Representation without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Representation without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map

Gwilym Eades

1 The Maps

These fragments conjure worlds so like, yet so utterly unlike our own. If not the maps, then the narratives they enframe are sparked by that enframement: their existence casts the spell by which we see “other” worlds represented. In that representation, other kinds of societies are performed in the dark spaces of the closed book, whose utterance is an opening. Cartographic utterances meet us in beginning, or part-way. Crosshatch sentences elucidate their names, their naming, in the interstices of the polder-book, the fantastical science fiction, in whose leaves the space-times of other worlds unfurl, watched, watching, always mapped (I think here for some reason of the “Mercator projection” map of Phobos in Stephen Baxter’s World Engines as a kind of cartographic narrative enabler). We push back with the indigenous subject of such books as those examined here (Dune, Helliconia, and Always Coming Home); we challenge the mapped fragment’s representional claims, always with the colonizer’s names on maps in, of, and for science fiction; we find examples of all three in the three main works under consideration; adding a fourth kind: the map that is science fiction itself, that represents proposed spatialities of future worlds that, as always, are about now. Science fiction is a map in its particulars and in its totality of speculated, extrapolated future nows that are approached apprehensively, sentence by sentence, book by book. Later I will suggest that the history of science fiction itself might be re-mapped as a history of the Anthropocene through emerging climate fictions, from H.G. Wells’s short story “The Star,” with its catastrophic (for the Earthlings, but not the Martians) exo-planet-induced climate change; through the works examined here today, which I posit as bridges into the Anthropocenic science fiction map proper; and onward to the latest works by Kim Stanley Robinson, including, for example, the non-cartographic New York 2140; or the very cartographic Fall, or Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson. 

2 Setting

Maps are metonymical for settings in many cases, the former acting as ‘pointers’ or mnemonic devices for the latter. Ryan et al. (38) note that many societies divide space into sacred and profane worlds, with holy sites acting as portals between the two. Helliconia certainly abounds in such sites, with a dualism between Akha of the underworld and Wutra of the skies, and the ways that this dualism drives both the plot and the mutual fears of various societies of the secondary world we inhabit when we read about Helliconia. The Earth Observation Station itself places Helliconia under constant surveillance, rendering the very obvious map/frontispiece quite the obvious paratextual bit of paraphernalia. But the map is diegetic as well, as we see in Vry’s scholarly stone tower:

[o]n one wall hung an ancient map, given [Vry] by a new admirer, it was painted in coloured inks upon vellum. This was her Ottaassaal map depicting the whole world, at which she never ceased to wonder. The world was depicted as round, its land masses encircled by ocean. It rested on the original boulder – bigger than the world – from which the world had sprung or been ejected. The simple outlined land masses were labelled Sibornal, with Campannlat below, and Hespagorat separate at the bottom. Some islands were indicated. The only town marked was Ottaassaal, set at the centre of the globe. (Aldiss 374)

Dune is a more political work, though its setting is famous for its incredible ecology. The absurdity of the various workings of water budgets and how these are funnelled through cognitive estrangements of desert-focused technologies do not detract from the Anthropocenic indigeneities and indignities posited by Dune. We have here another Gaia-like creation (and the genealogies of the Gaia-analogy could form the basis of the entire mapping of this bridge into speculative Anthropocenes of the future), one that again appears diegetically within Dune, (Herbet 83) in addition to its obvious placement as the end point/appendix of the work:

the Duke and Paul were alone in the conference room at the landing field. It was an empty-sounding room, furnished only with a long table, old-fashioned three-legged chairs around it, and a map board and projector at one end. Paul sat at the table near the map board. He had told his father the experience with the hunter-seeker and given the reports that a traitor threatened him. (Herbert appendix)

The importance of projection is here quite marked, especially if we note in      the appendix and its metadata that we are looking at a polar projection, something that is quite unusual even in fantasy, where maps of fantastic worlds abound.  Ultimately, however, we know that the map is Liet-Kynes’s, the anthropologist-gone-native whose non-presence nevertheless structures the novel’s plots and politics and schemings. To paraphrase Marlon James, Liet-Kynes is a man who believes in belief. His map is an ethnographic fact.

Always Coming Home is full of both maps and mappings. Its future indigeneities are nonetheless retroactively mapped by the colonising gaze of the unseen, but very much present, anthropologist/ ‘editor’ of the narrative, whose ethics at least extend towards the insider view and its inclusion, most notably on pages 525-526 of the Library of America edition, where the watershed of Sinshan is reproduced with names not only in the native language, but in their script as well. That Always Coming Home includes eight maps, all of which are woven into the very structure and fabric of the narrative, indicates how much more sophisticated, in many ways, the indigenous spatialities of the work have been conceptualized as the insider view of the world being narrated.  But as Doreen Massey noted to me at another conference a year before her death, “it is not about the maps.” To quote Le Guin from her short essay “On the Frontier”: “[i]f there are frontiers between the civilized and the barbaric, between the meaningful and the unmeaning, they are not lines on a map nor are they regions of the earth. They are boundaries of the mind alone.” (Le Guin, 2004, p 29) Le Guin’s map, as she later notes in the same essay, is always already full with indigenous places and names. These are truly maps whose spatialities they claim to represent would not dream of reproducing the indignities of the mundane presencing of the current bad-dreaming Anthropocene.

3 Discussion

We could discuss all of this in terms of both ladders of objectivity, also known as the View from Nowhere; (Nagel, 1989) as well as diegicity, asking, is the scientific-fantastic map always-already diegetic (even more than in fantasy)? Or is it “merely” para-textual/extra-diegetic? When looking at science-fictional maps, or when noting their described presence within narratives, we must examine what their function is in the reproduction of the colonising and/or erasing power of the View from Above. The sketchy map at the beginning of Helliconia certainly seems to fulfil this colonising function, as does Aldiss’s own map, excavated later from his study, and the same goes, while we’re at it, for the tacked-on appendix of the omnibus edition, which diagrams the view from space of the planet itself.  Furthermore, if the map is a meme, then we can state as well, that so is the appendix, and therefore its presence in any given work is a kind of cultural evolutionary move of which the author themselves may or may not be aware of at that other level at least (I think here as well of Roberts’s brilliantly explained novum in the appendix to On).

If, with Lovelock, we are beginning to move into the Novacene, (Lovelock, 2019) even as the Anthropocene wraps up, we can note that there are other works that have been based on discredited scientific theories (I’m here thinking not just of Gaia in Helliconia, but of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Babel-17, and even to some extent in Le Guin’s work). What kinds of maps and appendices will we need in the age of algorithmic and planetary artificial intelligences? Will it be a kind of “cloud atlas”? What will be the challenges of representation/extrapolation, that is, without reproduction?

Science-fiction-in-action needs to attend more carefully to the “immutable mobiles” it deploys in the service of its extrapolations and non-reproductive politics of future heterotopias. Our postcolonial “others,” not to mention our future selves, will come to depend upon them. There is reason for hope and action. What if, with Kitchin and Dodge, we undertake the project of re-thinking maps anew, now as always being remade, as becoming things, rather than static beings? What if the science fiction novel could itself come to embody such an ideal? Dhalgren, with its Ulysses-like pacing, interiority, and spatiality, is probably the prototype, forming an ideal-type of speculation for which there has probably been no subsequent equal. I set the bar high by placing the origins of this kind of speculated science fiction map novel with Ulysses, whose famed use as a map of Dublin belies the inherently non-literal, metaphorical basis of the use of the term mapping in literary theory. That Ulysses has a performed and very real spatiality does not mean that it is literally a map; a similar point was made by Gibson in his afterward to Dhalgren. The point is, we need more metaphorical mappings, to use Cosgrove’s terminology, and we need them to perform mutable, mobile, service towards the ends of speculative fictions in the post-Anthropocene world of hyperintelligent cloud algorithms. As demonstrated by Le Guin, Herbert, and Aldiss, colonial mappings, namings, and spatial performances always contain the seeds and anchor points of future post-colonial counter-mappings (think here of the air- and land-octaves of the phagors and humans respectively, and how long their alternation takes), ad infinitum at the right temporal scales. It may be phagor/human on Helliconia; here in the Novacene, it may play out as human/cyborg.

These maps literalize the colonising View from Above/Nowhere that meshes very well with the roving/disembodied (third person) view each of the works takes, though only in the case of Le Guin is it truly liberating. Only in Le Guin’s work, with her carrier bag fictions, do we truly encounter the counter-map.

4 Towards further formalisation of the model

When used well, maps help to formalize and spatialize and relationalize the language (names) of speculative fiction. They are sufficient (but not necessary) for enabling these moves. Maps allow the reader to carry around the language in the form of immutable mobiles, and thus are tools to be used in the translation of the text. We have various tools, but maps are tradition in fantasy. Other tools are available, other reading strategies—these just happen to be apposite to the texts at hand. The map and the text are interlocking machines: the map contains other texts; the text other maps; interlocking precisely, like a crew and its ship. The map makes explicit the metonymical function of the text itself, that of naming. The secondary world thus represented is allowed its utopian functioning as a corrective to the wrongs produced in the primary world. The map is a metaphor at one level, serving as a metonymical toolbox at another level. These functions operate both vertically (through time) and horizontally (through space). “Gaia” and “Anthropocene” have significant vertical components by now. To what do they refer (and from within the mass cultural genre system)?

5 Conclusion

Maps (in science fiction) help us navigate the line between fact and belief. If here we find a map of a plausible Gaia world—self-regulating, sentient, with evolvable species; over there (in the real world) the idea is simply more speculation. The age of the world picture demands images of totality. Aldiss and Herbert hid the most interesting things beneath the surface of their images, in the undergrounds of imagination. The counter-map was the text itself, a kind of return of the repressed. Le Guin fully utilizes the power of maps, weaving them together as full participants alongside other items of her carrier bag of fictions. Le Guin’s maps are characters in a new species of book. We accept the strictures of fantasy magic even as we let science grow, no, leap, beyond its self-inscribed boundaries. Science fiction’s polders and crosshatches are made explicit in machines for moving time and space in strange new ways, more generalizable in diagrams of power diegetic and paratextual, inscribed and performed. Their strictures are operationalized in the specialized language of science: the Mercator projection, the polar view, the multi-coloured elevational “globe.” The sea-level rise in Helliconia names a new terrain that is anchored in Summer’s beginning, and this is in turn anchored in the map. The magic of the text lies in its rules of procedure, its method of representing the world without reproducing it.


Aldiss, Brian. Helliconia. Gollancz Masterworks, 2010.

Baxter, Stephen. World Engines: Destroyer. Gollancz, 2019.

Cosgrove, Denis, editor. Mappings. Reaktion, 1999.

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. Gollancz Masterworks, 2009.

—–. Dhalgren. Gollancz Masterworks, 2010.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. New English Library, 1968.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Random House, 2002.

Kitchin, Rob and Martin Dodge. “Rethinking Maps.” Progress in Human Geography. vol. 31, no. 3, 2007, pp. 331-344.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “On the Frontier.” The Wave in the Mind. Shambala, 2004.

—–. Always Coming Home. Library of America, 2019.

—–. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Always Coming Home. Library of America, 2019.

Lovelock, James. Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. Allen Lane, 2019.

Nagel, Thomas. 1989. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rieder, John. Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

Roberts, Adam. “Notes on the Physics of On: The Physics of Worldwall.” On. Gollancz, 2001.

—–. H.G. Wells. Palgrave, 2019.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit, 2017.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Kenneth Foote, and Maoz Anaryahu. Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. Ohio University Press, 2016.

Stephenson, Neal. Fall, Or Dodge In Hell. The Borough Press, 2019. Wells, H.G. “The Star.” The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. Ernest Benn Limited, 1948.

Gwilym Eades is Lecturer in Human and Environmental Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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