Mapping the exotic

Jan 11, 2016

A quick facebook post recently turned into quite a long and interesting discussion about the complexities of maps. Once a staple of the fantasy world, maps seem to be rather more rare today. I certainly remember the maps of Middle-Earth with great fondness.

Most of these maps are stylised and artistic, falling in line with the in-story capabilities of the people involved. Thus they are not technically accurate. A good example of this is the use of graphics to represent hills and mountains, rather than contour lines.

A map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It gives a stylistic view of the world in question, with rough scale, but little navigational or topographical information.

Most maps within fantasy books (and do see my rant about these genre categorisations) follow similar stylised lines. Forests are made out of little trees, mountain ranges picked out in what is called ‘skeuomorphism’ (a clever word for making things look how they might actually appear). Lots of rustic fonts and perhaps a ‘hand penned’ feel are also very common.

Maps can really help the story though, and it’s easy to see why they are attractive to readers. It becomes easier to see where the action is taking place. Typically characters go on quests from one place to another, and you can trace their path and anticipate upcoming obstacles. Place names, that otherwise get a little confusing to hold in the mind, can be placed in context. After all, one does not just simply walk in to Mordor, one needs to find one’s way there first!

Some of these maps are very impressive indeed, and some are works of art in their own right, but they’re not very innovative. Most can trace their origins back to the Tolkien-esque originals. Here’s a quick google search which proves the point. You notice variety in style, but common elements such as a compass, a tendency to ignore the fact that (most of these) places are on the curved surface of a world and lots of made up, often rather flowery, names. Some are better than others!

I’m writing hard science fiction with a fantasy feel – if we must put genres into this – and I do need a map too. But I’ve got a much harder job of it.

First off I have no compass. There is no north, south, east or west on my world, because those terms have no meaning on a tidally locked world on which, from the perspective of the inhabitants, nothing moves. I’ve had to invent a new way of navigating, with the result that a given direction will be different depending on where you are.

Directions on Esurio are not the same as on Earth.

Directions on Esurio are not the same as on Earth.

Folks navigate by reference to where the star (Lacaille) is in their sky. Two of the directions, if you could walk far enough, would take you in an arc around my world.

Secondly, Esurio, is very different from Earth in general layout. A tidally locked planet does not rotate with respect to its host star, which means it has a single ‘pole’, which unlike Earth, is the hottest point. If you could stand here, the star would be directly overhead. Around the ‘equator’ the planet is frozen solid.

I’ve modelled this as follows and you can see that the part of the planet where people can live is a narrow band or loop around this pole.

Only a small portion of the planet is inhabitable.

Only a small portion of the planet is inhabitable. (Not to scale – do indulge me!)

The habitable zone is about 30 degrees wide, though it circumnavigates the star facing side of the planet. If you ‘do the maths’ you find out it’s somewhere near 3,000 miles across, assuming Esurio is a similar size to the Earth, which is less than the distance from London to New York.

Go too far sunward (beyond the 45 degree mark) and it simply gets too hot (and there is some serious weather to contend with) Beyond the 75 degree mark it gets too cold, water freezes out and the frozen wastes begin…

The science might not matter for a ‘fantasy’ book, and, yes, you ultimately need to concentrate on a good story, but if you don’t do the science properly you might as well just sprinkle pixie dust all over your book. I’m after a world that could actually ‘work’, in which the characters journey through a landscape that could actually exist. Back to that Tolkien map for a moment – look at the boundaries of Mordor – geology doesn’t make squared off mountain ranges like that, it looks ‘wrong’ because it is ‘wrong’ – it’s fantasy.

I’ve got another challenge. My people have lost their advanced technology, so no GPS or anything like that. Worse, they can’t fall back on those trusty markers in the sky that folks on Earth (and most fantasy worlds assume as a given) the stars. My folks can’t see them. They live in eternal daylight. Without those, latitude and longitude become major problems.

I’ve solved it in my book, I had to in order for it to work and it would be a spoiler to reveal it here. Needless to say the map has to reflect this somehow.

I made a rough stab it it as follows (really for my own benefit in writing). Don’t be too harsh, this is just a scribble from my notes really, but it demonstrates some of the problems. Latitude can be measured by the angle of the star in the sky, but longitude is far harder. It was difficult enough on the Earth too, but it’s worse here. You’ll see the longitude lines have symbols associated with them. I found a way – read the book for the explanation!

Esurio Map

Click for a higher res version of this map.

Compare and contrast this with the ‘habitable zone’ diagram above.

On Earth we have become very accustomed to our maps, whether they’re cylindrical, conical or azimuthal in projection. But we live on a planet where the entire surface is navigable and lit (even if intermittently). Esurio is not like this.

There are lots of ways of ‘projecting’ a map, each has advantages and disadvantages.

Right now, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to map it for the benefit of a reader of the story. Some fans have requested the map that’s referenced in the book itself. Oddly this is actually the same thing. The map in question would be a ‘workable’ map, not just a pretty one for the sake of illustrating the story.

Like every other aspect of science in the Shadeward Saga, the map has to be accurate and realistic – something that could actually exist, but still pay homage to artistic and stylistic needs. It’s a tough assignment!

Share this:
Exoneration - First draft complete!
Who gives a stuff about genre?

Post Archive