Imaginary Geography

A category devoted to the idea that fantasy can be an entryway into serious geographical and historical thought.

Visit Terranova: The Black Petaltail for a free download of Martin W. Lewis’ own imagined geographical world, in the form of a novel.

Human Development Discrepancies in (Greater) Punjab

Today’s post examines an interesting human developmental disparity in South Asia: that of the Punjab. When British India was partitioned into Pakistan and (independent) India in 1947, so too was the Punjab, an agriculturally productive cultural region that was united by language and culture but divided by religion (between Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities). Partition in Punjab was a horrifically violent process, but the region soon began to experience economic growth and social development. Such developments, however, proceeded at a much faster pace in the Indian state of Punjab than in the Pakistani province of the same name. As can be seen on the map posted here, the HDI ranking of Indian Punjab is now significantly ahead of that of Pakistani Punjab.

As Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and economically productive province, its low HDI figure depresses the developmental standing of the country as a whole. Considering the many similarities of the two Punjabs, it also indicates problems with Pakistan’s governance. Simply put, a much better record in human development has been achieved in India. It might be tempting to argue that this is a matter of religion, as Pakistani Punjab is almost entirely Muslim whereas Indian Punjab has a Sikh majority and a large Hindi minority. But Muslim Bangladesh, once widely regarded as South Asia’s economic and social “basket case,” has also achieved a higher HDI level than Pakistan’s Punjab.

But it must also be noted that the southern half of Pakistan’s Punjab is not exactly “Punjabi,” at least in linguistic terms. Its local language, Saraiki, was once regarded as merely a Punjabi dialect, but it has now been given status as a separate language. The Saraiki-speaking parts of Pakistan’s Punjab are much poorer and less developed than the province’s Punjabi-speaking areas. Most of Pakistan’s districts that post relatively high HDI figures are located in northern (Punjabi-speaking) Punjab.


It also interesting that all of the Indian states of the former Province of Punjab under the British Raj now have relative high levels of human development, regardless of their language and culture. After Indian independence, the non-Punjabi-speaking (mostly Hindi-speaking) areas of this province were hived off as the separate states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. All have done quite well. It is also interesting that all of these areas, on both sides of the international border, constituted the Sikh Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century

The Fantasy Political Maps of DeviantART

American Novorossiya MapWhen looking for specific maps on the internet, I often come across bizarre examples, such as a map of Novorossiya that depicts not southeastern Ukraine but rather northwestern North America. This fantasy political map, like many others of its ilk, can be traced back to a website called DeviantART, Inc., described by the Wikipedia as “an online community showcasing various forms of user-made artwork” that aims to:

provide a platform for any artist to exhibit and discuss works. Works are organized in a comprehensive category structure, including photography, digital art, traditional art, literature, Flash, filmmaking, skins for applications, operating system customization utilities and others, along with extensive downloadable resources such as tutorials and stock photography. Additional utilities include journals, polls, groups and portfolios. “Fella,” a small, devilesque robotic character, is the official deviantArt mascot. As of March 2013, the site consists of over 25 million members, and over 246 million submissions, and receives around 140,000 submissions per day.

A sizable trove of DeviantART fantasy maps can be found here. I find many of them intriguing, as I do the larger endeavor of fantasy mapping. Quite a few are visually attractive, showing a great deal of care and skill. Note on the Novorossiya map, for example, the imagined city of Urdaneta in “Alta California’s” Humboldt Bay, a name derived from the great Spanish (Basque) navigator who figured out how sail from Mexico to the Philippines and back in the late 1500s.

Fantasy Lithuania MapQuite a few of these maps exhibit strong desires for imperialism of one sort or another. One fantasy cartographer, for example, has imagined an “Empire of Lithuania” extending to the Pacific Ocean. Considering the fact that Medieval Lithuania was in actuality a huge state for a long period, it hardly seems that that expanding its borders to Kamchatka would be necessary.

Fantasy Texas MapThe same collection also features a map of a gargantuan Federal Republic of Texas. I do find it curious, however, that this mega-Texas does not include all of the territories that the Republic of Texas had claimed during its short period of existence (such as a chunk of what is now Colorado and Wyoming, fantasized here as part of an “Alpine Republic”).

British Empire Fantasy MapA number of DeviantART maps show patterns that some readers may regard as indicating nostalgia for European global empires. Cecil Rhodes’ dream of a “Cape to Cairo” railroad, for example, has been surpassed by another fantasy mapmaker’s “Cape to Singapore” line South America Fantasy Map(express, no less). A map of South America in 1950 shows numerous European colonies, the oddest of which is “South Umbria,” a British possession in northeastern Brazil. Desires for ethnic cleansing might even seem to be present in some of these maps, especially the one labeled “Central European Central Europe Fantasy MapFederation” (note the imagined disappearance of Hungarians from southern Slovakia). But it is impossible to know what the authors’ motivations are, and it is quite possible that they do not support the political structures and changes that they show on their maps.

United States Fantasy MapFantasy Russian Federation MapOther maps in the collection include one of a vastly enlarged United States and one of a huge Russian Imperial Federation of 1932.

I can only assume that the people responsible for these maps had a good deal of fun making them. Whether their products should be taken seriously by people outside of the community of DeviantART cartographers is another matter.

(Note: Many thanks to commentator Barzai for pointing out problems in the original post and for keeping me honest!  See the comments for an explanation.)


Future Islamic State Mapping and Computer-Game Cartography

Future Islamic State Map?As mentioned in the previous post, several maps purporting to show plans for an enlarged caliphate by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL) have been circulating on the Internet. The oddest of such maps has ben posted here. As noted by Media Matters, this map “was reported on, a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, … [and] appears to have originated in part from a video game called Victoria 2.”

Victoria 2 MapIn actuality, the map undoubtedly originated from a Victoria 2 base-map, as it is structured around the same idiosyncratic regional divisions used in the game; this can be seem by examining an actual map connected with the game, posted here. Apparently, an amateur cartographer has simply taken a Victoria 2 map and blackened in all of the regions that he (or, unlikely, she) envisages as future portions of an enlarged Islamic State. In doing so, the mapmaker reveals his own ignorance of the geography of Islam, as a number of important Muslim areas are excluded from the realm (such as Xinjiang in northwestern China), while a number of non-Muslim (and never-Muslim) areas are included, such as Burma.

Little is anything can be inferred about the visions of ISIS and its supporters from this map. Alex Jones, after all, is “often described as America’s leading conspiracy theorist,” according to the Wikipedia, and thus there is no telling where the map actually originated. I find the map interesting, however, because it shows the significance of game-oriented fantasy geography for perception of the actual world.

In general, I strongly support geography- and history-based games, as they can be a fantastic way for students to learn the basic structures of the world. Pedagogical scolds often tells us that learning basic facts is intellectually stultifying, as it relies on “rote memorization,” but the process can just as easily be accomplished from playing games, as long as the games in question are adequately connected to the real world. From what I have seen of Victoria 2, the historical mapping used in the game is sophisticated and relatively accurate. But that still does make it a serviceable base-map for geopolitical aspirations or fantasies. In the end, it is best to reserve gaming maps for gaming purposes.


Questions for Readers Regarding Biblical Ethnography

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am now devoting most of my attention to the book on Indo-European origins that Asya Pereltsvaig and I are writing. I am currently working on a chapter that recounts the intellectual history of the Indo-European concept, which is a fascinating and complex topic. Right now, I am perplexed in regard to an issue stemming from Biblical ethnography, and I am hoping that GeoCurrents readers might have some knowledge that they would be willing to share.

tumblr_mqgippOlcK1s6c1p2o1_1280Through the 1700s, most European scholars understood human diversity primarily through the story of the dispersion of the sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—recounted in Genesis 10. Thus, when William Jones determined that Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and other languages of Europe, Persia, and India were related, he tried to fit this pattern into the Biblical narrative, specifically by arguing that the speakers of all of these languages were descended from Ham. This idea went against the established concept, which regarded Europeans as the progeny of Japheth and Africans as the descendants of Ham (see the medieval T-O world map posted to the left). To Jones, the “Japhethic” peoples were rather the nomads of Central Asia and the Americas. (Traditional Jewish accounts, on the other hand, tended to associated Japheth with the north, Ham with the south, and Shem with the middle latitudes, as on the second map).

division-2mSubsequent work by historical linguists contributed to the discrediting of Biblical ethnography, and thus helped usher in the secular intellectual age. Christian fundamentalists who stress Biblical inerrancy, however, still believe that Genesis provides the key to understanding human linguistic and racial diversity. Yet their websites usually downplay Genesis 10 and the sons of Noah and instead focus on Genesis 11, which recounts the story of the Tower of Babel. In reading the relevant passages in the Bible, I am struck by their contradictory nature. I am curious about how these contradictions have historically been handed by both religious thinkers and scholars of human diversity operating in the Biblical framework. Why, in particular, did early European ethnographers stress Genesis 10 rather than Genesis 11?

The text of Genesis 10 seems to claim that descendants of the sons of Noah developed their own separate languages before the Tower of Babel was constructed, which would seemingly explain why early historical linguists stressed these passages. Genesis 10:20, for example, is usually translated into English as, “These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations,” just as 10:31 is translated as “These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.” As Asya notes, in the Hebrew original 10:31 reads “le-mishpaxotam li-leshonotam be-artzotam le-goyehem,” literally, “to their families, to their languages (PLURAL!), in their lands, to their peoples.” (The last word “goyim” is interesting in that in the Bible it means various peoples, as in “ethnic groups,” “ethno-linguistic groups”, “ethno-linguo-religious groups”, or even “clans.” “Nations” seems too big of a word. Over time, however, it came to signify “peoples other than the Jews.”)

Genesis 10 thus seems to claim that the original human language diversified as the descendants of Noah scattered across the world. In the initial passage of Genesis 11, however, a different picture emerges: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” Such a single language, however, was “confounded” after the construction of the Tower Of Babel (Genesis 11:7). What then do Biblical experts think happened to the languages that had been spoken among the different lineages of Noah before the Tower was built? It is also unclear who actually build the tower, as the relevant Biblical passages do not specify the subject. As Genesis 11:2 reads, “And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.” But who were “they?” Some modern fundamentalist websites claim that all of humankind gathered at Shinar to build the tower; as result, the scattering that occurred after Babel was destroyed and the single human language was “confounded” gave rise to subsequent human linguistic and racial diversity. In this interpretation, the early scattering of Noah’s sons and their progeny was of no lasting significance, as it had nothing to do with post-Babel linguistic differentiation. But if this is the case, why did Biblical ethnographers of earlier centuries stress Genesis 10 and the sons of Noah while downplaying Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel?

Hmtdna6889214_f520One interpretation, seen in the map to the left, claims that the scattering of the sons of Noah happened after the Tower of Babel incident, but this requires a reversal of the sequence of events as recounted in the Bible. Fundamentalist efforts to square the Biblical account with modern science can be quite involved: the diagram posted here, taken from the “Creation Wiki,” tries to fit the Noahic descent groups with a modern mitochondrial DNA tree diagram. I have not encountered the terms “Mrs Ham, Mrs Shem, and Mrs Japheth” elsewhere.


Some Strange Fantasy Maps

Drenai MapThe world of science fiction and fantasy is an excellent place to find strange maps, and few are stranger than the Drenai map posted here. David Gemmell’s Drenai series has prompted a number of fans to map the world depicted in the novels. Most are rather straightforward pictures of the author’s fantasy realm. One amateur cartographer, however, decided to map the world on the basis of the Earth analogues of the various societies portrayed in the series. To do this, he has smashed together the British Isles, France, North Africa, Iberia, Mongolia, Korea, and eastern China. Such a maneuver is odd enough, but the really bizarre feature is the doubling of eastern China. Note how the southeastern subcontinent is formed by two mirror images.

Tetrakon MapMaps used in fantasy game-playing can be quite intricate and sophisticated. Cartographers working in this genre, however, can also get carried away. The political map of Tetrakon posted here is impressively large, as can be gathered from the detail that I have also posted. The map looks fairly realistic at first glance, owing in part to fractal geometry; the use of self-similar patterns allows geographical features to remain distinct as one zooms in on any particular place. The problem is that in the real world, many coastlines are relatively smooth Tetrakon Map detailand straight. As a result, the Tetrakon map has a jarring appearance, as all of the land/sea patterns here are much the same.

Visualizing California’s Soggy Past

A previous GeoNote highlighted a collaborative effort to map historical changes in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin RiverDelta. In a similar spirit, the fantasy satellite map shown at left, created by Central Valley geographer Mark Clark and noted by Frank Jacobs, imagines what the entire state might have looked like in 1851. Perhaps the map’s most salient feature is massive Tulare Lake, which dominates the Southern San Joaquin valley. Tulare Lake, now completely dry in all but the wettest years, once boasted a surface area of 1,780 square kilometers (690 square miles), making it the largest freshwater lake west of theMississippi River. The rain and melt water that fed the lake in times past now forms a vital input for California’s $36 billion agriculture industry.

Tulare Lake, along with the other extensive river and wetland systems depicted in the map, were drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries near the end of a wetland-drainage movement that is as old as the country itself. In fact, much of America’s prime agricultural land in the Midwest was once wetland. As shown on the maps below, which were taken from a USGS report, the states of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio—as well as California—have lost over 95 percent of their wetlands since European colonization, primarily to agriculture. Most of the changes in the East occurred during the 19th century.


Afterword to Terranova: The Black Petaltail; Imagining an Alternative World

Terranova The Black Petaltail by Martin Lewis

(Note: Regular GeoCurrents posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 11.)

Terranova The Black Petaltail by Martin W LewisNote:  The full text of my science fiction novel Terranova: The Black Petaltail can now be downloaded here, and will remain freely available on this website. This long post is designed as an afterword to the novel, explaining the manner in which I have constructed an alternative world and crafted a story based both on that planet and on our own future world.)

Alternative-world fiction often seems to work best when imaginary planets are structured much like Earth yet are marked with a few key variations. I attempted to do precisely this in my own novel, mainly by making “Terranova” a slightly better version of our own world. “Better,” of course, entails a problematic value judgment, but the resulting tension (I hope!) forms grist for novelistic development. At any rate, my imaginary world is slightly more temperate, somewhat more ecologically productive, and—most importantly—a bit more evolutionarily advanced than Earth. On our world, most mammalian lineages have exhibited slowly expanding cranial capacities over the past sixty million years or so; most mammals have, in other words, been gaining basic intelligence, or at least enhanced neural capabilities. On Terranova, such evolutionary processes were allowed to continue to run their course for a few tens of millions of additional years before Homo sapiens made its radical appearance.

Mao of the Western Land From Terranova: The Black PetaltailNovan warm-blooded animals, although still dumb, are thus depicted as noticeably more intelligent than their terrestrial counterparts. What would be entailed, I ask, if the average extraterrestrial dog had greater mental capacities than the smartest dogs on Earth?—which, we now know, can possess vocabularies of over 1,000 words. As it is, I suspect that dogs played a greater role in humankinds’ rise to global ecological dominance than is commonly credited. On Terranova, that role would have been greater still. Several dogs thus form minor characters in the resulting novel.

Crows also play an important role in the novel. Corvids, especially the tool-using New Caledonian Crow, exhibit pronounced mental acuity. I imagine that on a different planet a somewhat more advanced variety of crow might have been tamed and trained to work with dogs for hunting, herding, and conducting war. Such a scenario may be a bit of a stretch; crows have never been domesticated on Earth, in part, no doubt, because their flesh is highly unappetizing. But as working animals, I do think they have potential, owing both to their native intelligence and their social instincts.

Not just the animals of Terranova are depicted as more intelligent than those of Earth; so too are its human inhabitants. Again, the differences are not overwhelming. I have not tried to create super-people, but rather a version of Homo sapiens that is just a little more advanced than our own kind. One goal in imagining such improvement was to allow a “realistic” depiction of a relatively prosperous non-industrial society. Although we often imagine our own past in such terms, the resulting vision is not warranted; before the industrial transition, most agrarian societies were deeply impoverished, disease-ridden, and violence-plagued. By the same token, a slightly more advanced version of our own species allows sophisticated yet realistic dialogue. Few novels or plays represent human conversation as it is actually carried out; almost all eliminate the false starts, gaps, and restatements that characterize actual human speech (to make someone sound like an idiot, all one generally has to do is transcribe verbatim statements). More evolved humans, I reason, would be more articulate than we are, speaking more as we imagine ourselves speaking.

A story based on a more advanced version of humankind that nonetheless remains locked in a pre-industrial economy faces a seeming contradiction. Would not a somewhat smarter human species have advanced more quickly than we did into a technologically driven economy? Actually, I am not so sure. Many blockages to technical advance have emerged over the course of human history, convincing many scholars that the industrial breakthrough was by no means inevitable, regardless of our species’ native intelligence. A steam engine, after all, had been built in antiquity by Heron of Alexandria, yet it was never considered anything but a toy. At the dawn of the modern era, China was in most regards significantly more advanced than Western Europe, yet it exhibited little of the latter region’s dynamism, a phenomenon that historian Mark Elvin has attributed in part to China’s “high level equilibrium trap.” I reason that such “high level traps” could be even more pronounced on a planet inhabited by somewhat more advanced human beings.

Map of the European Empire of Charles VBlockages to development in a pre-industrial society can be enhanced by political unification at the continental or sub-continental scale, as was perhaps the case with imperial China. Here I follow the arguments of a number of historians who contend that Europe’s rise to technological domination was related to its instability; the region’s multitude of competing, warring states allowed sanctuaries for innovation yet helped propel the rapid diffusion of beneficial new social arrangements and technical developments. Had the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V succeeded in unifying the sub-continent under a conservative Roman Catholic monarchy in the 1500s, would Europe have experienced its wrenching transition to modernity several centuries later? I am not so sure.

The constrained historical development of Terranova thus hinges on stability and political unification. Here a massive empire is envisaged as blanketing the largest continent and maintaining links to the rest of its world through an expansive merchant network. Together, the imperial and mercantile orders generated a prolonged period of stasis. But the story unfolds as the tightly constructed Novan world system begins to collapse, undermined by flaws inherent in its structure. The ultimate message, I suppose, is that the dynamism of human progress can be thwarted but not so easily eliminated.

The societies of Terranova are based loosely on historical Earth analogues, although certain salient features are enhanced and elaborated. But as Novan humans are imagined as a bit more evolved than us, and as their planet itself is depicted as a little more ecologically productive and less disease-ridden that our world, systematic differences are encountered here as well. In particular, games are more important on this world than on our own, based on the idea that behavioral neoteny—neoteny being the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood— might be linked to evolutionary advancement. Novan societies are also portrayed as more sexually egalitarian than ours were at a similar stage of technological development. Typical gender distinctions of humankind, however, are retained, although they vary significantly from one part of the planet to another. The most female-empowered society in the novel (based loosely on the Nairs of southwestern India and the Minangkabau of western Sumatra) is by no means depicted as an androgynous, gender-neutral utopia. It is instead envisaged more as a society in which women use their “erotic capital,” as recently spelled out by Catherine Hakim, to maintain sway over men. Whether such portrayals seem credible is obviously for readers to decide.

Although my imaginative efforts long focused on the development of an alternative world, the novel takes places as much on Earth as on Terranova. The name of the imaginary planet tells one as much: “Terranova”—or “new land”— makes sense only from the perspective of our world. As I imagined this planet over the course of many years, I came to picture it as being observed from afar by people from an unspecified time in Earth’s future. When I began writing the novel, I decided to play up this angle for all that it was worth. As I was depicting Terranova at the time of a planetary crisis, I figured that it would heighten the tension to throw Earthling observers into the mix. How would the people of our planet respond, I ask, when witnessing traumatic events being experienced by the human inhabitants of another world? The uncanny similarities of the two planets also encourage philosophical exploration. How would the existence of a human-inhabited alter-world, I inquire, influence cosmological speculations on Earth?

Adding a terrestrial component greatly increased the complexity of the resulting novel. Not only did I have to construct a future Earth, but I also had to link the two planets in a manner that would allow instantaneous observation but not interplanetary travel. In doing so, of course, I had to violate the laws of physics; information, like everything else, cannot travel faster than the speed of light. But while demanding the suspension of disbelief on this issue, I still sought to construct a seemingly realistic mode of indirect interplanetary exploration, extrapolating from emerging technologies. Whether the attempt works is again for readers to decide, but in one sense, the maneuver was perhaps ill advised. After finishing the story, I was unable to convince a literary agent or a publisher even to glance at the manuscript. After a number of form-letter rejections, I finally received something of substance. Based on my two-page prospectus, one agent kindly told me that in an age in which almost everyone carries a smart-phone and habitually surfs the internet, no one is interested any longer in technologically mediated science fiction. This objection seemed absurd at the time, both because Terranova is not really technologically driven, and because I saw little evidence that audiences were rejecting futuristic science fiction. New additions to the Star Trek corpus continue to appeal, and even James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar links a future Earth to another world through highly technical means. But convinced that such arguments would get me nowhere, I abandoned the effort to publish the book conventionally.

In retrospect, however, I suspect that the agent’s comment was not entirely off base. Backward-looking fantasy seems to be much more popular these days than forward looking-science fiction. And even in regard to science fiction per se, Terranova may be out of keeping with the temper of the times, not so much because it employs advanced technology, but rather because it embraces it. The novel forwards a basically optimistic view of Earth’s future, whereas many if not most works in the genre foresee decline and doom, with relentless technical advance undermining the human spirit and destroying the global ecosystem. In much speculative fiction, non-industrial societies, whether on Earth or elsewhere, tend to be depicted as harmoniously whole, retaining the social integrity and environmental balance that we have sacrificed to modernity. Cameron’s Avatar typifies this trope, with its marauding moderns assaulting a primordial paradise. This storyline is of long-standing, but was elaborated most insistently by eco-romantics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More recent scholarship, however, shows that on Earth “primordial peoples” were sometimes environmentally destructive and were usually plagued by incessant violence (Steven Pinker’s recent The Better Angels of Our Nature offers a compelling if perhaps exaggerated exposition of this thesis). But as Cameron shows so well, one can easily retain the “noble savage” narrative by transposing paradise from our own past to some other planet’s future.

I have no objection to portraying non-technological societies as retaining certain wholesome relationships that we have generally lost; indeed, I do much the same in Terranova. I also do not oppose dystopian depictions of our own future. We do have the capacity to destroy our world, and it can be salutary to wrestle with that possibility through fiction. But I have long since tired of the genre; every other science fiction film these days seems to be set in a stock post-apocalyptic world. I am more generally sated with bleak visions, and have thus come to long for depictions of the future that are a little more hopeful.

Although modern audience seem to have an endless appetite for stories of technological Armageddon, I see relatively little actual pining for a return to the pre-industrial past—certainly much less than at the time when I began imagining an alternative world. In many respects, we live in a profoundly technophilic age, one in which high-tech entrepreneurs can become virtual folk heroes. Why then do we tend to shun positive portrayals of a yet more technologically intense future society? Are we too saturated with technology as it is, and thus seek escape into timeless fantasy landscapes where magic takes its place? Or is it due to the fact that we tend to repress our own misgivings about modernity, and thus resonate subconsciously with dystopian expressions? Regardless of the underlying cause, I cannot shake the impression that we have unduly denigrated optimism in this domain, viewing it somehow as vacuous and simpleminded. Serious literature, many seem to think, must discern only a wasteland when either surveying the present or imagining the future.

Any imagining of an improved future runs the risk of descending into utopianism. Yet I fervently reject the utopian imagination. To begin with, those who have actually pushed utopian agendas have tended to generate dystopian outcomes. More broadly, utopianism does not adequately take into account human nature. No matter how healthy, safe, and prosperous our society becomes, we will still fall prey to envy, greed, jealousy and every other human failing, creating our own private hells with abandon. We also quickly habituate to any improvements, soon taking them for granted and finding only exasperation when they malfunction—a phenomenon brilliantly satirized by comedian Louis C. K. in his routine, “Everything Is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” In the future, everything could be even more amazing, but most people would probably be just as miserable as they are now.

The future depicted in Terranova thus derives from what might be called a sub-utopian or “ameliorationist” imagination. I depict improvements in our own society, as well as a somewhat “better” world located some light-years away, but neither is envisaged as ideal in any sense. In the end, I would hope that such a guardedly optimistic viewpoint might have some small beneficial effect. By reveling in doom and gloom, I fear that we risk restricting our own capabilities for effecting positive change.

As a warning to any would-be reader, I would note that the narrative structure of Terranova is rather complicated. The action not only shifts back and forth between the two planets, but the perspective also moves among multiple characters on each world. If the book is read over a prolonged period of time, such shifts might prove confusing. Also significant is the fact that the book is envisioned as the first volume of a trilogy. The main lines of action in The Black Petaltail are wrapped up in the end, but the overarching story is left hanging. Finally, it is important to note that the manuscript offered here is slightly different from the original book. Chapter Three, in particular, has been significantly edited.

Visit this page to download a free copy of Terranova: The Black Petaltail.

Speculative Fiction, Imagined Geographies, and Social Alternatives

Map of the Imagined Planet Terranova, by M.W. Lewis

People are drawn to history and geography for various reasons. For myself, the major appeals have always been variety and complexity. I find variations in physical environments, social organizations, and belief systems intrinsically interesting. Obscure cultures, places, and times have particular appeal, as they help break the spell of the commonplace. It is all too easy to assume that one’s own cultural milieu is natural, with others deviating from the norm. By the same token, it is easy to regard familiar climates and landscapes as better than non-familiar ones. Such a blinkered imagination is conspicuous in the history of geographical thought, where environmental determinists have almost always located the ideal climate and landscape in or near their own homelands.

Geographical and historical study offers a potentially powerful antidote to such parochial thinking. In different places, one learns, people do things differently, and often do them quite well. And the past is very much, in this sense, a foreign country. The more widely one surveys, the less inevitable the beliefs and arrangements of one’s homeland seem. The same is true in regard to language; the monolingual person often views the grammar of his or her mother tongue as inevitable, and many are shocked to find that other languages do not just use different words, but encode information in fundamentally differently ways. But whereas some are shocked and delighted, others are shocked and horrified; more than a few native English-speakers find noun cases almost diabolical. In the same manner, exposure to foreign ways only solidifies some people’s sense of their own superiority. But at least for those who enjoy travel and reading about other places, the encounter with difference usually has a positive effect.

Science fiction and fantasy literature allows one take the “defamiliarization” of vicarious travel several steps farther. One can imagine arrangements distinct from any found on Earth, whether at present or in the past. An imagination sufficiently disciplined can convey an air of reality to such make-believe, expanding the realm of the seemingly possible. The master of this form of art, to my mind, is Ursula K. Le Guin, author of a several influential and astute science fiction novels. I doubt that it is coincidental that Le Guin’s mother was a noted writer and her father one of the founders of American anthropology (Theodora and Alfred Kroeber). She was evidently well schooled in the human sciences, lending her works a degree of believability despite their imaginative departures from reality as we know it.

As can probably be deduced from the preceding paragraphs and posts, I was once an avid consumer of science fiction and fantasy. I was never obsessive about it, as history and geography always came first; to my mind, descriptions of real places and peoples provide basic sustenance, while imaginative fiction serves best as a dessert course. Yet as I grew older and my education deepened, I found such works growing less delectable. As often as not, novels in the genre failed to convey an aura of believability, based as they were on impossible geographical circumstances. In consuming speculative fiction, of course, one does have to suspend disbelief; impossible things—such as faster than light-speed travel—are often necessarily depicted as routine. But while I had no problem suspending disbelief for the few crucial phenomena necessary for the framework to hold and the story to unfold, I could no longer suspend it across the board. I could not simply pass over unintentionally absurd constructions, those derived more from ignorance than artifice.

My response to this crisis of the imagination was to focus more on my own alter-world. After thrilling to Tolkien as an adolescent, I resolved to build an alternative to Middle-earth, a place where my imagination could run as openly as his. For several years, the land that I eventually dubbed Terranova was a magic-filled but rather formless place, suitable mostly for juvenile play. But as the years went on, magic dropped away as geo-historical elaboration proceeded. I found diversion in imagining a realistic Earthlike planet, providing it with a narrative of historical development and an internally consistent set of social structures and cultural practices. Although I committed nothing to paper for decades, I did build a variegated planet of the imagination. My desire was to make it as complex as that of Tolkien, but otherwise to depart from Middle-earth as much as possible.

In developing an imaginative world, I faced what I came to think of as the paradox of verisimilitude. To serve as a believable home for human (or human-like) beings, such a planet must be much like Earth. But if it is too Earthlike, the exercise becomes pointless: why build another world just like the one that we inhabit? The best solution, it seemed to me, was to restrict the differences to a few crucial variations. That would allow one to explore the ways in which select distinctions might influence historical development. In such a manner, a planet of the imaginative might even become a locus for thought experiments in world history.

The particular differentiating features of Terranova will be the subject of the next GeoCurrents post, the final one in this series.

The Elaborate and Curious Geographies of Frank Herbert and J. R. R. Tolkien

Bird's Map of Middle-earth Transposed on Europe According to most sources, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time is Frank Herbert’s Dune. When it comes to fantasy literature, nothing compares with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Both works build intricate worlds, giving obsessive attention to detail. Such elaboration proves compelling to many readers, providing what seem to be fully realized alternatives to Earth. Yet in terms of their basic geography, Herbert’s Arrakis and Tolkien’s Middle-earth fail to cohere as real worlds.

Arrakis of Dune, like most Star Wars worlds, is a single-environment planet. It is entirely and absolutely desertic, experiencing no rainfall. Unlike the desert orbs of Star Wars, Arrakis is fleshed out as a complex ecological system. As a result, Herbert was lauded as planet-building pioneer and an ecological visionary. As the New York Times book review noted, “So completely did Mr. Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that Dune became the standard for a new sub-genre of ‘ecological’ science fiction.” The Wikipedia article on the author goes to note that, “As popularity of Dune rose, Herbert embarked on a lecture tour of college campuses, explaining how the environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants were analogous to our own.”

In actuality, the “environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants” were nothing at all like our own, largely because the imagined ecology of their planet was impossible, violating the tenets of biology at every turn. Arrakis is supposed to support some of the same desert vegetation as Earth (date palms, saguaro cactus, and so on), yet it gets no rain and has no standing water. In earlier epochs, we learn, Arrakis had been a humid planet, but its oceans were sucked dry by an introduced species that “encysted” virtually all water in “living cisterns” deep below the surface. Other similarly wild eco-fantasies follow, but recounting them seems pointless. Suffice it to say that Herbert’s alternative world is carefully constructed, wildly imaginative, and largely illogical, typifying the romantic sensibilities of the 1960s counter-culture.

The counter-culture of the 1960s also embraced the work of Tolkien, although the Lord of the Rings derives from a different sensibility, that of anti-modernist Christianity. Like Herbert, Tolkien was an extraordinarily inventive, detail-obsessed author who created his own intricate alternative universe, only glimpses of which are revealed in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Yet in terms of its basic geography, Tolkien’s world-making endeavor was not adequate to the task.

It is perhaps unfair to take on Tolkien for the failure of his world-construction program. Tolkien’s imagination, after all, was mythological thwarting the development of realistic geography. He depicted his imagined world, for example, as having originally been a flat disc orbited by the sun, moon, and other celestial objects. Here mountains were raised not by gradual geological processes but by the precipitous actions of demiurges: “Melkor raised the Misty Mountains to impede the progress of the Vala Orome as he hunted Melkor’s beasts during the period of darkness prior to the awakening of the Elves.” Tolkien also gave short shrift to basic planetary description. Although his mytho-historical back-story covers eons of time and fills heavy volumes, he never bothered to “finalize the geography for the entire world associated with [his novels],” according specialized “Lord of the Rings Wiki.”

Assessing Tolkien’s depiction of an alternative world is further challenged by the fact that that it was not actually a different planet. His stories take place on Earth itself, as visualized in a different period of time—or more precisely, a different period of the imagination. All action plays out in northwestern “Middle-earth,” a continent that would eventually be transformed into Eurasia. In Tolkien’s elaborate para-cosmology, the intertwined planets of the solar system are deemed Arda, and Earth itself is called Ambar (or Imbar). Tolkien’s cosmology is pre-Copernican and non-scientific, embedding elements of ancient European mythology within a deeply Christian moral framework.

The general equation of Middle-earth with western Eurasia has led to the search for more specific correspondences. Tolkien always located the Shire in England, but otherwise remained vague on this score. A map by Peter Bird, however, depicts specific linkages. (Bird is a geology and geophysics professor at UCLA; his map was posted by Frank Jacobs on Strange Maps, and is reposted here.) According to Bird’s interpretation, the evil land of Mordor is located in Transylvania, yet again demonizing a perfectly normal place. (I prefer to think of Transylvania as the birthplace not of Dracula, but rather of Unitarianism.)

Considering his pre-modern, anti-scientific sensibility, Tolkien can hardly be expected to have constructed a rigorous geographical foundation for his para-world. But he certainly thought of Middle-earth as a physical place, inhabited by organic beings, including humans. Such beings have physical needs, and if the story is to have the ring of believability, such needs must be met. Yet repeatedly in Lord of the Rings, major agglomerations of various species of “people” live in areas where they could not possibly have provisioned themselves, given their economies. Consider the vast underground cities—indeed, kingdoms—of the “dwarves,” beings who produced no food, trading minerals and craft objects to humans to obtain sustenance. Although a small caste of specialized miners would have been perfectly reasonable, an entire species in the same niche and building gargantuan subterranean cities is precluded by basic demographic considerations.

Whenever I raise such objections with my children, their response is simple: “magic: the same reason why Legolas’s quiver is always full.” This reliance on magic (if that is indeed the case) to resolve such mundane contradictions strikes me as a cop-out. Tolkien, after all, devoted extraordinary effort to building the history, mythology, and languages of Middle-earth. Here, his obsessive scholarly attention gives his alter-world a level of complexity unsurpassed by any other, surely one of the major reasons for its unparalleled success. But Tolkien was a philologist, not a geographer or historian, and his attention wavered when it came to the more commonplace aspects of actual existence.

Academic criticisms of Tolkien have tended to focus on his racism, whether explicit or implicit. Evidence for and against such accusations is discussed at length in a Tolkien Gateway article, and thus needs no rehashing here; suffice it to say that although troublesome racial imagery pervades his work, Tolkien’s letters show that he was by no means a hard-core racist, at least by the standards of his time. But his basic worldview was profoundly paleoconservative. Such a stance is evident in his rejection of science in favor of mythos, his association of technological progress with evil*, his male-dominated and sexuality-shunning social depictions, and especially his celebration of the political legitimacy of bloodlines. The notion of a “true king,” whose rightful position of power derives from direct descent from a storied monarch of old, was reactionary long before Tolkien’s birth.

As a mythology creator, of Tolkien is unmatched. His characters are compelling, his stories are gripping, and his creation of languages is staggeringly impressive. His work proved powerful enough to essentially create a genre. Yet as much as I am drawn to Tolkien, I find his alter-world a grim and often repellent place that makes less sense the more it is scrutinized. It also strikes me as odd indeed that modern democracy-embracing audiences do not seem bothered by his retrograde depiction of an idealized human society.

*Rejection of technology has been generally associated with the far left since the 1960s, but it is historically associated much more with the far right, and is certainly highly “conservative” in the original sense of the term.


Geography and Science Fiction: the Creation of Realistic Alternative Worlds

Map of Imaginary Planet, Earth 2(Note to readers: As GeoCurrents is technically on vacation, it seems like a good time to explore an issue that falls outside of the blog’s basic field of concern. For the next week, posts will focus on speculative fiction, culminating with the free release of my own science fiction novel, Terranova: The Black Petaltail, on this website. Regular GeoCurrents posts on matters of geography and history will begin again in the second week of January.)

Fantasy can be an entryway into serious geographical and historical thought. While preparing several GeoCurrents posts, I have come across deeply informed discussions of obscure historical topics in game-players’ discussion boards. Map-making is also taken seriously by authors and fans of science fiction and fantasy literature. Those who base their stories or games on alternative worlds are especially drawn to cartographic depiction and historical timelines. Such efforts sometimes go well beyond the mere limning of lands and waters, showing such deeper structures as tectonic plates.

Several websites offer tools and advice for building one’s own imaginary planet. The Fractal Worldmap Generator, for example, allows the easy construction of realistic fantasy cartography in several projections; all one has to do is specify what percentages of a sphere should be covered with water and ice. The Elfwood site, advertised as “The World’s Largest SciFi and Fantasy Community,” provides detailed geographical advice for would-be world-makers, even providing elementary instruction in climatology. The Wikipedia article on “world-building” also offers basic lessons, informing readers, for example, that “a forest will typically form in locations with higher levels of rainfall. Where the prevailing winds cross a mountainous rise, the forest will appear on the windward side where moisture tends to be deposited.”

Map of Imaginary Planet with Environmental ZonesWhether such remedial education is adequate to the task is another matter. To truly construct a realistic Earth-like world requires the kind of knowledge provided by a college-level course in physical geography; not a few enthusiasts have created handsome worlds that embody glaring geographical contradictions. Consider, for example, the maps posted here. In Earth 2, the brown areas, presumably deserts or semi-deserts, are mostly situated in such necessarily humid areas as the equatorial zone, the upper-mid latitudes on the west side of the largest continent, and the subtropics on the east side of the same landmass. The second map (“Environmental Zones of the Three Continents”), depicting a different imaginary world, does a better job. Note, however, the equatorial desert in the west, as well as the woodlands to its north at around twenty degrees, an area that ought to be desert.* For such patterns to exist, the basic parameters of physics would have to be changed, putting us not merely in an alternative world but in an alternative universe.

Such quibbles may seem pedantic—they certainly do to my own children. Perhaps it would be better to stress how far the genre has advanced over the past several decades. In earlier years, most Earth-like planets in science fiction were not just geographically incorrect, but positively simpleminded. Human- (or humanoid-) inhabited globes were routinely imagined not as richly variegated worlds but as simple, uniform places. These kinds of planets represent not alter-worlds so much as samples of our own terrestrial sphere, the geographical equivalents of one-dimensional human characters embodying particular traits. Such failings have been strikingly pronounced in the two largest science fiction franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars. Both series are richly imaginative and consistently thought-provoking, and I have enjoyed them for decades. In terms of basic geography, however, Star Trek and Star Wars leave much to be desired.

Star Trek, Gamma Trianguli VI In the original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, entire planets were portrayed as individual neighborhoods. In almost every episode, the show’s protagonists could stroll to all significant places on a given world once they had beamed down from their spaceship. Such a narrow scope, admittedly, was all but dictated by the series’ restricted budget and special-effects limitations. Yet the much more lavishly produced second Star Trek series, The Next Generation, was little different. Indeed, its world-building capabilities sometimes seem to have declined. Compare, for example, the planet Gamma Trianguli VI from “The Apple” (1968) with the world that lent its name to the episode entitled “Angel One” (1988). Although the view of Gamma Trianguli VI from the deck of the starship Enterprise gets the cloud patterns wrong (no mid-latitude spiral bands, no thunderheads of an inter-tropical convergence zone), the planet’s topography looks reasonably Earth-like. Angel One, on the other hand, appears more like Neptune: one glance tells you that this is not a place where a mammal from Earth would be able to breathe. Yet when the crew beams down, they encounter nothing alien whatsoever—other than the fact that the women of Angel One physically dominate the men.

Star Trek, Angel One In the Star Wars franchise, planets tend to be far more fully realized. Rather then being reducible to intimate locales that can be effectively covered on foot, they form expansive spaces that demand mechanized transport. Yet few are depicted as having Earth-like complexity and variation. Instead, they tend to form single environments: if some are completely desertic, others are wholly forested. The films also feature grassland planets, swamp planets, ocean planets, and even a completely urbanized planet packed with a trillion inhabitants. Some worlds are described as entirely temperate, others (impossibly) as completely tropical.** Most of the planets of Star Wars, in other words, are not worlds at all, but rather expanded stand-ins for particular ecotypes on Earth.

Star Wars, Hoth and Tauntauns Some of the environmentally restricted Star Wars planets are more realistically imagined than others. An ice-covered, perennially frozen sphere, for example, remains within the realm of plausibility. In our universe, such a planet would not be capable of supporting macroscopic life of the kind found on Earth. In the Star Wars galaxy, however, Hoth is fully ice-bound, yet supports massive mammalian species. What could such large herbivores as tauntauns possibly eat? Such niceties were ignored in the original film, but Star Wars “Expanded Universe” sources attempt to provide answers. Hoth, we are told, is replete with “under-ice caves containing large lichen fields … on which Tauntauns feed.” Interesting idea, but physically impossible; ice is not stable enough to support long-lasting, light-filled caves of the size necessary to support such ecosystems.

Some authors of SciFi and fantasy have elaborated complex geographical patterns, creating what seem to be fully realized alter-worlds. But complexity does not guarantee geographical accuracy, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*On Earth, deserts are found on the west sides of continents between around 18 and 30 degrees of latitude, and in continental interiors, especially where mountains block prevailing winds. (Note that Afro-Eurasia forms a single continent in this regard.) The exceptions that do exist are generally explainable by oceanic currents, which in turn can be deduced from the basic patterns of land and sea.

** “The tropics” is by definition a restricted latitudinal belt: the zone where the sun is directly overhead at noon once a year (twice at the Equator). A planet whose axis is tiled 90 degrees relative to its orbit around its sun would in this sense be entirely “tropical,” as all areas would experience a mid-day sun angle of 90 degrees. But it would by no means possess a uniformly “tropical” climate, as most areas would experience prolonged periods of the year with little or no sunlight. Even at the equator of such a planet, the sun would not rise above the horizon on the two solstices.