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Maps and Navigation in Science Fiction

Maps and Navigation in Science Fiction

You’re in the middle of an epic space opera or a science fiction fantasy sprawling continents, worlds… universes. Couldn’t you use a map right about now?

A common trend in science fiction is to send the hero or heroine on a quest of some kind. This could be a literal quest (often with the objective of saving the Earth or other representative home planet), or philosophical – the protagonist discovers some higher meaning about humanity or life which is then shared with the reader. One thing’s for sure, if you’re reading a science fiction quest, it’s certainly not going to be static. Over the course of the protagonist’s adventure, it is likely there will be a lot of travel: intergalactic, telekinetic or travelling through time, we’re willing to bet that the one thing the character craves most of all is not the latest lightsaber, sonic screwdriver or similar but rather the humble map and sometimes so do readers.

Fortunately, the practise of cartography is becoming increasingly incorporated into science fiction and science fiction fantasy novels, particularly if the adventure takes place over several novels and in several worlds or universes.

Maps of this kind can be important tools in aiding the readers with becoming invested in the world of the novel which can sometimes be complex and somewhat difficult to navigate. The cartography of science fiction and fantasy novels can allow the author and cartographer a certain freedom of imagination however, focus group studies conducted on the subject suggest that readers are more likely to believe a world and stay with the story until its conclusion if the map accompanying it is both scientifically and geographically accurate. Therefore, whilst these new worlds may have landmarks which are imagined, the general landscape which could include rocky wastelands, mountains or rivers must adhere to the principles of cartography as it is practised in the creation of real world maps. This means that for example, rivers must have an identifiable source and topography must be accurately displayed. This lends authenticity to the story and can help to make the world more ‘real’ to the reader.

One example of cartography in science fiction and fantasy is The Earthsea Maps featured in the Earthsea series by Ursula K LeGuin.

A fascinating and specialist field, cartography in science fiction and fantasy is yet another example of the ways in which scientific knowledge can be applied to creative careers in science.

You can read more about maps, navigation and location in science fiction in Environments in Science Fiction: Essays on Alternative Spaces edited by Susan M Bernardo, published by McFarland in 2014.