EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1 "WHY MAPS?" FROM
WHEN MAPS BECOME THE WORLD
Every story needs a map. Maps help writers build new worlds. Maps invite readers to imagine such worlds. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, Robert Louis Stevenson’s map of Treasure Island, or R2-D2’s holographic map in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Literature sometimes goes further and explores the meaning and significance of maps for science and philosophy. Ponder, for instance, J.L. Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science,” with its map as big as an entire empire. While Borges’ very short story will be familiar to many, it is worth bearing in mind:
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
A map the same size as the territory, a 1:1 scaled map, copies the entire terrain and fails to abstract out irrelevant features. Due to its magnitude, level of detail, and sheer practical unwieldiness, Borges’ map of the empire is useless in guiding your eye, mind, and feet through a particular neighborhood or city. A perfectly realistic map is a useless representation.
Or reflect on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a meditation on Marco Polo recounting to Kublai Khan the many cities he has visited, in dreams or reality, or perchance both. In the chaotic and smelly city of Eudoxia, Polo recounts, there is a symmetrical, patterned carpet. Each place in the carpet purportedly corresponds to a place in the city, and each inhabitant reads into the carpet her unique perspective of the city. An oracle had told that either the city or the carpet is a map of the entire universe, whereas the other is an approximate reflection, like any human creation. But neither the inhabitants nor us, the readers, know whether the carpet or the city is the map of the universe. A map represents the territory, and structural analogies between the carpet and the city—and between them and the universe writ large—may allow for unexpected and informative relations of representation to emerge.
Or consider how Ursula Le Guin’s path-breaking Earthsea series started with a map that she herself drew (see figure above), as she reports in an interview:
I had written a couple of short stories, very light short stories that took place on these islands where there were wizards and dragons. And when I sort of began thinking about a book, these islands grew in, just boom, it sort of, this is a whole archipelago of islands, and now I draw the map. And so the first thing I did for the book was the map. And I’ve always used that map all six books.
A map organizes the entire narrative, both for the reader and for the author in the process of composition. No story without a map.
Borges’ map of the empire, Calvino’s carpet of Eudoxia, and Le Guin’s map of Earthsea exemplify themes from When Maps Become the World: maps are abstractions discarding detail, focusing only on essential features of the territory. And yet what is essential depends on one’s purposes. Maps therefore represent in multiple, surprising, and creative ways, as understood by particular users with specific needs. The way to realize that the map is not the territory is by considering multiple points of view on—multiple maps of—the same territory. For the philosopher—as for the self-aware writer, artist, explorer, and seeker—this realization allows maps to serve as apt analogies for theory, metaphors for how we know, and even representations of magic, mystery, and the beyond.
In a sentence, this book is about the power and limitations of maps, including those maps larger than ourselves that we call scientific theories.
 Borges (1935) 1975, 325. London: Penguin. With humor and irony, Eco (1992) 1994 playfully blows apart the logical underpinnings of the very concept of a one-to-one map. More on this in chapters 2 and 3.