Here Be Cartographers: Reading the Fantasy Map

Monday, 18 April 2011 — 11:14pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary theory, Literature

It is hard to imagine a world without maps.

Now stop—and diagram that sentence. Break its syntax apart. You can parse it in at least two valid and meaningful ways:

  • It is hard | to imagine | a world without maps. The use of maps is so embedded in our daily lives, so essential to our normal functioning, that the idea of a pre-cartographic society is as alien as the thought of a pre-literate one. On top of this, our idea of what it means to be a mapped society is itself confined to our familiarized expectations of what maps are like. How did people get by without maps—or rather, without the sorts of maps we know and understand?

  • It is hard | to imagine a world | without maps. Maps govern the way we think about space, and that extends to imaginary or hypothetical spaces. Without a graphic representation on paper or in our heads, our plans for things not yet built—homes, roads, electric circuits—may be cloudy and ambiguous. They may lack precision in the same way we have trouble with describing things that are outside our linguistic abilities. This is a negative definition of maps as a form of language: to be without a map is to be without language, and it impedes us from communicating ideas in the mind—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.

In both of these senses, maps of fictional places are remarkably challenging texts.

One of my chief interests in fiction, along with art in general, is how it presents itself as evidence of the way people receive the existing cultural data around them before they process it and spit it back out. (In literary criticism you will encounter words like allusion and intertextuality, but I think of them as subtypes of a broader cognitive activity.) When an author plans out a story’s setting in place, or when a reader attempts to reconstruct it from the words alone, the maps they produce tell us not only how they imagine the depicted geography, but also how they imagine the idea of maps. Furthermore, the author/audience distinction isn’t always sharp: some privileged readers, such as the illustrators at a publishing house or manuscript historians like Christopher Tolkien, participate in the interpretive stage as well as the official construction of the space for everyone else.

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere—I would be astonished if there weren’t—but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

Continued »

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Continued »

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IBM’s double jeopardy

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 — 4:09am | Computing, Journalism, Science, Television

A few weeks ago, Colby Cosh—a friend of a friend of sorts who ordinarily writes reasonable things for a chap who still thinks the Edmonton Oilers are a real sports team—penned an article in his Maclean’s blog about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing machine (“I’ll take ‘Cheap Publicity Stunts’ for $1000, Alex”, 16 January 2011), that I found to be dreadfully uninformed. The thrust of his argument is that Watson is a corporate “gimmick”—a fancy plea for media coverage by the faceless villains at IBM, with nothing of scientific interest going on underneath. Keep in mind that by the standards of this article, nothing in the “perpetually disappointing history of AI” will ever be interesting until we’ve graduated from tightly delimited objectives to Big Problems like the Turing Test:

Every article about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing device, should really lead off with the sentence “It’s the year 2011, for God’s sake.” In the wondrous science-fiction future we occupy, even human brains have instant broadband access to a staggeringly comprehensive library of general knowledge. But the horrible natural-language skills of a computer, even one with an essentially unlimited store of facts, still compromise its function to the point of near-parity in a trivia competition against unassisted humans.

This isn’t far off from saying that particle physics will be perpetually disappointing until we’ve observed the Higgs boson, or that manned spaceflight is merely an expensive publicity stunt that will never be scientifically interesting until we’ve colonized the Moon: it leans heavily on popular culture as the ultimate barometer of scientific achievement, and it requires both ignorance of methodology and apathy towards specifics.

Colby and I had a five-minute skirmish about the article on Twitter, which as a format for debate is unwieldy as piss. I promised a proper response as soon as I cleared some other priorities off my plate. Those other priorities are still, to my annoyance, on my plate; but having finally paid good money to register my copy of MarsEdit, I’m thirsting for a scrap.

This topic will do as well as any. Reluctant as I am to swing the pretentious hammer of “I know what I’m talking about,” this really is (as the idiom goes) a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality. Computational linguistics happens to be my onetime research area, popular misunderstanding of science happens to be one of my favourite bugbears, and Kasparov’s anticomputer strategies against Deep Blue happened to make a cameo appearance in the meandering slop of my master’s dissertation. None of this matters a great deal, mind you. One should never be dismissive of journalists from a position of relative expertise; they’re the ones people actually read, and it’s vital to engage with what they say.

(It is a little game we play: they put it on the bill, I tear up the bill.)

Continued »

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Constance Naden’s deep Darwinian lays

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 5:57pm | Literature, Science

Given my longstanding interest in the use of scientific and mathematical language in literature, it may come as a surprise that I have only recently discovered the poetry of Constance Naden. Naden died very young in 1889 at only 31 years of age, hence her relative obscurity, but she was nevertheless extremely prolific throughout the 1880s as a poet, philosopher, and scientist. Her work was significant enough to elicit the praise of William Gladstone, who dubbed her one of the eight finest women poets of the nineteenth century, alongside such luminaries as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Brontë.

You can find Naden’s writings online in the posthumously published The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (1894), a volume that includes translations of Schiller and Goethe, among others. It seems as though she was something of a polymath.

My introduction to Naden’s work came by way of this audio podcast of a lecture delivered by John Holmes at the Royal Society, who spoke on Charles Darwin’s influence on the ideas and concerns of Victorian English poets. (This is the subject of Holmes’ recent book, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.) In the lecture, Holmes speaks briefly on “Natural Selection”, a playful comic poem about a palaeontologist who is scientifically delighted to find that his beloved has been whisked away by an all-singing, all-dancing “idealess lad”. This poem belongs to a quartet entitled Evolutional Erotics (1887), in which Naden explores the collision of love and the scientific mind. Another poem in the set, “Scientific Wooing”, brings science into the register of high romance in a manner that might be construed as ironic (but then again, might not be):

At this I’ll aim, for this I’ll toil,
And this I’ll reach—I will, by Boyle,
By Avogadro, and by Davy!
When every science lends a trope
To feed my love, to fire my hope,
Her maiden pride must cry is “Peccavi!

I’ll sing a deep Darwinian lay
Of little birds with plumage gay,
Who solved by courtship Life’s enigma;
I’ll teach her how the wild‐flowers love,
And why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.

I am reminded here of the tensor algebra pastoral from one of the great masterworks of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad:

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not – for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Continued »

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There’s an App Store for that

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 12:38pm | Computing


Yesterday, Apple launched the Mac App Store, the latest interface refinement capitalizing on the observation that increasingly, Mac OS X is not likely to be a new user’s first Apple product. Just as we saw iTunes navigation features such as Cover Flow migrate over to the OS X Finder, now we are seeing OS X take after the iPhone/iPad user experience by delivering software via one-click installations. Click on the button to purchase or download an app, and the App Store dumps it in your Applications folder and on the Dock.

OS X veterans will note that this is, in theory, a 200% improvement on what was formerly a three-click installation: download the DMG, drag the app into the Applications folder, and optionally dump it on your Dock as well if you are still oblivious to the eldritch wonders of Quicksilver.

And in theory, one would think this is one of the best features yet to arrive on the Mac for users and developers alike. The end-user software culture for Mac users has always been very distinctive: unlike the unfortunate bifurcation in the savage lands of Windows, where software is often either a) homegrown and free or b) professional and exorbitantly priced with corporate site licenses in mind (and therefore often pirated), Mac software for the individual consumer is pretty much where it was in the early 1990s: practically anything that Apple didn’t hand you with the system comes from independent development houses, usually in the form of try-now, buy-later shareware, their products reasonably priced. Compared to other platforms, good free software is much harder to find.

(Incidentally, the Mac App Store has already delivered a 1990s time-capsule feeling of its own, raising the hungering corpses of products long believed dead. I mean, StuffIt Expander? Kid Pix?!)

For this model, digital distribution was a dream come true from its inception, and it would make sense to believe that a centralized distribution channel for downloads and updates only improves on it. In practice, however, there is no advantage to using the Mac App Store for anything that is already available directly from the developers.

Apple’s approval process effectively ensures that software updates through the App Store will lag behind the automatic updaters that already exist. Buying directly from the developer relieves them of Apple’s 30% cut for products sold via the App Store. There is also no support for time-constrained shareware trials, which are far and away the best way for developers to demonstrate why their software is worth paying for.

Product licenses, thank goodness, are bound to your Apple account instead of your machine; if something disastrous happens to your computer, you can always download your purchases again later, and there is no limit to the number of machines you can install them on. This is still more annoying than the DRM-free status quo of “punch in your product code and we’ll trust you the rest of the way,” but at least with a centralized ID you don’t need to worry about losing your product code.

In any case, informed users accustomed to hunting for quality Mac software that didn’t come pre-installed have no incentive to use the App Store at all except for software that is otherwise unavailable. The App Store’s function is to inform everyone else that third-party software even exists. Developers are effectively compelled to push their products onto the App Store in order to remain exposed and competitive, but if they make their products available directly, it’s hard to think of a reason why one wouldn’t obtain them that way instead.

Postscriptum. Speaking of third-party Mac software, I am presently composing this post in MarsEdit and finding it wonderful. I may end up blogging more frequently again purely for the pleasure of using it. Daniel Jalkut, the man behind MarsEdit, wrote an informative FAQ about the Mac App Store and what it means for his product. It confirms most of my sentiments above.

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