Mapping out a world has got to be one of the toughest parts of worldbuilding. Geography shapes narratives and spawns its own. Anyone who’s played TES: III Morrowind can explain how the lay of the land turned the experience of travelling into an adventure: travelling lava canyons, climbing over mountain ridges and squinting through the ash storms coming off the slopes of Ur, the landscape spoke to you.
When I started sketching out my world years ago, I had one map in mind: Ursula LeGuin’s Archipelago. I loved the idea of an island-hopping culture and far reaches being separated by seas and oceans rather than long roads (like Tolkien’s world). The ocean was a major part of the Earthsea series, and sailing made travelling feel free, dynamic, and vivid. Sailing became a form of wizardry in itself. I wanted a world that was dominated by the ocean, so I looked at islands rather than slices or corners of continents.
But another influence on my vision of a fantasy world came from H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. The passages where the two scientist protagonists descend in the frozen, dead city of the Old Ones and begin deciphering the hieroglyphics on the walls is still the most insane, mind-bogglingly detailed fantasy histories I’ve come across, except for The Silmarillion. Lovecraft describes how the Old Ones arrived on Earth, built cities, created life forms, went through periods of upheaval, revolt, and cultural renaissance that spanned thousands of years, all while describing the forces that finally brought the Old Ones back to the sacred, terrible city in the Antarctic to die. The key to the Old Ones, as I saw it, was that they didn’t just settle on Earth, they shaped it to their own ends: they fabricated life, changed climates, cleared lands. This was a renovation on a planetary scale.
With the idea of the Old Ones creating the world according to their designs in my mind, I started looking at Buddhist mandalas and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches of the ideal city. The idea of a worlds or palaces crafted in perfect symmetry made me think about world architects and what terraforming a planet would entail. Rather than being shaped by the chaos of wind and water, what if landforms were based on geometry and giant metapatterns? What if someone could structure the tectonic plates and the volcanoes to create islands or ridges? I imagined volcanoes being raised out of the ocean and erupting in eight-pointed radial patterns like compass roses, until the resulting island could form a circle. I thought of giant underground water cave systems like sewers, supplying groundwater to different parts of a continent, and giant scaffolding shooting off from islands and weaving them together as the spaces were filled with stone and soil.
Finally, I thought of Morrowind. It’s just such a beautiful, vivid land, and it crushed me to hear it was destroyed by the events of Skyrim. But by the time you arrive in the land of Morrowind, it’s already a ruined ghost of what it was–the continent is littered with abandoned Dunmer fortresses, old overgrown routes through the Ashlands, dead Dwemer cities, and the overwhelming sense that there was a great civilization here once. But it was all gone.
I imagined my terraformed world built on the ruins of another one, where the old continents were still there but sunken to the bottom of the ocean, and the new continents, created according to the designs of humans, were clustered around the old ones like the the memorial over the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Giant, ghostly expanses of ocean would separate the new islands, with old cities and mountains just beneath the surface. In the pictures above, you can see some of the scaffolding sticking out from the islands, like steel girders, as well as shaded landmasses. Those are meant to be the sunken continents.