A map of the Kalqaiki Islands that shows the extreme differences between high and low tides.

I’ve worked from maps for science fiction stories since I was in my mid- to late teens. According to writers on the Early Internet, a good map grounded a science fiction world in reliable possibilities.

There was a lot about geology I didn’t know, though, until I became a geology librarian and started going to geosciences colloquia and talks. As an English major, astro minor, who graduated about 10 years ago (technically, my job is to liaise to the astro, geo, and physics departments, and geo at the uni includes paleontology), the only geosciences class I had was planetary science. As an elective senior year, I took a course on natural disasters.

Planetary science had taught me the signs of water on Mars and the types of terrain common on planets. On Ameisa, for example, the region called the Canyons is actually chaos terrain, and it’s the oldest rock on the planet — the chaos terrain extends even beyond the shores of Narahja to the islands of Nasja, which are the peaks and plateaus of the terrain as it tapers off towards the other continents.

What I did not integrate into my maps at the time was an understanding of wet and dry zones in rotating planets — which I learned about in a geo colloquium about three years ago — but that ship has sailed on Ameisa, so to speak. One of the reasons global warming on Earth is causing changes in rain patterns is that the equator is wet, an area beyond the equator in both directions is dry, and then it becomes wet on towards the temperate zones and the poles. The equatorial wet zone and the dry bands that follow them in the northern and southern hemispheres grow wider as a planet warms, according to many scientists who study such things. There is very little desert on Ameisa, even in the zones that are typically dry. On the map below, Bisa, Marzū, and Qapwā are equatorial desert due to an ecological catastrophe.

The other thing I didn’t integrate was the impact of Ameisa being one part of a binary planet system, which would make it highly tectonically active due to tidal heating from Laseå. I just didn’t want to deal with earthquakes.

What I ended up doing on Ameisa was making broad areas of the landscape nigh uninhabitable due to earthquake zones and megatsunamis. The entire east coast of the Shēdak is uninhabitable — there’s a mountain range along the coast constantly pummeled by tsunamis — and most people in Qawākam live inland on its big island. I also looked at innovators and engineers on Earth who were designing tsunami-proof buildings for those societies that do live in tsunami zones.

The planet Ameisa, with some light annotations about political units (countries).
Ameisa. You can tell I set a lot of stories here by the degree to which I provide political/logistical annotations. I have other maps of Ameisa with more clutter on them.
Laseå, the other planet in the binary system.
Laseå. I don’t set very many stories here, and this is my only map of the world. (Except I have a Draft 1 of this one.)

Meditations on binary planet system dynamics led to Kalqaiki, now uninhabited for millennia. (Context: My Aeon Timeline goes on for ~35,000 years.) At one point in the distant past, a bunch of rich people found this island range and decided to turn it into a recreational/resort playground. It was Ameisa’s first spacefaring age, the wealthy were egregiously out of touch with the masses, and they left a lot of infrastructure on the island range to deal with the inconvenient earthquakes and tsunamis.

The people who lived on Kalqaiki for generations after the fall of that civilization were the descendants of the voluntary and indentured staff who set up their lives on these islands. Kalqaiki was also the only place on Ameisa with a plant that could be ground to make legit blue pigments. It grows in the intertidal marshes there, and for a long time, the plant was not grown anywhere else.

There is no word for blue in most of my conlangs; I almost always use the word opaque or some variant because blue eyes, the sky, and the sea are all illusions of color. For darker blues, much of the time I write the words purple or indigo, we’re actually talking about dark blue and navy — color words occupy a different semantic space in my work than they do in traditional English usage. Of course, purple and indigo just as often mean colors we assign to the semantic space of purple and indigo, too.

A map of the Kalqaiki Islands that shows the extreme differences between high and low tides.
Kalqaiki islands. The part still above water during high tide is the part that was once inhabited, now in ruins.

The map above is rough — a story doodle of the islands. Kalq- is a prefix that loosely translates to all in the conlang, which I added to the map after doing a bit of linguistic work on the three languages spoken on the islands. The conlang includes a phrasebook section with sentences like:

  • Ude nimdarmo ði xixto dið nuaxe. The earthquake forecast today is bad. Lit., Forecast with respect to earthquakes at today bad.
  • To amu zi, muðpaiðo sis etpu ðai? Is a tsunami coming? Lit., Yes or no, directionally here me-wards comes tsunami?
  • Emo nuaxe dið mebo? What is the strength of the earthquake?
  • Podel pilo tal nimnuaxe. The earthquake is a 9.4.

One of the things I have to account for in Laseå-Ameisa is the massive difference between high and low tide — the kilometers of saltwater marshes and their impact on trade routes, plus what features in the landscape make for a good harbor when the difference between high and low tide is so vast. On my major continent maps, cities are inland on the waterways; most rivers show tidal features for a ways inland.

All in all, I agree with the idea that maps are important — but I think that especially for settings that are not a direct Earth-Moon system clone —— such as binary planet systems, Trojan worlds, and the like —— it’s important to recognize the gaps in one’s knowledge and seek to get a good enough (not perfect) grasp of how things like basic geology impact the daily lives of people. One can go to talks, read some good books/audiobooks, or even look around on the arXiv at preprints on exoplanets to see how scientists think about these very different worlds. And then the maps, conlangs, and stories will just get even more fun.