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Alex Acks

Tolkien’s Map and the Perplexing River Systems of Middle-earth

Remember when I said that the map of Middle-earth had 99 problems and mountains were 98 of them? Well, it’s time to talk about that one remaining problem: rivers. I’ll mostly be talking about the Anduin here, since it’s the most major river on the map.

But first: why do I keep coming back to Tolkien? There are a few reasons. Just as Tolkien’s novels have had a massive influence on epic fantasy as a genre, his map is the bad fantasy map that launched a thousand bad fantasy maps—many of which lack even his mythological fig leaf to explain the really eyebrow-raising geography. The things that make me cringe about the geography of Middle-earth are still echoing in the ways we imagine and construct fantasy worlds today.

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Tolkien’s Map and The Messed Up Mountains of Middle-earth

We’ve got to talk about Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth. The man might have made up some beautiful languages and written stories that generations of writers have responded to in ways ranging from homage to bad photocopy, but I’m going to guess he was no connoisseur of geography.

Even at an early age, I thought the map of Middle-earth looked a little… odd. With my years of geological education and work experience, now it seems more like a geographical car wreck from which I can’t quite look away. (This is what happens when you spend a lot of student loan dollars on graduate school.)

Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them.

[“He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away…”]

What the World of The Hunger Games Teaches Us About Global Warming

Rising sea levels and disappearing ice caps have been a staple of science fiction futures ever since the first alarm bells were sounded that an ice-free earth was a possibility, no matter what culprit is left holding the smoking gun. (Though at this point, the science is long since in: climate change is happening, and the main cause is human activity.) We’ve seen these watery worlds depicted many times, particularly in film, with varying degrees of success—Waterworld springs immediately to mind. There’s such massive visual appeal to the image of once-great cities like New York inundated by the rising tides; skyscrapers become a new sort of submarine canyon for the divers of the future to explore.

And more recently, we’ve seen the US truncated from both directions by the Atlantic and Pacific in The Hunger Games. We don’t know a whole lot about what changed the shape of North America to give us Panem, other than the fact that the sea level rose to an unknown degree, and there was some sort of cataclysmic war.

[I am here, I confess, to rain on that parade…]

Arrakis, Tatooine, and the Science of Desert Planets

“A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts… The planet is Arrakis. Also known as Dune.” – Princess Irulan, Dune 

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy almost as long as I’ve been able to read, and I’m normally very good at suspending my disbelief. Unfortunately, seven years of university schooling and two degrees have now placed some suspension limits on certain areas—namely geology, landforms, and maps. I tend to notice little things like mountain ranges having ninety degree corners or rivers that flow uphill or maps that don’t have a scale bar.

So I want to talk about some things, which on-a-geological-scale are very small details that make me tilt my head like a dog hearing a high-pitched noise. Not because I hate, but because there is no more honorable nerd past-time than dismantling something we love into its finest details, ruminating endlessly on the bark of a single tree while there’s an entire forest planet surrounding us.

[Let’s talk about single-environment planets.]

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