Atlases of Impossible Places

Middle Earth. Flatland. Narnia. Lilliput. Oz. Earthsea. These are places that don't exist except in our imaginations thanks to great writers through the ages. And yet, here's a book that not only describes those places as if they were real, but also shows maps for a number of them: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.

Manguel (History of Reading, The Library at Night) is to my mind the foremost expert on the reading experience currently living, so his compilation of places from utopian literature is a real gem. If these places can inhabit the reader's mind, are they not as real as all the places you've never visited but only read about? Isn't Hong Kong or Paris as mysterious to me as Wonderland or Treasure Island? Maybe more so, because I've read everything there is about the latter two.
As with Barlowe's Guides, there are rules to be observed here, or else the project would truly be endless. There are no heavens or hells, no places you couldn't walk to, no alien planets and nowhere in the future. And still, there are more places here than any Gulliver could ever hope to visit in a 10 lifetimes, from Borges' Library in Babel Library to Lovecraft's Arkham, going through Gondor, Merlin's Tomb and Wilde's Happy Prince City to get there. Beautiful illustrations and maps will make you believe these places have existed.
In a similar vein, Brian Stableford compiled the Dictionary of Science Fiction Places. Mostly interested in other planets from SF literature (you won't find Tatouine here), though other dimensions, advanced lab facilities and interesting space objects also get some copy. Where the book excels is in its indices (by author, work and entry) and cross-referencing (if you want to find alien artifacts like Clarke's Rama, check out Asgard, Orbitsville and the Thisledown). Where it doesn't is in the artwork. Very few maps, even for things that could be mapped, and while there are many illustrations, they're what you would expect from role-playing game rush jobs (think most of the early GURPS books).
Further, Stableford's criteria are indistinct. It's obvious it would be impossible to catalogue every place and planet in more than 100 years of science fiction, but only one entry (Ringworld) to represent Larry Niven's Known Space? (And no Dream Park, a personal favorite.) Yet there are at least three entries on Alan Dean Foster's Humanx series. More of a fun read than a complete reference work then, in which you'll find many SF gems that you'll want to read or read again. Some of the entries that strike me include Bradbury's Fire Station, Ballard's Vermillion Sands, Farmer's Riverworld, Well's Garden of the Eloi, Wolfe's Urth, Aldous Huxley's Hatchery, Harlan Ellison's Medea, and Herbert's Arrakis.

And yet, why choose Harry Harrison's Helior (from Bill the Galactic Hero), but not the alternate Earth from West of Eden? Why Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, but nothing by Olaf Stapledon? Why so many entries based on Poul Anderson's work, but so few on Isaac Asimov's? Not saying those choices are wrong, just that there's no clear process at work here.

And perhaps these kinds of books will always leave out one of your favorites. Perhaps you'll even be inspired to try to complete the project as these fine people have with the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

6 comments:

De said...

Thanks for the link. I loved the Rocky & Bullwinkle entries on that site.

Thanks to your entries on encyclopedias, I'll be adding more stuff to the "to-buy" list. I had no idea some of these existed.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, an expanded edition of the Dictionary of Imaginary Places? I have an older one. Just spent a few hours this weekend poring through it, as a matter of fact.

In what way is it expanded? More entries, or more illustrations, or both, or what?

Siskoid said...

Jon, actually, mine's not even up to date. There's a 2000 edition that's sold on Amazon among other places. I don't know about the 2000 edition, but mine has an appendix with all the new entries, so it doesn't disturb the layout of the original.

When I get home, I can check what new entries are included and report back here.

Siskoid said...

Here's the info I promised, Jon: My 1987 expanded edition includes new entries, among them:
-The Abbey from The Name of the Rose
-Dumas' Kingdom of Dolls
-Brecht's Mahagonny
-Findley's Noah's Realm
-Rimbaud's Promontory Palace
And a fair number of places from German works.

Anonymous said...

Cool, thanks!

You know, I'm not sure Middle Earth really qualifies for the supposed 'rules' they give.

Siskoid said...

The Atlas doesn't give a timeframe, and Middle Earth (and its many included components) is meant to be in Earth's part (mythological Europe, as it were). I guess it passes muster as much as, say, Atlantis.

 

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