In The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd’s latest work of magical realist speculative fiction, the characters have a habit of asking “what makes a map?”. The answer, it becomes clear, is its purpose, finds Sally Adee
9 March 2022
MAPS can seem such dry, factual objects: blueprints of reality that are useful to get from A to B, but instantly forgettable when you get there. Three new science-fiction books, released this month, challenge this view, showing that maps are more than the objective depictions we take them to be.
In The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd’s latest work of magical realist speculative fiction, the characters have a habit of asking “what makes a map?”. The answer, it becomes clear, is its purpose. From political maps to resource maps and road maps, the main purpose of cartography is to create a shared version of reality: one that suits the map-maker’s ideals.
Shepherd’s protagonist, a young cartographer named Nell, finds this out to her cost when she inherits a mysterious map after the death of her estranged father. The power of maps to make visible what the map-makers want you to see, and to hide what they would rather you didn’t, is revealed when Nell discovers a shady cartel that has killed a lot of people to keep this particular map secret.
First and foremost, The Cartographers is a love letter to maps and the secrets they hide. It is also a Luddite’s cri du coeur against Google and other tech giants, whose maps are stripped of cultural and historical perspective.
As speculative fiction, it works well, but the book also drifts into vignettes about dramas between student cartographers in an academic hothouse that recall scenes from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The book ultimately sags under the weight of so many competing ambitions, but overall, the plot is strong enough to carry you through to the end.
“If maps shape our expectations of reality, what happens when reality contradicts those expectations?”
If maps shape our expectations of reality, what happens when reality contradicts those expectations? Lucy Kissick explores this in Plutoshine, which follows the quest to terraform Pluto into a habitable water world for humans. This requires some suspension of disbelief given that the ambient temperature is -240°C, methanol and nitrogen freeze solid and it isn’t easy to pick out the sun in the murky “daytime” sky.
It is undeniably science fiction, but there is a heavy emphasis on science. From astrophysics to cosmochemistry, there is a lot to learn, including about the various isotopes of hydrogen.
Science lessons aside, Plutoshine is worth the admission fee for the fantastical depictions of Pluto alone, with its jewelled ice slopes in a rainbow of different colours of frozen elements. And also for the point at which it transpires that mapping technology missed what is hiding under all that ice.
What drives us to map such wild, uncharted terrain at all is the central question of Sweep of Stars, Maurice Broaddus’s beautiful new Afrofuturist vision. In Broaddus’s world, space exploration is driven not by the whims of billionaires, but by people who have been pushed to create empires where others fear to tread. The Muungano Empire is the diaspora of Black people on Earth who fled to escape their oppressors. The elders must chart their expansion while keeping their peoples’ histories alive. Not easy, when they are pursued by their enemies, who spout the eerily-familiar motto: “Earth first”. Broaddus’s characters are as captivating as those in Game of Thrones, and the story is as big as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
All three books provide a timely reminder not only to look more closely at maps, but to question who created them and why.
Sally also recommends…
Until the Last of Me
Book two of the Take Them to the Stars series, about an ancient matrilineal society whose goal is to get humanity into space. Catch up by reading the previous book, A History of What Comes Next, which takes place in an alternative version of the 1960s space race.
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