Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Realistic" maps

Because I live in a place where spring comes relatively late, I was able to put off the first lawn mowing of the season until this afternoon. Of course, it isn't a huge deal for me to mow the lawn anymore; my oldest son is 14 and this is his third season of doing the front, while I do the slightly larger and certainly more complex backyard. I think I'm going to pass the baton for that one this year too, though, and one of my son's other weekly jobs (like vacuuming all the carpets in the house) will cascade down to his younger brother, who in turn will cascade taking out the trash to his younger brother. Who doesn't have anyone left to cascade down to, but that's OK; he doesn't do a lot of work yet and is old enough to take on a new chore or two. When that happens, my role in the care of the lawn will be one of watering and supervising only. Ah, can't wait.

In the meantime, I mowed the back lawn today. I actually don't mind the work; it's kinda fun to have a relatively mindless task to do so my mind can wander. Plus, it was a cool, gray day--perfect for lawn mowing. And I'd put the job off long enough. I probably should have done it last week, or maybe even the week before. But I wanted to let it grow long enough to start sprouting some seeds so I can get some "natural" overseeding from the mulched grass tops.

It's always curious to me how our lawn grows. There was one spot in particular that I never notice until I'm mowing, because it's around the corner of the house where I rarely go. While I knew that the lawn certainly needed mowing, if I'd see this section, I definitely would have already done it. In this section, the grass was nearly a foot tall, and extremely thick. It took me nearly as long to do about 80 square feet of grass here as it did the rest of the back lawn. Plus, the lawnmower stopped on me at least ten or eleven times because the grass was so think that it binded the blades.

Oddly enough, there's a very sudden line back there in that section where suddenly the grass is thick and green... but doesn't grow very tall. Then, a little bit further around the corner, there are sections that, no matter what I do, always seem thin, short, and brown. I can fertilize, overseed and water every week for the entire season, and I just don't get good grass in a few spots. No matter what I do.

While I was mowing, my mind was drawn to these vagaries of the grass growth in my yard, and from there to the fantasy map of my setting that I've been putting together. Frankly, if I can't figure out how to get a uniform growth out of my lawn, and can't figure out why some areas are runaway rampant growth, while others are thin and difficult, I certainly can't figure out much larger and more complex systems like climate models of a continent sized region of a fantasy world.

I've heard people complain about the lack of geographical rigor on fantasy worlds before. I doubt that these same people really understand the complexities of such models (although of course I could be wrong.) I suspect that the vaguest hints of where tectonic plate boundaries are and things like rain shadows go a long way in presenting the illusion of a carefully crafted fantasy world... but ironically, I think, poorly so. In reality, the systems that create weather and climate and all that jazz are much more complex than we sometimes give them credit for.

Three examples. The first one is the Ural Mountains. My critical acquaintances would probably have a problem with the Ural Mountains if they appeared in a fantasy setting. After all, everyone knows that Eurasia is a single landmass, so why in the world would a mountain range run across the face of it right smack dab in the middle of it?

Well, the reason the Urals exist is because Eurasia isn't a single landmass. Tectonically, it's actually a number of continents all smashed together. Some of them have been traveling together for so long--hundreds of millions of years--that they behave as if they were a single landmass. But they aren't. The Urals were formed when the continents of Siberia and Baltica collided some 300 million years ago. There are other continental plates within Asia too. Khazakhstania is another plate that consists of Kazakhstan and the Junggar Basin. The Amur plate makes up most of China, and is rotating slowly in relation to the rest of Asia, which is the cause of orogeny and earthquakes in China. India is another plate. Anatolia is another.

We don't learn about all of these smaller plates when we do our geology units in school. We get taught that Europe and Asia are only called a different continent for political reasons, because actually Eurasia is a single continent. Why is this? I don't really know. But the point is, the geological picture is actually much more complex than what most people think it is. However, without understanding some of that complexity, a lot of the mountains of Asia don't make any sense. Why would we have the Urals without these smaller continents joining together to form Asia? Why would we have the Altai, and the Tien Shan, and the Zagros, and all the other mountains of Asia without them?

Well, we wouldn't. So be careful before you decide to criticize settings like, say, the Forgotten Realms for not making sense. Maybe the complexity is just as high as it is in the real world. And that would adequately explain why geological features that don't make sense at first blush could actually exist.

Example #2. 10,000 years or so ago, during the Pleistocene, the climate in North America was very different than it was today. Of course, a big part of the reason for that was because half the continent; about all of modern Canada except a strip along the west coast, was covered by a massive continental glacier. But south of the glacier, the climate was much milder and wetter than it is today. The Great Plains were actually the North American savanna, open forest. The dry canyonlands of the west were thickly forested. Iconically desertified regions, like Monument Valley, were much wetter and greener than they are today.

This climate difference doesn't have anything to do with continental placement, rain shadows or anything like that. Rather, it has to do with ocean currents and prevailing winds. As far as I know, no fantasy setting makes a big deal out of mapping in intricate detail where the jet stream is, or where warm and cool water ocean currents go. Therefore, the placement of geological features like deserts, grasslands, forests and whatnot is difficult to criticize. We don't know enough about these fantasy worlds to say that they're unrealistic most of the time. The systems are too complex for us to say that.

The third example is the Sahara. Completely unrelated to the climate changes in Pleistocene North America is the Sahara Pump Theory. About the time that southwestern America was drying out and becoming more xeric, the Sahara, which was actually much larger at that time than it is today, suddenly effectively disappeared. The Hadley Cell which causes monsoon rains in Africa became stronger, and the monsoons traveled much further north. The Sahara ceased being a desert completely, and reverted to savanna, with lakes and rivers. Rock carvings on rocks in the middle of what is today desert, show giraffes, elephants, zebra, crocodiles and hippos; all animals that obviously can't survive there today.

Another minor climatic event weakened the monsoons about 5,000 or so years ago, and the Sahara stopped getting monsoon rains, and quickly dried out again. In fact, although this is neither here nor there, some anthropologists look at these trying conditions as the area rapidly desertified, as the catalyst that caused pre-dynastic Egyptian civilization to organize and become, well, become the ancient civilization that we know about today.

There's nothing on any map of the world that I know of that would say that the Sahara and Arabian regions should be desert, or shouldn't. And yet, climate conditions can cause them to fluctuate between green and brown phases that last for thousands of years, yet which change suddenly; within the course of a single generation or less.

So be very careful when you criticize fantasy settings for not presenting "realistic" maps. In reality, the systems that cause a map of our world to look like what it does are so complex that they honestly outstrip the capability of any but the most dedicated professional to understand.

The good news for fantasy fans is that that leaves plenty of room for you to design your world much as you like, and as long as you pay attention to a few basic geographical realities, you're probably OK.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Such a stunning essay !

You get A++ from me !

(By the way, you're totally right. There is way too much criterias to consider when analyzing a geographical area to spit on it after a blink and conclude that it's unrealistic !)