Dubious Islands

Kage Baker loved the anomalies on maps.

She loved maps in general because she liked verification of where she was – she already knew, usually, because she was one of those people with a compass in their heads. But she enjoyed seeing it down in black and white; or, better still, attractive colours and a sidebar with Places of Interest to check out. We kept slews of maps in the car, sometimes for places we actually went but just as often for places that simply interested Kage.

Of course, on really old maps, half the fun is the embellishment by cartographers uncertain of where the Edge of the World was. Kage was fond of a print she had that actually showed a seacoast for Bohemia; it conflated a curve of a river into a wildly displaced bay of the Baltic Sea. She liked maps that gave strange place names, like identifying Buttonwillow in Kern County as the much more poetic “Bitter Willow”.  And she simply adored all the classic antique maps that showed strange seas never sailed by a competent sailor, studded with sea monsters and dubious islands.

“Dubious islands”! Those were the best all the peculiar destinations illuminated by confused mapmakers. They show up a lot in logs and journey accounts, too; those mysterious islands that are seen over and over and even occasionally landed upon – but can never be located when anyone is deliberately searching for them. Sometimes they are giant turtles or basking fish; sometimes they are faerie realms drifting like enormous frigates on mortal seas. But they all come and go at will, and they fascinated Kage.

The Isles of Avalon, Apples and Glass, which are reputed to drift like swans all over the coast and landscape of England. Islands in the Indian Ocean, that are docile until you build a fire on their backs – then they dive and drown intrepid Arabian sailors. As late as the 20th century there was Crocker Land, which was a vast land rich in fjords and mountains, repeatedly sighted by Arctic explorers from the coast of Ellesmere Island: that one, despite many maps drawn at a distance, turned out to be clouds banks over the Arctic Ocean. The Inuit knew that. The Europeans would not listen.

The myth and wonder of dubious islands show up in the Company stories, of course. All sorts of Company installations are built on those lands that may or may not be real; as long as the Company could get there early enough to obscure the issue (and the coast), they stay mysteries and can used for all sorts of things: Alpha and Omega, the ultimate seed bank. Resorts. Punitive Medicine … and, of course, one of the dubious islands is where Kage put Mendoza and her trio of Very Tall Englishmen, to pursue their eventual happy ending.

Catalina was her very  favourite Dubious Island of all. And believe me, Dear Readers, it is an odd one – all the more odd because you can go there and walk around and drink far too many mai tais; and still not know exactly where you’ve been.  I still have the series of maps she collected from the past century and more, paradoxically showing less and less of the Island’s interior. And I know where the missing roads go, to which hidden mine adits and not-quite-inaccessible valleys on the seaward side – because we explored them all  on foot, when we were young and limber and no one knew or cared where we were. Kage used to hope we’d get collected by the Company, but … sigh. It never happened.

However, dubious islands can still be found and wondered over in delight. The most recent ones are not even on the Earth, but on Saturn’s moon Titan. See here: goo.gl/p33w7Y

In the exotic lakes of Titan, islands have been sighted rising and falling, coming and going. They might be artifacts of the photos beamed back across 870 million miles; they might be due to a pigeon sunning itself in a satellite dish at JPL. They might be huge bubbles of nitrogen in the dark ethanol lakes. Or they might indeed be giant fish, surfacing to sport in the variegated light of Saturn’s rings, flaunting their strange tails at us across the void …

No way of knowing yet. But Kage would love the idea. She went joyously ballistic when the Huygens probe showed us the unmistakable shoreline of Titanian seas – she’d be dancing with glee over dubious islands amid the oxygen rocks of the highlands, frosted with icy methane …

Kage always was an island girl.


About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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