Does a map help?

One of the research projects at the Alan Turing Institute (the UK’s new national institute for data science and artificial intelligence) is looking at ‘Mapping fictional worlds – creating immersive 3D maps from literary texts to advance understanding and interpretation of literature in entirely new ways’.

The tech under development will be able to generate 3D worlds autonomously, picking up on place names and descriptions used in the texts. While rooted in Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the ‘chronotope’ – providing some academic backbone and justification – the work is mostly being directed at engaging reluctant young readers. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Michael Morpurgo’s Kenzuke’s Kingdom have been built with the Minecraft app as part of a project known as ‘Litcraft’. Minecraft is already home to giant virtual worlds based on George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, as well as any number of Hogwarts castles and Panem cities, but this is more serious-minded. Explorable worlds from Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest – even Dante’s Inferno – are planned.

Powysland is anything but mappable. John Cowper Powys’s novels don’t form anything like a fictional ‘universe’ – unlike Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or even brother Theodore’s sprinkling of villages in the Purbeck hills. No-one would ever expect Wolf Solent to turn up doing his ‘marketing’ in Maiden Castle’s Dorchester. And in themselves they purposely resist reduction to a single physical and psychological reality. He’s insisting on the essential reality of imagination, the imagination of each one of us, in creating and re-creating what the world actually is. 

Weymouth Sands demonstrates this idea best: a novel based on rich childhood memories of a single location, a small town and its bay. For all the regular re-iteration of landmarks, the places made familiar and frowzy, Weymouth remains intangible, a phantasm. Memories, ghosts, the psychological dramas of the characters hover and drift over the coast, but Weymouth as a physical entity seems hardly there at all.

(Having said all this, who wouldn’t be curious about the results from running Porius through the chronotope machine?)

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