Should you even bother with maps?
Have you distracted yourself with a thousand mountains? Was it worth it? Good. Walk backwards, turn around, look down. A lawyer walks in and slaps a file on a desk. A jury hurls bricks. Cartography becomes an ego prostitute, the always-on carnival barker still barking as they comfort fuck a compass-clutching Mussolini. What a spectacle. But can we just get rid of them altogether?
The majority of stories, even in the sci-fi and fantasy subgenres, don’t need maps. Despite a lot of this fiction taking place in alternate worlds or universes the plots are not particularly impacted by the inclusion of one or more maps. Mervyn Peak never needed a map, Joe Abercrombie does not publish maps but has them, The Buried Giant didn’t need a map, The Foundation trilogy didn’t need a map. Historically, a great deal, if not the vast majority, of adventure-oriented stories and literature have never needed a map. Leaf through mythology and legend, frame them as pre-genre fiction genre fiction. Scan for map necessity. The Odyssey, nope. The Norse sagas, nope. Beowulf, nope. Arthurian legends, nope.
Half of these examples are based in the real world, making the lack of need for a map self-evident – we already know those places. Do we? If I set an adventure story in a random bit of Scottish highland, could you tell me the first thing about the location? I couldn’t. Even that is beside the point. The argument that 99% of us probably don’t need a map stands because fantasy and sci-fi have their roots in legend and mythology, and one of the most prevalent arcs in that broad swathe of history and literature (glossing over the fact that a very significant chunk of it originates in oral tradition) is the motif of the journey.
Stop. Gavel time. I’m using the ‘heroic journey’ idea separately from Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ outlined in the monomyth concept. There’s overlap and parallel, arguably one cannot be separated from the other because the journey is the setup for, or symbolic representation of, character growth. Nonetheless, it’s basic bitch day: ‘a character moves from point A to point B over the course of X number of words’.
Hercules, the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh and Enkidu journeying to the Cedar Forest), the Vinland Sagas, all have a focus on travel and journeying. Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s guided tour. The Blade Itself uses a journey across a continent to find a MacGuffin. Interpreted as a genre deconstruction, it illustrates the futility of trawling-by-numbers plot arcs. It helps to have a map. I don’t know what the Cedar Forest looks like. I don’t need to. I need scene, character interaction, plot/drama, story. Maps are salt. How much of fiction does this apply to?
Science fiction seems less concerned with maps. Interplanetary distances are unimaginably vast blanks. How many empty sheets of paper do you want? At some level you’re effectively just marking points on a grid. From a casual perspective, there’s little meaningful information to be gained from looping clouds of liquid and minerals coalescing in a void.
But science fiction isn’t just about spaceships warp jumping through vast gulfs of nothingness. Beam me down, Scotty? I can’t remember the last time I saw a map of a cyberpunk city. Verticality defines the urban future. Megacities, trantor zones, or Night City-larpers penetrate clouds and crust. Unless you’re filling a book with Dwarf Fortress-esque level-by-level depictions of some theoretical Z-axis, multi-dimensional spatial representation defies utility.
We return to the relative irrelevance of position in abstract word-space. You conceive a dense urban sprawl, coagulating your nearest industrial centre, bolting on walkways, spliced with fog-snogged memories of Akira and Bladerunner, stretch and layer and birth the bastard child. Cyberpunk is more concerned with aesthetics and atmospherics: who needs coordinates when you’ve got amphetamines? Speculative fiction uses setting as a central representation of themes, the environment becomes a conceptual map, eschewing point-to-point territory.
Have you seen old maps? Cartographers tried to visualise the planet by sailing around a coastline. From there, ‘here be dragons‘. Impressive results, all things considered.
In specific circumstances perhaps maps detract from audience narrative immersion. Mr. Grimdark snark-Tweeted (now deleted?) that when writing a close point of view, you shouldn’t know more than your characters. I cast about in the Google mire, uncovered a blog.
“I wanted my readers to feel like they were right there with the characters – right inside their heads, if possible – part of the action rather than floating dispassionately above it. […] The characters often don’t know what’s going on – they don’t have a conveniently accurate map to hand, why should the reader?”
Castles on sand? The First Law includes various educated characters – Bayaz, Glokta, Jezal, etc. Their accuracy regarding global geography probably left holes, considering the roughly equivalent time period, but they’d have seen a map once in their lives. Bayaz leads the jaunt in the first book. Conclusion: he’s relatively geographically informed. Logan seems road-worn. Not particularly versed in cartography, but it’s reasonable to assume he knows which way north is. Best Served Cold tracks a journey across Italy. Angry bird Monza Murcatto didn’t wander the planet accidentally blundering into one target after the next. Thank God – the book is nearly 700 pages already.
I agree, nonetheless. His approach makes sense. Maps become safety blankets for the audience. Stories are concerned with characters devoid of safety blankets. Spark empathy, burn the blankets.
And characters aren’t usually concerned about the journey. Outside of The Road, travel boils down to a mechanical happenstance of plot. A Romantic-esque spiel about the fields and forests is unnecessary, if the fields and forests are irrelevant. “If you’re all about the destination then take a fucking flight” – OK.
Apply that logic to most fiction. A plot arc consisting of scenes, those scenes exist in locations. Things happen in those locations, but from a mechanistic perspective don’t matter outside of their scenic framework, even when they have broader implications for the setting. In the majority of cases, a map doesn’t impact a storyteller’s capacity to communicate interactions between humans and other humans, or even humans and geography.
Maps convey no active verbs. Maps provide abstract concepts mapped over static nouns. Stories chart vectors for states to verb themselves along trajectories to new states or cessation.
The story of an industrialising nation may be illustrated by a series of maps, charting the expansion of settlements, expansion of infrastructure, spreading road systems. The result would imply an abstracted story told though static images – a geo-centric graphic novel sans text.
Is amateur cartography a complete waste of time? No. As previously indicated, practical use cases exist, instances possibly multiplying as digital technologies and self-publishing incentivise more experimental projects while financial brawls dictate industrial publishing trends. Personal inclinations need no excuses – want? Do. But nobody dies if you won’t. To bother? Your call.