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As a fantasy author, I’m occasionally required to put on a cartographer’s hat and sketch out a map of the world I’m creating. This helps me with continuity of distances between kingdoms, how long treks/flights should last, relative temperatures during various seasons etc. The current fantasy world I’m working on is a duplicate earth, a parallel world, and to give you an idea of how I was planning it, here is an early map I created:

FlorentiaI’m writing new scenes at the moment where my protagonist Dan, who comes from our world, has just entered a palace that has a mosaic on the floor detailing the continents on this new world he’s entered. It looks a bit like this:

European segment of the "Jewel of the Universe" mosaic by Chris Chamberlain

European segment of the “Jewel of the Universe” mosaic by Chris Chamberlain

Our boy Dan immediately recognizes Europe and realizes he’s on a parallel world, but it’s his next insight that changes everything. He has knowledge of geography, climate, mining history and food production from our world that might also pertain to this one. That moment of recognition changes the balance of power between himself and the prince who wants him dead, and alters the trajectory of the story.

With that pivotal moment plotted in, I really didn’t need to do much more on the subject, but I couldn’t help myself wondering how the people of that parallel world would feel when they realized that what they’d believed about the size and shape of their world was incorrect. They didn’t have satellite mapping or sophisticated cartography, so they couldn’t be expected to have pinpoint accuracy. But we did. And that confidence in our own technology led me to do a bit of research into our latest maps to appease my curiosity and see the shape of our world as accurately as we were now able to show it.

That, friends, is when I opened a can of worms. In case you’ve missed it on Facebook and Twitter (I had) there’s a huge controversy ongoing about the maps we use in atlases and how inaccurate they are from a land-mass perspective. Apparently most textbooks still use the Mercator projection map which was created in 1569 to help sailors navigate from landmass to landmass along a straight line. The continents were deliberately skewed in size to translate a 3D globe onto a 2D map and keep the maritime routes straight. Landmasses at the top and bottom of the map were expanded to allow it to sit flat, and the landmasses in the ‘middle’ of the earth were shrunk proportionally to keep everything neat! What this has eventuated in (and incredibly is still being taught in geography) is a world view that shows some landmasses as being up to fourteen times larger than they actually are!

Let’s compare. The first map I’m going to show is a typical current version of the 1569 Mercator with skewed landmass size. The bottom map is the 1973 Peters map that corrects the landmass sizes and actual position on the earth:

Textbook World MapPeters World MapCan you believe that? Let me sit these babies side by side so you can really get the full impact of how totally incorrect our world view has been for almost 500 years:

Textbook World MapPeters World Map

The white patch on the Mercator projection map (left) is Greenland, and it looks almost as big as Africa. When in fact, Greenland is 14 times smaller than Africa! South America is actually double the size of Europe, not smaller. And while Alaska appears to be three times the size of Mexico in the Mercator map, in reality Mexico is the larger landmass.

Apparently this was ‘outed’ in an episode of West Wing in Feb 2001, and if you’d like to see the section of that episode pertaining to the maps, it’s here:

Honestly, this was the last thing I’d expected to uncover, and it’s now making me wonder if the guys on my fantasy world actually have a more accurate map of their world than we do. That would be a surprise to my poor protagonist. Clearly I have some more thinking to do on the topic!

I’m passionate about perspective and looking at the world in a new way, but this has really thrown me. What do you guys think about this? Does it change anything for you?