If you look at a map of central Asia, there’s a sea that doesn’t exist on it. If you look at a map of the Western United States, there’s a poisonous sea on it that vanishes and reappears every few centuries.

Well, it wasn’t always poisonous. Just this time around. Oh, and the sea that doesn’t exist is even more poisonous than the one that exists.

Maps are, for many of us, one of the most beloved parts of a fantasy novel. For all that I’ve happily embraced ebooks, I have to admit, they can be a bit lacking in the map department. It’s harder to flip back to the map for reference purposes, for one thing, but there’s also a certain je ne sais quoi to a physical map in a book. Other than the lack of the wonderful book smell, the lack of a tangible map is what I regret most about ebooks. (I traveled full-time before the pandemic, though, and I’m currently hunkered down in Vietnam, so ebooks it is.)

My love of maps extends far beyond fantasy, of course. My childhood bedroom was wallpapered with old National Geographic maps, including, over the washing machine (which, yes, was in my bedroom) and the prize of my collection: an original 1941 National Geographic map of Europe. The map legend contained a little footnote: Borders on this map are those of September 1st, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. I regularly read nonfiction books about geography and cartography, used to spend hours and hours rummaging through map sales at my university’s geography department, since they’d long since transitioned to digital maps. (Obligatory curses directed towards ArcGIS.) I even have a map of Middle Earth tattooed across my back.

I recently commissioned my first fantasy map as an author, so they’re on my mind even more at the moment.

I’m rambling, though, and I should get to the point: Namely, that maps lie to us, constantly. They can’t do otherwise, because then they wouldn’t be a map.

Our maps of Central Asia still usually show the Aral Sea, whereas today there are just ships and docks sitting in the dry, toxic dust of the Aralkum Desert. Save for a small, dammed-up remnant, the Aral Sea has entirely been sacrificed to agricultural irrigation, largely for cotton, and the dried lakebed is full of toxic agricultural and industrial runoff, as well as actual nuclear waste. The dust of the Aralkum, blown on the winds that once propelled waves through a sea, has caused a literal epidemic of cancer, asthma, and other health issues in the region. More, the vanishing of the Aral Sea has revealed medieval ruins, confirming local folktales that the Aral Sea wasn’t always there, making it something truly impermanent.

And yet our maps usually still show the Aral Sea.

When you stare at a map in a fantasy novel, you should wonder how many of its features are actually there, and how many have vanished over the years — some long before the map was made.

California’s Salton Sea vanishes and reappears every few centuries due to a bizarre coincidence of geographic, climactic, and geological conditions. It last disappeared around 1700 — well within the memory of the Native American tribes of the region, whose fishing traps can still be found in the region. In 1900, due to an irrigation accident, the Sea flooded again, wiping away towns and villages. Being in the wrong part of the cycle, though, it’s already started drying up again, revealing a lakebed full of toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals, the dust of which is causing massive health problems in the impoverished region.

The Salton Sea is diminished, but still there, and yet it doesn’t seem quite right that our maps so fail to show how cyclical and dynamic it is.

When you stare at a map in a fantasy novel, you should wonder how it fails to encompass the dynamic, changing nature of its world, as our maps fail to show how dynamic our own world is. How quickly it changes, even across a human lifetime.

Maps are notably bad at displaying underground spaces, which in our own world has led to an endless pattern of forgetting what lies beneath our feet — old sewers, sunken buildings, abandoned subways, and even entire cities, like Derinkuyu and the other tunnel-cities of the Cappadocian region of Turkey.

When you stare at a map in a fantasy world, you should wonder what has been forgotten beneath its surface.

I can go on and on. There are a thousand and one ways that maps lie to us and fail us. There are just as many ways they aid and help us, of course, but you should never mistake something being useful for something being truthful.

Maps are, fundamentally, lies of omission. As the old quote goes, the map is not the territory. It is impossible to scale down all the detail and complexity of a landscape onto a sheet of paper, so we’re forced to pick and choose what we wish to represent on our maps.

And then what gets left out of the map is forgotten, even though it’s still there, and the territory becomes the map. Places just become character-less, soulless spaces.

So don’t trust the map in front of a fantasy novel. The artist and the author are lying to you with it. They’re trying to manipulate you into believing their worlds are something that they aren’t.

Lying to you is, of course, what you’re paying novelists for in the first place, but when it comes to maps, get a little cynical with your imagination. Pretend you’re sitting in a library in the world in question, looking at the map on a table. Wonder who drew it. Check to see how they represented disputed territories, which countries they favored. Guess at which forests have been logged until they’re smaller than they seem on the map. Consider whether a mountain range has been drawn to seem more impassible, to discourage smuggling and invasion, or drawn to seem less rugged, to encourage settlement and mining.

And consider, perhaps, whether I’m trying to make you doubt the map for sinister reasons of my own. Perhaps I have a territorial claim to press, or have an interest in getting you lost in a forest.

Or maybe I’m just a partisan for a rival map projection. Map projection rivalries get shockingly intense, people.

Most of all: Stop thinking of the spaces on the map, and begin considering the places. That long stretch of road, empty on the map? Spend a moment to consider the villages that have sat beside it for centuries, whose families have roots there deeper than any tree. That nameless lake near the mountains? Imagine what fish you might be able to catch in it. That forest to the north? Wonder whether lightning or dragons have started more forest fires in it over the years.

And then, next time you’re looking at our own world, do the same. Look for the places hidden in the soulless spaces on the map.

We live in a world with vanishing seas, poison winds, and forgotten underground cities.

In the end, all maps depict fantasy worlds, if you take the time to look.

I originally posted this on Reddit.

John Bierce

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