A work of wonder about exploration, knowledge and the all-too-human desire for discovery.
Rooted in a love for old maps and old books, Malachy Tallack’s The Un-Discovered Islands is a work of wonder about exploration, knowledge and the all-too-human desire for discovery. This slim volume, beautifully illustrated by Katie Scott, ends far too soon.
The book plunges readers into myths, sailors’ rumors and intentionally falsified testimonies to find 24 fake islands that have cropped up on maps over the years. Tallack frequently notes that this only a small sample of the hundreds of imaginary islands; his selections come from around the world and several different centuries, providing a good overview of the human need for an unknown “out there.” He could have had a section on screen cultural fictional islands, utilizing texts like the TV show “Lost” or the King Kong film canon, but otherwise the list feels thorough. Brief vignettes offer readers a glimpse into the history of each “island” and the ways in which its existence was debunked. This is as much a cultural and intellectual history as it is a playful geographical exploration of the imagination.
Tallack mainly traffics in nostalgia of two sorts: The first and less interesting sort is a paean for the romance of analog technologies of knowledge (maps and books) and the limits they place on knowing. One cannot know everything about a subject from a single map or book, leaving the sort of still-open-question result that is being erased by the internet, where single-sitting deep dives can conjure a much more complete picture.
The second and more truly meaningful sort of nostalgia is more ineffable. Tallack demonstrates that Earth-circling satellites—which provide an unimpeachable map of the planet—have resulted in the loss of the primordial human practice of inventing an unknown island far out at sea, an island upon which humans could posit any number of properties. For millennia, seaside societies relied on such fanciful atolls for myths of good and evil or of punishment and renewal. With their disappearance goes some of the magic from the world. Our technology of knowledge has transformed us and modified what it means to be human, and made us creatures of empiricism to an extreme degree.
In conclusion, Tallack offers a short, convincing lamentation for what we have lost by gaining an absolute and thorough world map. Unsurprisingly, the author himself is an islander from the edge of the world (the Scottish Shetlands) and his sense of loss is genuine. But he fails to consider that the possibility for human beings to imbue some unexplored terrestrial space with special meaning is not lost. Had he grown up land-locked on North America, he would understand that satellites and topographical maps cannot quite capture mountains, forests, caves and wetlands. In the cloud forests of Brazil, Borneo or Tennessee, for instance, there are still populations that assign magical or spiritual forces to certain sacred areas of their territory which remain for them unmapped and unknown — even unmappable and unknowable. Danger and damnation, utopia and salvation—any of these may lurk in the next shady vale, overgrown meadow or sodden glade. This is no criticism, but rather praise: The author’s thesis may be more universal than even he realizes.
The Un-Discovered Islands belongs in conversation with a very different meditation on the linkages between mapping, knowledge and imagination. Just as humans have seemingly always created mythical enclaves on our maps as metaphors for what a given society finds valuable and worthwhile, so have we always also deliberately removed areas from maps to obfuscate knowing. Deliberately blank spots on maps generally result from nefarious intentions, such as hiding from map-readers the presence of a military installation or prison camp. Such research has been done by the geographer Trevor Paglen. Placing Paglen’s work in conversation with Tallack’s supports the old thesis that knowledge is, in fact, power. Premodern humans pretended to have knowledge they did not, positing fake islands in the distant oceans as a way of exercising power in their society; postmodern humans do the same in reverse, erasing all knowledge of a thoroughly known place to obscure some awful deed as a way of asserting authority.