Saturday, December 22, 2012

Worlds Fantastic and Strange

  Earlier this week, Black Gate's editor, John O'Neil, posted an article about the Bantam Solomon Kane collection, "Skulls in the Stars".  I haven't looked at my copy in years (or any my old Howard books since the Del Rey's came along), but I was immediately reminded of the amazing maps drawn by Tim Kirk.  I dug them out and was happy to find I still like them.
   I'm a fan of maps, real and fantastic.  One of my most treasured books is an pre-WW I atlas my grandfather rescued from a house he was working on.  In its pages the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns still rule Central Europe and poor Anastasia remains safe in the Winter Palace.  For the time I'm reading I can almost believe a century of time hasn't passed since the book was published.
   Fantasy maps can help bring me into their author's worlds as well as my atlas transports me to pre-war Europe.  Sometimes the maps , sadly are the best part of a book with the names of strange kingdoms and landmarks calling out to me more clearly than their creator's words.
   For me, the best maps are more than just a picture in the front of the book.  They help foster the illusion that the author's world is a real one, one where things unknown lie over the horizon, where mysterious words hint at strange lands and customs.  Maps don't need to be super-detailed with every bit of blank space filled in and city-state named to be successful.  One of the best is below.

  The map from the Ace Conan editions is one of the most important and coolest maps for me.  I stared at the map for some time before I actually read any of the stories (it was my dad's battered, old copy of Conan the Warrior).  While the actual map of Hyboria is fairly lackluster, the superimposed map of the modern world made it mind-blowing for my twelve-year old self.  Suddenly Conan was elevated from a sword swinging warrior to someone who existed in some ancient, "real" time.  It was the first time I'd encountered that conceit in fantasy fiction and it's still one I'm a total sucker for.  Seeing that map I should have been ready for the wondrous mash-up of Cossack, Bantu, medieval and classical cultures that is Howard's Hyboria, but I wasn't.

   Several years later I came across Tim Kirk's rendering of Hyboria sans superimposition.  It's a beautiful map, rendered in thick, emphatic lines with well detailed mountains and I love what I assume is the "Tigress" in the bottom corner.  Without the modern map, though, even with REH's evocative kingdom names it looses some of it wonder.  Still, as I've written, I love Kirk's art.

      "Changa's Safari", by Milton Davis, is set in the lands straddling the Indian Ocean during the 15th century AD.  What I love about this map is that it refocused how I look at a certain part of the world.  In most maps the region's down and off center but here it's the focus of everything.
   One of Davis' goals with swords & soul is to throw off the usual northern European tropes in fantasy and create African ones.  The map pivots a part of the globe I've always sort of seen as secondary and makes it primary.  It left me just waiting to see what Davis would do next to reach his goal.

   And sometimes the map's as poor as the story.  From one of Lin Carter's "Thongor" books, this might have been drawn by a child (an untalented and fumble-fingered one).  It's as bereft of character as poor Thongor and Lemuria.  Carter was so caught up in trying to remind readers of John Carter and Conan that he never came up with anything that was uniquely Thongor.  The map's as sketchy and as lifeless as Carter's creation.
   Another great possession of mine is J. B. Post's "An Atlas of Fantasy".  It's one of those great seventies books like "Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials" or "The Atlas of Middle-Earth".  Post's book collects maps from myth as well as fantasy and science fiction.  Places like things like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Al Capp's Lower Slobbovia are also depicted.  It's a beautiful book collecting maps of many of my favorite books and stories alongside others completely unfamiliar to me.  If you like maps it's worth finding.
   All this being said, books don't need maps.  Being forced to couple the author's words with my own imagination to conjure up an image of the geographical layout can be far more satisfying than just looking at a picture.  A poor map can undercut whatever success the author's had working his/her magic in my brain.  The map in "The Sword of Shannara" springs to mind (and we can argue the merits of Terry Brooks some other day, but I readily admit to having a fairly unwarranted soft spot for at least the first batch of his books).  It's flatter and less interesting than any of his prose.
   I know there's a map of Jack Vance's "Undying Earth" out there but I don't need or want it.  It presents definite, concrete borders for a world that should only exist in Vance's fever-dream writing.
   So what do you think?  Do you like them or find them a hindrance to your own imaginations?  What are your favorite and most hated?


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  2. I'm always a sucker for maps. I found myself wishing Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy had a map multiple times. A couple of his stand-alones now have very handsome maps unfortunately they aren't needed as much as the trilogy - which had a lot more distance and continents traveled.

    And yes, a bad map is worse than no map. I think I may have avoided books in the past if they had Thongor level maps.

    I have to admit here, that I was very underwhelmed with the map that is in my first hardback (the publisher didn't attach it to the ebook). They did use a rough model I gave them, but I was not so keen on the artists interpretation.
    IF I could do it all over again, I would have taken my time and done it myself instead of just giving them a rough.

    I'm gonna have to look for that 'An Atlas of Fantasy'.

    1. I'm tempted to just start scanning every map I come across from now on and building up a database. They're such a integral component of so much fantasy writing. Other than a few sites I've come across (and have then vanished) and the Post book I can't think of too many places that catalog or discuss them.

      Regarding your book, that's got to be disappointing. It's an interesting point though about the collaborative nature of many of the maps etched into our memories as readers. How accurately do they reflect the writer's ideas versus how another the artist as simply another reader interpret it?

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. Great post! The map of Hyboria from the Ace Conans was one of the first I encountered when I started reading fantasy. (I think the map in the LOTR was the first.) The modern world being superimposed on an imaginary land has stuck in my mind for years. Of course seeing the maps in the Howard House in Cross Plains once a year helps.

    I still like a good map, although I agree they aren't always necessary and sometimes do more harm than good. Still, it's nice to have a general idea of the layout of the author's world. One I found useful was the map in the Bison edition of Harold Lamb's Cossack stories. Most of the locations are real, but not all of them would be on modern maps.

    And I agree with David. I'm going to have to find a copy of An Atlas of Fantasy. I seemed to have missed that one.

    Have a great Christmas and fantastic New Year.

  4. I probably saw the Tolkien's map first also, but beautiful as they are it was noticing the superimposed modern world on the Hyborian map that sticks with me most vividly.
    When M. John Harrison wrote against "word builders" I understood his argument and more or less agreed with it. Still, there are times where a map, particularly when the story involves lots of traveling, just helps make things make sense. Other times they're as beautiful and integral as the words in creating the illusion of some sort of reality.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! (and congratulations on the Amazing gig).