Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Ask the Bloggers: Mapping SF&F

This week, I asked our participant bloggers to discuss their opinions on using maps in SF&F.

Should SF&F books have maps included for the readers? Are there any special conditions when they should or should not? Was there ever a book you wished had map that didn’t? Or vice versa?

Heather @ The Galaxy Express: “I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the maaaaap!”

This, of course, is the famous ditty sung by the geographically fluent character “Map” from the television show DORA THE EXPLORER (if you’re a parent I’m sure you recognized the lyrics right away). And yes, there is a point other than the fact that in our home Dora is a staple for our Lewis & Clark wannabe toddler.

SF&F maps aren’t just for looks (as sexy as a few of them are). Neither do they exist simply for directionally-challenged readers such as me. Much like Dora’s Map, SF&F maps are part of the interactive experience between reader and story.

Witness the role-playing and cosplay phenomena. Many SF&F readers immerse themselves in a story not only through their imagination, but also through outlets that connect them with other fans.

Maps of fantasy kingdoms or exotic worlds are a means of interacting with a story on a deeper level. They’re a fundamental tool that helps readers jack into the author’s creation and become part of it.

An author should always write a story independently of the need for visual aids. It’s a medium of words, after all. (Plus, I can’t imagine it’s a guarantee that a publisher will commission one just because it’s an SF&F novel). However, it’s become an expected part of the package. So I don’t evaluate books in terms of “Should they have maps?” But rather, “How strongly are the maps enhancing the reading experience?”

Now if someone could also figure out how to make them sing, that would be fantastico, indeed!

Mark @ Walker of Worlds: Should SF&F books have maps? When I think of maps in books I particularly think of fantasy and things like Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time and the like. However, I don’t read fantasy and space opera is my poison of choice in science fiction, but this subject is interesting, especially when I think about it with the books I like. I’ve only read a few books that have maps included so this has given me food for thought.

First up, of the books that I’ve read that include maps, only a couple stick in mind – these are The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May and Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell. Both of these are set in a fairly limited area (although they both have that wider universe) which makes the maps more relevant. I enjoyed reading both of these books and while reading I found myself looking at the maps every so often to see where the action was happening or just to get a sense of where the story is taking place. So, seeing as I felt that the maps contributed to these two books would I like to see more? To be honest, no.

One of the main reasons I read is the escapism it brings, letting my imagination run wild all over the created worlds and universes that the authors have given me – having maps included can take away from that escapism. As I said above, if the story is set in a small area or place then it can help to visualise what you’re reading about, but when you get to bigger stories and worlds I love recreating in my mind what the author has put in words, I don’t always want to be shown how I should picture the location. Besides, most of the books I read would end up with pages upon pages of maps just to highlight the key locations.

I’m currently reading a series – Peter F Hamilton’s Void Trilogy – which has two halfs to it. One half is set in the Commonwealth where humanity has spread over hundreds of planets, the other is set on one world within the Void and particularly in one city, Makkathran. What Peter has done is made available a relatively simple map of Makkathran on his website. It’s not going to be in the books, but simply a web exclusive for fans to see if they so wish. Would I have liked to see the map in one of the books? Probably, but I’m glad it isn’t. I had a clear image of Makkathran before I saw it and although it has influenced how I visualise it, it wasn’t the basis.

Maps work for stories that are set in relatively small locations, but not for stories that span tens of places over hundreds of worlds. If maps are going to be included, stick them at the back of the novel, not the front. Put a note pointing to it, but let the reader choose whether to look at it first, not turn a page and be faced with it.

Alice @ Sandstorm Reviews: I’m a big fan of maps, which is possibly due to growing up with a big Middle Earth map on my parents’ dining room wall. As with so many other things, Tolkien is the gold standard for proper map use – the map was well-drawn, with all the relevant places clearly marked, and it was useful to the narrative, which depended largely on following a quest through unknown (but realistic) geography. I do like to see maps in my fantasy books, but only if they can fulfill those criteria – no need for them in a city or a less realistic fairy-tale setting, for example, and they’re more annoying than useful if half the important places are missing.

I can see why there’s been a bit of an anti-map backlash – among British SFF publishers at least – as it’s probably in the same vein as the reaction against covers with red dragons and chainmail bikinis on, an example of fantasy’s worst excesses. I’m sure there have been too many pointless maps, but it seems a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater; often a map can be a really useful tool for helping the story along, and removes the authorial dilemma of Excessive Infodump vs Reader Confusion. I know Joe Abercrombie would disagree, but I reckon The First Law trilogy would have benefited from some kind of mappage. Conversely, Erikson has plenty of maps, and they’re nearly all useless. Much as I love Malazan, I’m not sure we really need all those maps of Capustan, Darujhistan and Malaz City, and it would be nice if we were given some kind of idea of how the many continents joined up, at some point. As with any technique, in order to add to the story, it needs to be appropriate, and it needs to be done well.

SMD @ The World in the Satin Bag: In my honest opinion I don’t think it matters one bit. I never look at the maps while I’m reading. The way I see it is if the author cannot write well enough so it’s clear where things are (at least to a point), then they clearly aren’t doing a good job of writing. You shouldn’t require a map to get a general idea what the world looks like.

That said, I do like the maps they put it books. I’m a big map-making enthusiast, and I really enjoy the professional maps that show up in books because they give me ideas for my own map-making. I don’t think it’s necessary to have the maps, but I’m thankful that they are there for my future perusal.

I can’t imagine there being any special conditions that would make a map a necessity. Perhaps if someone is dealing with a really complicated SF concept, such as quantum physics, where trying to explain the worlds or something would result in a long-winded, incomprehensible science babble. Then I would think it might be necessary. The ten dimensions can be pretty confusing, even if someone explains it in idiot terms.

And I can’t think of any book that I wish had a map, at least not because I needed it for the story. Sometimes if I really like a fantasy world it’s nice if there is a map for it, just so I can have something pretty to look at. Otherwise, I never look at the maps while reading. They’re just pretty things that are nice to have, but not necessary.

Neth @ Nethspace: I always feel undeceive when answering this question. First, I love maps – ever since I was a very young child one of the best way to entertain me was to hand me a map. If someone I am with is looking at a map I have an intense need to take that map and look at it myself. Now I’m a geologist by trade and interact with maps of various types many times a day, and being the spatially-oriented person I am, I love that aspect of my job.

But, no book needs a map…well I should qualify that statement – no well-written book needs a map. If a book truly needs a map, then the author has failed in very fundamental ways. However, I generally won’t complain about a map in a book. If it’s a good map, I can loose myself for significant amounts of time just exploring it. I think that sometimes a map can be a beneficial extra to a book, but as I said before, if the book needs a map, it has failed.

Since I believe that any well-written book doesn’t need a map, I can’t think of any book I’ve read that wished had one. However, the vice-versa happens much more often – all too often a map is thrown together for sake of having a map. A map that is poorly-constructed and that doesn’t at least look a little like it could be a realistic map can infuriate me.

SQT @ Fantasy and Scifi Lovin’ Blog: This isn’t a huge thing for me but there have been times when I wished there was a map included. Usually when I’m reading a “quest” fantasy and the characters are travelling all over I like to get a mental image of where the story is taking place. I don’t choose to buy or not to buy a book based on whether it includes a map– that’s not a factor. But I’ll refer to them if they’re there. I guess I like visual references.

Tia @ Fantasy Debut: When the map is there, it’s nice. However, If you’re going to put a map in the book, I will look at it whenever the story refers to a new locale. When that locale isn’t to be found, then it is a bit annoying. This usually happens when the scale of the map is so huge that tiny towns are left off.

I find maps most useful when the action takes place across a relatively small area, like a city. I have not read many city-based novels where there is a map.

When reading epic fantasy, I look for a map. In my opinion, if there is going to be a whole new world presented to the reader, then a map is practically required.

John @ Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic: I like maps in books, generally. I love the whole world-building side of science fiction and fantasy, so I usually enjoy that sort of setting information. On a more practical level, it can be helpful if you’re reading something set in an expansive setting where long-range travel is important to the plot- Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin would be a good recent example of this. I also usually like having a map if warfare or diplomacy figures prominently in the story, to get a better sense of who the players are.

Finally, it’s good to have a map if the geography of the setting is somehow special in an important way. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is a good example of this- the whole setting and plot hinges on the idea that different parts of the galaxy have different physical laws. The little galaxy map in the book, showing the borders between regions, is quite simple but helps make the idea easier to grasp.

Aidan @ A Dribble of Ink: Ahh maps, always a favourite subject of mine.

Joe Abercrombie (whose been oft criticized for the lack of maps in his trilogy, The First Law) has a fantastic quote from Last Argument of Kings:

“‘The Fall of the Master Maker,’ muttered Glokta. ‘That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.’
‘I sympathise. I’m onto the third one and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up one with another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.'”

In all seriousness, though, I’m a big fan of maps, both as an addition to literature and just in general. They look rad framed on a wall.

If a novel contains a map, especially a good one, I constantly find myself flipping back to it, relating the lay of the land to what’s going on in the story; this is doubly important, in my mind, in military type fantasy (such as Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen and Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand). Maps aren’t necessary, by any means, but I certainly don’t mind having them to complement the text of the novel, especially when they’re as well crafted as the ones found, for instance, in Greg Keyes’ The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series.

One of my favourite implementations of maps in a Fantasy novel comes in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Along with the usual maps at the beginning of the novel, before the action starts, there’s another map at the beginning of each of the novels’ several sections, further exploring the area of the world that those chapters take place. It’s a great way for the reader to really get to know the lay of the land.

I don’t know that I’ve ever found a novel where I felt the map detracted from the experience, though there are certainly novels which could have benefited from a better artist. Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth novels are the first to come to mind.

All of this, though, is with regards to Fantasy, rather than Science Fiction. When it comes to SF, I’m rather impartial to maps and, well, don’t really miss them when they’re not there. I suppose that has a lot to do with the type of brain power needed to comprehend a map that would need to be used in novels like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (which spans various planets and has ships skipping across vast distances) or Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin (which takes place, mostly, on an Earth we’re already very familiar with).

Any time I can open a novel and find a map that I’d kill to have framed on my wall, is a very good thing indeed.

There is another roundtable from authors, Brian Ruckley, Alastair Reynolds, Jeff Somers, and Jaine Fenn at Bookgeeks on this very subject.

You also might want to check out this cool blog called Fantasy Cartography, if maps are your thing.

To go to an individual bloggers blog, click their name.