Kage Baker was fascinated by maps. She could read them well, too, which is not a universal skill by any means. Our cars were always crammed with maps of wherever we were traveling at any given time, and she could navigate us anywhere in California and most adjoining states with them. (And often had to.) When our VW bus caught fire one memorable morning, Kage almost forgot her purse, scrambling out – but she got the maps.
Online computer maps gave her even more room to roam, but she was always looking for older maps, more detailed maps. The advent of Google Earth was a gift from the gods for her: not just maps, but actual landscape! She spent so much time flying gleefully over miles and miles of virtual geography that she got motion sick. Nonetheless, she spent hours absorbing hawk’s eye views of the empty lands beyond the edges of the roads she knew, following stream beds and canyons and game trails until she threw up and had to lie down.
She always wanted to know the areas she wrote about. On the one hand, it’s why so many stories were set in California: this was her natural habitat. When she needed to set something somewhere else, she gathered descriptions and made that part of her habitat as well. She set out to learn what that place was like at street level. I think she could have been set down in any London for the past 500 years, and at least found her way to the Tower, the Thames, and the walls of the Old City. Probably some pubs, too.
On the other hand, setting a story someplace she didn’t yet know gave her an excuse to explore it. She’d set a story in the Amazon Basin or Bohemia, and then collect pertinent material like a squirrel with OCD. “I need this series of 1743 hunting maps,” she would declare, “someone has to find a wounded aurochs.” “In 1743?” I would wonder. “Yeah, that’s the point!”
When we traveled, Kage narrated the pasts of the places we went. She’d point at buildings as we drove or strolled, and recount what had happened there 50, 100, 500 years agone. She’d describe former facades and landscaping. Just as often, she would describe what would be there, in her imagined future time, describing what would rise where now there was an empty lot or a Popeye’s Chicken. I often thought she didn’t know or care what it looked like in the here and now: she was always seeing somewhen else. She walked unconcernedly through things that no longer existed and had yet to be born, and gave me a running travelogue as she did it. I sometimes worried she’d miss the turn back to Now. Or step off the curb in San Diego and get run over by a hackney cab in London.
The maps in her mind ran right off the edge of the world. What lay beyond, though, was not blank white space with warnings about the livestock. It became inhabited; roads and cities grew up and lived wherever she turned her speculative gaze.
I’m on a permanent road trip through Kage’s mind, now. The road signs are very clear, although the road itself disappears now again under drifts of sand, or rose petals, or feathers. Up ahead, the road through Pismo Beach turns into Torquay and heads inland through the grain fields at the heart of another continent … I think I’ll stop in Troon tonight, for a sandwich and a beer.
Tomorrow: Edges of Things