,2017 15:37

    That’s a good point!
    I like the look of maps in fantasy books, but I never look at them while reading.
    Except when it is a map of a city! Like in the Mistborn trilogy if I’m not mistaken

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  8. Reply CHip Aug 26,2017 21:24

    Have you looked at Abercrombie’s “Half a Xxx” triptych? The maps of the Shattered Sea seemed plausible (e.g. most cities on the coast, as the sea is the main highway), and knowing how the countries abut makes the strategic points clearer. Yes, the text might deal with this — in an ugly infodump; sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

  9. Reply Danny in canada Aug 26,2017 23:06

    it was amazing to look at the map in Bujold’s Chalion books and realize it was just spain-and-portugal upside down.

  10. Reply Terhi Aug 27,2017 07:56

    I’m a planetary geologist by training so I get what you mean but fantasy novels rarely have any believable economic systems or societies anyway (in the context of the specific fantasy world of the book where e.g. magic exists etc.) so I don’t let geologically unbelievable maps distract me too much. Maps can be pretty and fun to look at and can help in understanding the travels of the protagonists but I don’t let their inconsistencies bother me too much. I don’t know if we can expect too much research on natural sciences or geography from fantasy authors whose emphasis is anyway in story telling, languages, cultures or history of their world…

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  12. Reply georgephillies Aug 27,2017 15:38

    Maps can be useful for the author, to keep straight where towns and countries are.

    • Reply Alex Aug 28,2017 01:20

      I’m pretty sure I said I didn’t like them as a reader. No commentary on what authors might find useful for themselves.

  13. Reply Vicki Rosenzweig Aug 27,2017 17:17

    I suspect the rivers-as-country-borders may be an idea derived from state borders within the United States sometimes following the Mississippi River: but those boundaries weren’t fought over, or settled around a negotiating table in Paris. And they don’t entirely follow the river: the Louisiana/Mississippi border is along the river for a while, then heads straight east for a bit.

  14. Reply Brian Yatman Aug 28,2017 18:34

    I found the maps in Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Always Coming Home’ satisfying and useful. I’m guessing that because they are based on an actual place (a future California transformed by cataclysm), and that Le Guin oversaw their design (and she is the opposite of slapdash) that they might not be too offensive to a geologist.

  15. Reply Chris Aug 29,2017 11:32

    Meh, Ph.D. in biology, don’t see me grousing about ridiculous poisons, plagues, or the sex lives of solitary fire breathing unicorns.

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  17. Reply NelC Aug 30,2017 10:24

    I shall try not to tell you what or how to enjoy (or not) novels, but perhaps you should consider the concept of the fictional “unreliable cartographer”, akin to the unreliable narrator who has imperfect knowledge of the world they move through.

    The unreliable cartographer has no knowledge of geology, geography or cartography, but is merely trying to get all the geographical features that the narrator (or author) mentions together in one diagram in a way that makes sense to them. They put Mount Doom in the middle of Mordor, but don’t put the other volcanoes formed by the hot spot, because the narrator fails to mention them. They draw mountain ranges at right angles to each other, because the narrator mentions travelling south parallel to one range and east parallel to the other, not grasping that the narrator is only using rough directions because the exact compass bearing and semi-meandering track they actually followed is boring to the audience. Perhaps it is just one range that goes roughly south-south-west for a bit, then curves more west-south-west.

    The unreliable cartographer has no aerial photographs, no satellite photos, no extensive surveyors’ reports that measure precisely the relationship between one point to another (or even Elvish eyes that see a hundred leagues), but only travellers’ descriptions of how long it takes to walk between a handful of points. They have less knowledge of the fictional world than a medieval scholar had of our world, so they produce maps that represent that world about as well as the Mapa Mundi represents ours. Just because they’re drawn with some of the visual tropes of modern maps (missing scales and whatnot notwithstanding) lends them a certain amount of assumed authority that just is not justified.

    In reality, the maps in the books are usually produced by graphic artists who have no real knowledge of anything beyond the tools of their trade (believe me, I’ve known a few) working from a rough sketch the author produced to help them keep track of where the characters were, so it’s no wonder that they only superficially resemble real maps.

    (Back in the distant days of my misspent youth, drawing wilderness maps for Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, and trying to draw inspiration from Tolkien, LeGuin, et al, the square mountain range of Mordor always bothered me, as well as the singularity of Mt Doom. At one point I gave up on trying to draw “realistic” maps and ended up just producing flow-chart-like diagrams, with squares or circles representing settlements connected by straight lines giving the travel times, with the occasional geographical flavour-text: “mountains”, “woods”, “lake to the west”. My players complained.)

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  19. Reply Zach Aug 30,2017 10:30

    “You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs. ”

  20. Reply Walter Aug 30,2017 11:26

    B*******, you shitfucker. You do not need scale foremost pictures. Say you want to illustrate a hat; unless it’s a particularly avant-garde hat there is no reason to my sister particularly off on guard hat there is no reason to includes scale. You know what size a human head is. Stop being a dick bag, you whiny academic neocon.

    • Reply Alex Aug 30,2017 11:29

      I have approved this comment because it’s fucking hilarious to me on multiple levels. Asterisks on one swear word while cussing elsewhere? Delightful. Calling me a neocon? Oh sweetie. Shoo, gentle stranger. You have made a point, and it’s definitely not the one you intended.

  21. Reply K Aug 30,2017 13:14

    I like them and wish they weren’t mostly confined to certain genres. Although I can totally see from your earlier points how badly done they can be frustrating and interfere with the world building.
    I just like looking at maps in general and so they add richness for me. Your point about I shouldn’t need them and if I do you have failed in the writing: I can’t agree with that. The satisfaction of following a route along, or better picturing a place, works for me as a visual person.
    I don’t need to read a blog about a TV show to understand it, but I do find that it adds to my enjoyment. Although with the development of very long multi series arcs, I think we may be getting to the point where you do need to read the blog to get it and I’m not sure how I feel about that! Part of me feels the show should be able to stand alone.
    I read the notes in a Thackery novel to help me understand the comtemporay refereces that would have been obvious to his audience. That’s because his books have aged of course. I guess he’s failed to write in my language, but then that was never his aim any more than Proust aimed to!
    Anyway, I enjoyed your post and the Tolkein one, not least because friends and I tend to bemoan the lack of them in literary fiction, so it’s nice to get an opposing view.

  22. Reply killerpuppytails Aug 30,2017 15:08

    I really appreciate this, as someone who often gets annoyed at police procedurals and in particular hates watching people type on computers on TV shows and movies because it breaks my immersion. I’ve been criticized by family in the past for not being able to let it go ;)

  23. Reply David Sep 4,2017 15:33

    I agree on some points and disavree on others, but 6.iii? You seem to have gotten stuck on inaccurate maps so much that you didn’t quote read the books, did you. ‘There and back again’ ring any bells? The Hobbit was written by Bilbo and so he also drwe the map. Same could be interpreted for Frodo and LOTR. ;)

    • Reply Alex Sep 4,2017 15:44

      That was not the *interpretation* I took from reading the books. Your mileage may vary.

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  25. Reply Lee Thomson Oct 11,2017 19:26

    wow – what a lot of pushback!

    With an Ms in Geography I am Right With You and followed you on twitter on account of your hilarious and solid take-down of JRRT’s maps. I will continue to cheer you on –

  26. Reply Timothy Gwyn Oct 20,2017 12:16

    I didn’t include a map even though some readers have hinted that they wanted one. Now I’m glad, because my map would have had no meaningful scale, since no formal units of measurement appear anywhere in the book.

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