Google Maps of Sci-Fi

It's another installment of Entropist, a sci-fi culture column by futurist design maven Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDG BLOG. The British branch of Penguin Books recently premiered a new website called - a bit lamely - We Tell Stories. The basic idea is that six authors will tell six stories over a period of six weeks. More interesting, however, is the fact that story #1, "The 21 Steps" by Charles Cumming, was told using Google Maps. So combine this same strategy with today's urban sci-fi, add a few more cities - and you've got a way to map science fiction across the planet. Could there someday be a Google Maps of Sci-Fi?

In Charles Cumming's story, inspired by John Buchan's old novel The 39 Steps, we follow a man, watching from above, in an omniscient satellite view.

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

Someone is tracking his movements through London, as well as his trips south and north across the country. At one point, for instance, our narrator wakes up on a beach, unsure of where he is or what the date might even be.

A loose piece of newspaper came cartwheeling along the sand and wrapped itself around my legs. I picked it up and looked at the date. Two days had passed since I had arrived in Edinburgh.

The newspaper was the Evening News. So I was still in Scotland.

If the story is about a man being tracked and followed, then it is also told in a way that allows us to track and follow, clicking onward through maps of the man's experience.

But what are the possibilities for science fiction?

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

What seems immediately obvious, of course, is that the majority of the genre would be unmappable, so to speak, for no other reason than setting — the locations are all off-world or ship-bound or on the surface of some other moon, dimension, or planet. But that's exactly where part of the challenge would be.

For the moment, let's take San Francisco. You and your friends live in San Francisco and you write a whole new sequence of stories set somewhere in that peninsular city. There are trips through Chinatown and out to old, moldy houses in Outer Sunset; there are visits to gene labs and venture capital firms across the Bay; you go into empty skyscrapers at night and you find strange basements, where black machines and banks of over-heating hard drives whir quietly into the night... doing something — and that's the problem. Nobody knows, and you have to figure it out.

But then you map all this. You put your story into Google Maps, and it's like cartographically footnoting the story line.

It's not like this has never been done before, of course — but soon enough you've got a new map of your city. It's not marked by tourist sites or sites of historical importance.

It's a city re-mapped according to the science fiction that takes place within it.

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

Eventually, as a reader, you could even pick only those stories set along your morning bus route and read those, and only those, for two weeks; then move on to a different neighborhood; then add your own. You could have interactive urban texts, like something designed by area/code, growing and changing, like an urban sci-fi wiki made from aerial maps.

You move between chapters, between books - as if choosing the geography of your favorite stories might be, in and of itself, an act of publishing.

And then you notice the blind spots in the city, those spaces that, from a literary standpoint, have nothing occurring in them yet. So you write, and you add them to the map, or to any map - or you make a new map — or whatever. What's important is that this sub-genre of urban sci-fi maps continues to grow.

It extends far beyond San Francisco, then, to become a working database of every city and landscape on earth. You can spin around the planet and choose your sci-fi by geography. Going to Warsaw next month? Well, the following stories include a scene set in your hotel... Indeed, in your very hotel room. And you can add to them.

Even the poles of the planet are included, with their mysterious government research labs and their fissures of ice and their weird, conspiratorial plot lines waiting to happen. You can go into the cold with Dan Simmons, say, and track that ship's passage by satellite.

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

Or maybe all of that is a bit cheesy. Maybe that sounds too much like the origins of D&D, replayed all over again in an era of satellite mapping. Or it sounds like some bad dot-com fantasy, where handheld devices will give us access to things we've never experience before, an ability to navigate the city anew and... thus do something or other to raise a company's stock prices.

So let's pull back a bit, quickly, and restart the idea - and say: well, then, instead, let's develop a new overlay for Google Maps and populate it entirely with events from science fiction. Books, films, song lyrics.

For instance, the "unstable" streets that appear and disappear in China Miéville's short story "Reports of Certain Events in London" are suddenly available for mapping; you can follow their speculative routes, and even plan day trips around them, hiking through the nonexistent side streets of the city.

Or you go to Google Maps one day, because you're planning a trip to Japan or to San Francisco, and you click on "Satellite" view - and then on "William Gibson," a new visualization option. It's brought to you by a partnership between Putnam and Google Maps. So you click on "William Gibson" and a whole informational layer of Gibsonian detail appears. Gibson mentioned this street, and this bridge, and this hotel room - and here it is on a map for you to follow.

Within six months, you can click on "Alfred Hitchcock," "Ray Bradbury," and "H.P. Lovecraft" to see how their films and stories map out. It's the becoming-literary of Google Maps.

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

After all, you could do the same thing for TV and film - we're not limited to books.

This, you learn, is where the UFO was excavated in Quatermass and the Pit, or where the rage virus broke out in 28 Days Later, or where Dracula's tomb was supposedly found in the absurd film Blade: Trinity.

The Google Maps Guide to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Google Maps Guide to the Fiction of J.G. Ballard.

In fact, I'm reminded of those awesome world maps from Judge Dredd.

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

Now, though, the idea is that we'd key all that stuff into Google Maps, or into Google Earth, or into whatever, and we'd add some more details - and, soon enough, you could find, say, the offshore prison from John Woo's Face/Off, perfectly located right there on the map. Or you can zoom in and follow the future four-part division of England in Rupert Thomson's under-appreciated novel Divided Kingdom. Or, for that matter, you could even map out the house and it surrounding landscape from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It doesn't matter what you map, in other words; what matters is simply that we explore, even just casually, the literary/sci-fi potential of online mapping. Why? Because it sounds fun. And if you don't think it sounds fun, don't do it.

Google Maps of Sci-FiS

But everyone loves maps. How else could they get away with publishing things like The Maps of Tolkien's Middle Earth or even The Atlas of Middle Earth? Because people like maps.

Or how about dashboard navigation systems in cars? Here, Tor Books could team up with Cadillac to give you a brand new driving experience: you're in New York, driving a Cadillac, and so you hit the "Urban Sci-Fi" navigational option on the dashboard screen - and you immediately find yourself driving through the futuristic literature of New York, with key sites mapped or flagged. It's science fiction as a new template for urban tourism. You're following the action of I Am Legend, or tracing out the flood line and tidal wave from The Day After Tomorrow.

In other words, let's do for science fiction what those maps do for J.R.R. Tolkien.

Let's develop Google Maps of Sci-Fi.