Blogging about her latest novel, The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award last year, N.K. Jemisin mused that she doesn’t like the idea of maps in fantasy books. Jemisin admits that she’s “[j]ust not a very visual person” and has “trouble transforming what’s in [her] head into a two-dimensional maybe-to-scale unavoidably distorted rendering.”
As someone who has difficulty giving or getting directions to anywhere out of visual range, I wholeheartedly agree with her sentiment. I struggle with deciphering, but at the same time, I have a deep and abiding love for fictional maps, especially in science fiction and fantasy novels.
I remember reading Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time and eagerly sketching out my own (incredibly derivative) fictional coastlines and mountain ranges. And that passion was renewed when I was old enough to delve into Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
I’m definitely not the only one, since a) pretty much everyone I know who’s ever read speculative fiction has done this at some point and b) nearly every fantasy writer in the last several decades also followed in Lewis and Tolkien’s footsteps.
And that’s great, except that one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of these fantasy and science fiction books tend to feature maps that are… well, utterly pointless. Take Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind for example. Crack it open and you find a detailed outline of “The Four Corners of Civilization” on the very first pages. But as I read the book, I found I very rarely had to consult the map to better understand what was happening in the book.
The map itself isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t serve any kind of purpose. Contrast that with the map of Middle-earth in The Fellowship of the Ring, which is incredibly helpful in clarifying not only locations but character motivations. When Frodo and the Fellowship decide it’s too dangerous to cross the Misty Mountains, they opt for the even more treacherous mines of Moria, which you can see on the map is their only option since the aforementioned mountains stretch all the way across the main continent.
Or in The Return of the King, you know why Denethor II insists on taking back the city of Osgiliath, since it’s the only barricade protecting Gondor from the armies of Mordor. You can see all this information laid out for you and it helps you better understand why the characters make the decisions they do, making you empathize more with them and the world they live in.
Meanwhile, in The Name of the Wind, the vast majority of the book’s plot takes place in two locations, the city of Tarbean and The University, which are right beside each other. The rest of the map goes virtually untouched and even when Kvothe, the hero and narrator of the story, travels anywhere outside of these two locales, he glosses over the details of his journey. Even though the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, takes advantage of the rest of the map, Kvothe once again doesn’t bother with any details, so we never know what routes he takes or what happens to him along the way. Kvothe may as well be teleporting from planet to planet, and as a result, the map becomes superfluous since you don’t need to know anything about where he is to better understand what he’s doing.
Here’s a better way to understand when a map is pointless. You know The Princess Bride? Not everyone has read the book, but you won’t be hard-pressed to find someone who’s seen the movie a million times. The simple love story intercut with danger and excitement means it appeals to everyone. So, of everyone you know who has only seen the movie and never read the book, how many of them have ever been confused about the countries of Florin and Guilder? You know, the two countries Prince Humperdinck is trying to trick into going to war?
There’s a map of these countries, as well as the Cliffs on Insanity and the Fire Swamp in William Golding’s original book, but how important is it to know that the Cliffs are due West of Florin but slightly Northeast of the Swamp? All anyone needs to know to understand the story is that Buttercup gets kidnapped by pirates in one place, taken across a large body of water, and rescued by Westley before being forcibly taken back to the first place by Humperdinck’s goons. You don’t need to know where the mountain ranges are or what cities are near which borders. You just need to know that one thing is far away from another thing and there’s probably water of a cliff in between them.
Same thing applies to other classics, like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island, or Gulliver’s Travels. These books all have maps,* but you don’t need to know any geographical minutiae to understand what’s happening in these stories. You just need to know that the Yellow Brick Road leads to Oz, that Ben Gunn moved Captain Flint’s to a different part of the island, and that Lilliput is not in England.
*OK, technically the first map of Oz didn’t appear until Tik-Tok of Oz.
And this applies to science fiction, as well. Have you ever seen the map of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune? Sure, it might be useful for some readers who want to delve deeper into Herbert’s complex mythology, but nowhere in the book does the reader have to know any specific geography other than the fact that there’s sand everywhere. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but as long as you know Paul and Lady Jessica live in a city, go out into the desert, then come back to that city many years later, you should be fine.
Of course I’m not saying that books shouldn’t have maps. When it works in favour of the story, a map can really enhance the reading experience. Aside from helping the reader understand character motivations, maps can also help simplify complex narratives. For example, the world of Mercedes Lackey’s Velgarth Saga is so sprawling that Lackey had to create multiple maps of the various nations to help the reader keep everything straight.
And there are even a few books that I personally believe would actually benefit from some sort of geographical images. Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling, for all its merits, could seriously use some sort of map or chart to help readers navigate its complex world. It tells the story of a young black girl who learns she is a part of an ancient culture of vampire-like creatures known as the Ina. As she learns all the ins and outs of Ina culture and decorum, the reader has to keep up with an ever-expanding mythology to the point where memorizing the physical layout of the various Ina settlements is key to keeping up with the plot.
The book has a lot of “info-dumps” which can slow down the narrative, so including a simple map of where all the Ina settlements are would have helped simplify the prose and keep the story clipping along.
Another example is Hao Jingfang’s excellent, Hugo Award-winning novelette Folding Beijing. The story takes place in a dystopian future where the entire city of Beijing turns upside down and folds in on itself every 24 hours. The protagonist, Lao Dao, journeys from one end of Beijing to another, past collapsing buildings, over rotating streets, and through secret passages that are only open for moments each day.
Hao’s world is unique and compelling, and it honestly works perfectly on its own. But it’s difficult to understand the mechanics of the transforming city without any visual aids. A map showing the different changing states of Hao’s Beijing would certainly help flesh out the story, which operates as both compelling sci-fi and poignant allegory on economic class systems.
All this is to say I think more writers should be like N.K. Jemisin. Jemisin didn’t want to put any extra material into her book that doesn’t enhance the story in any way, but she knew that adding a map to the The Fifth Season added to the overall experience.
If Rothfuss and other modern writers really want to include maps or any other topographical depictions in their books, then they need to aware of how those additions service the story. If you look at the map of The Stillness from Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, she and artist Tim Paul were able to collaborate to create a work of art that is elegant on its own but contributes to the overall effectiveness of her novel. Like a good novel itself, the map draws the reader into its created world but still leaves room for for our imaginations to fill in the rest.
Seriously, now I just want to go create more of my own maps.