I have a map problem. To illustrate: when my wife and I were in the process of buying our house, she spent a lot of time looking at and mulling over such petty inessentials as the boiler and the roof. For some reason she seemed concerned about whether or not the windows were double-glazed, and boy was she ever curious about the foundation. What was I doing? I had a map, a forty-year-old surveyor’s map of the property, that used as boundary markers things like “large cherry tree” and “granite outcrop.” While my wife was exploring such trivialities as the whether not the thousand gallon propane tank was rusted through, or how much of the siding was rotted, I was doing the important work way the hell out in the woods, hunting down the gnarled birch that marked the southeast corner of the plot.
“Do you actually need to see the birch tree?” she asked patiently.
“Do you need to see the roof?” I shot back.
It seemed like a reasonable argument in the heat of the moment.
I’ve since mapped a big chunk of the forest, charting out the trails and streams, beaver dams and swamps. Of course, the firewood doesn’t always get stacked, and I’m pretty sure there’s something I was supposed to do with the septic system in July, but that’s the price you pay if you’re determined to find out where the old stone wall finally ends.
Maps purport to be objective. “Here,” they claim, “is the mountain. Here is the lake.” This alleged objectivity is as beguiling as it is false. You’re pretty much hosed just for trying to represent a three-dimensional surface in two dimensions, and then there are all the other choices. What to include? What to leave off? Birches? Beaches? Bird Habitats? Bars? Bingo Halls? Bulldozer Repair Centers? Bastards?
Of course, the details you include depend on the map’s purpose – you need one map to invade Belgium, another if you’re just there to enjoy the beer – and our purposes are dizzyingly varied. There are plenty of maps of Nevada, but they don’t all show the missile silos. For just a taste of the baffling range, check out Frank Jacobs’s blog on strange and wonderful maps. (I’m particularly fond on the post on zombie maps).
But then, even if you know what the hell you want out of your map, the land and the things on it are constantly changing. The road we live on is delightful in summer, but vaguely suicidal in mud season. I have a map of Mongolia that marks the “major highways” in red. They look, from the map, like eight-lane interstates. I have been on them. They are dirt tracks, and they move every year, because today’s dirt track is next year’s stream. Those confident red lines are impressionistic, at best.
So, a) What good are maps, and b) What in the hell does all of this have to do with fantasy?
Well, I just saw the map to my novel, The Emperor’s Blades, a gorgeous piece of work by Isaac Stewart, and I pretty much fell off my chair. This is it, right here.
Even better, you can read a really cool account of how he made it, an account that reminded me just why I love these creations.
It’s because maps are fantasy.
They are a second world that we invent to lay over our own world, a hope, a fear, a fiction, an approximation, always a distortion, but at their best, a revealing distortion, one that shows us important truths through the deliberate twisting of reality. And, like any fantasy, they are stories, stories of the land they purport to represent, of the people who live on and use that land, and even of the map-maker herself, the one who decides to put in the beavers but leave out the diners. Finally, they are an invitation. The error and bias ineluctably woven into them whispers to us to go out – into the woods or the city, onto the ocean or below it – to check, to see for ourselves.
And by the way – I still haven’t found that fucking birch tree.