Geographies of the Imagination

by John Holbo on December 20, 2005

Some time ago Tim Burke posted, requesting help expanding a ‘trope’ list for an ‘Images of Africa’ course. Here’s a sample, which gives you an idea what he’s looking for:

1) Hidden city/lost civilization deep in the jungle. Often civilization of whites or non-Africans.

2) Missionary/explorer in a cannibal cooking pot; general tropes of cannibalism.

3)  Mysterious ritual that turns out to have been marriage to chief’s daughter

4)  Superstitious bearer/guide

5)  Evil witchdoctor

6)  White man “gone native”/Tarzan figure

7)  Kurtz-style descent into madness …

And so on. I couldn’t think of anything to add at the time, now I’ve got one. One of the most salient images of Africa, in popular imagination is precisely the lack of any accurate image of African geography/political order, acting as a check on the literary imagination (broadly conceived so as to include all aesthetic/artistic/fictional representations.)

By contrast, you can’t just invent some fictional new state in the Midwest: Oklaharkanas, or Arizode Island, ruled by a ruthless Governor/drug lord. Of course, in fiction there is always allowance, in any locale, for some invention – a sliding scale of geographic plasticity. You can invent a small English town, or a small American city. But you can’t invent even a neighborhood of LA or New York (or London?) that doesn’t really exist. You can invent a street in Manhattan. (Then again, there’s that scene in Bullit in which Steve McQ goes up Russian hill (was it?) and comes down in a totally different part of SF. That’s OK.)  The general rule is: there is some threshold of presumptive clear and distinct awareness of the actual facts, and you stay below the radar of that line. In Africa, the radar is totally broken: anything goes. New rivers, governments unlike anything that exists, Whole landlocked nations moved to the coast for the occasion.

As General Zateb Kazim put it in Sahara: "Don’t worry. It’s Africa. Nobody cares about Africa."

It’s that sweet spot of not caring, plus being fascinated by, that produces nigh infinite space for total fabulation. Call it: brain of darkness, meet heart of darkness.

The occasion for this meditation is the fact that everyone around the house is watching Sahara the last couple days. I’ve only managed to catch about 30 minutes, between bouts of chasing the kids around and etc. I won’t go into all the problems with space and time, politics, etc. But speaking of ‘geographies of the imagination’ – and continuing my ongoing, occasional series of meditations on Amazon’s expanding features – I see you can now access lists of ‘keywords’ , which function collectively as something between an epic haiku and a plot summary. For Sahara they are:

Boat Chase | Flashback Sequence | Handcuffs | Cave Painting | Boat Ride | Coin | Warlord | Exploding Helicopter | Nigeria | Flare Gun | Camel Ride | Solar Power | Lighthouse | Vintage Car | Fall From Height | Contamination | Train | Based On Novel | American Civil War | Camel | Exploding Boat | Helicopter | Action Hero | Admiral | Africa | AK 47 | Bomb | Cannon | Central Intelligence Agency | Doctor | Dynamite | Embassy | Execution | Explosion | Gold | Gun | Machine Gun | Nuclear Waste | Pistol | Scuba Diving | Ship | Shot In The Chest | Toxic Waste | Treasure Hunt | Treasure | Well | Compassion | Honor | Martial Arts | Responsibility | Tyrant | Corporate Crime

The neat thing is that each word is also a link to all other films containing, for example, exploding boats. (I had totally forgotten that Return to Savage Beach had an exploding boat in it. My attention must have been focused on something else.) So there is a sort of emergent filmic geographic imaginary of exploding boats. If you will. This could actually be a research tool, for certain purposes. For example, Burke could check out all the movies about lost civilizations.

Oh wait. It turns out Amazon is piggybacking off some imdb thing. See this page for all correlations between exploding boats and other tropes – like exploding helicopters, falling from heights, boy girl relationships, crossword puzzles and such. (It’s enough to make Borges blush, honestly.)

I’m wandering all over the geography of the imagination here. Getting back on course, of course you can freely invent countries not just in Africa but in central Asia – ‘-istan’ is freely available for neogeologism; likewise Eastern Europe is fair game, courtesy of ‘-eria’ and ‘ania’. Inventing new countries on coasts is harder than inland (except for islands); and you can’t haul off and put some new country between France and Denmark. Western Europe is off-limits. South and Central America are somewhat less settled than North America and Europe, but more settled than Africa and Asia? The Middle-East? Not sure. (Space? Our solar system shouldn’t just get a new planet we’ve never heard of, unless the plot is that the new planet has just been discovered. Out past Alpha Centauri everything is fair game. In between: unclear.)

What are your examples of geographically absurd fabulations, rendering a work irritating or campily amusing?

My favorite example is one I posted about a long time ago, Jules Verne’s Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum. I read it while I was teaching myself French in grad school. I see it’s just been retranslated in English as The Begum’s Millions. Here’s the plot summary.

Originally and inexpertly translated in 1879, Verne’s cautionary tale concerns human failings in the face of both wealth and scientific progress. Instead of valorizing progress like most Verne novels, this one presents contested definitions of the utopian impulse to reform human nature. Two scientists, the benevolent, modest Frenchman, Dr. Sarrasin, and the egotistical German, Herr Schultze, find that they share a large inheritance, five million francs, left by a French ancestor who married East-Indian royalty. They use the money to realize two "utopian" cities in the American Northwest. Verne carefully presents the hygienic, peaceful, rational city France-Ville of Dr. Sarrasin as a haven for enlightened, cooperative citizens, in contrast to the City of Steel, the industrialized hell of Herr Schultze. With the City of Steel’s resources, the German plots the destruction of France-Ville as his first act in ensuring the subjugation of all inferior, non-Saxon races. Since the work is full of racial and personal stereotypes, long paragraphs explaining technological, social and scientific projects, unmediated by Verne’s usual humor or adventure plots, it will appeal most to the literary completist.

Emphasis definitely on that last clause. (Also, it’s obviously 500 million, not 5 million. Even I can read French that well.) It’s a nice demonstration that geography is relative, of course. To the 19th Century French, Oregon was as conceptually pastic as Africa is to the average American.

As I wrote before, it’s the only novel of the Oregon experience utterly innocent of experience of Oregon. France-Ville is almost exactly where Eugene, OR is – where I grew up. The City of Steel is either in Idaho or Eastern Oregon, across the Cascades. It is most peculiar to imagine the second half of the 19th Century, in the Pacific Northwest, as a fight to the death between French hygienists and Teutonic builders of incredibly long-barreled guns.

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Much Too Much - Saddle Up!
12.22.05 at 1:56 am



lemuel pitkin 12.20.05 at 12:02 pm

You can invent a street in Manhattan.

I think you mean can’t — at least south of 96th street.


Daniel 12.20.05 at 12:12 pm

It’s been noted a few times in Nationalist circles that if you’re an English author wanting to set something in Wales there is really no need to reach out for an Ordnance Survey map; just start with “Llan” and chuck a few unordered consonants down and you’ve got a village name.


Daniel 12.20.05 at 12:16 pm

also, isn’t there a whole subgenre of nineteenth century European opera, of which “Lucia di Lammermoor” is the tip of the iceberg, which is based on a Romantic view of Scottish clan life which is rather more colourful than the reality?


Brock 12.20.05 at 12:18 pm

In one of the “Alfred Hitchcock and Three Investigators” books (boys’ mysteries – like Hardy Boys but better), Mystery of the Silver Spider, the author fabricates a fictional European monarchy, “Varania.”


Dan Hunter 12.20.05 at 12:21 pm

For “conceptually pastic as Africa ” read “conceptually plastic as Africa”


M. Gordon 12.20.05 at 12:30 pm

Western Europe is off-limits.

What about The Mouse that Roared? I suppose as long as the country is small enough, and you have Peter Sellers in your movie, you can even muck with western Europe.


Kieran Healy 12.20.05 at 12:32 pm

Consistent with the thesis, it’s possible to invent towns or villages in Ireland, courtest of the prefix Bally- (i.e., the Irish _Baile_, town, related to “Bailey” I think). Then again, didn’t David Lodge repurpose Birmingham as “Rummidge” and invent the State of Euphoria in between Northern and Southern California?


Richard Bellamy 12.20.05 at 12:33 pm

By contrast, you can’t just invent some fictional new state in the Midwest: Oklaharkanas, or Arizode Island, ruled by a ruthless Governor/drug lord.

What state was Gov. Gatling the governor of in Benson? I think it was either fictional or undefined.


harry b 12.20.05 at 12:36 pm

Western Europe: Nina Bawden does it in Rebel on the Rock (the sequel to Carrie’s War); Antonia Fraser in one of her mysteries (I forget which one, they all kind of meld together) Reginald Hill does it in a couple of his books under the name Patrick Ruell, and I’m pretty certain Peter Dickinson does it in The Seventh Raven. Not uncommon at all in the seventies and eighties, really.


Richard Bellamy 12.20.05 at 12:39 pm

Duck Soup is, if I recall correctly, set in the fictional Anglophone monarchy of Fredonia.


Chris Bertram 12.20.05 at 12:43 pm

Daniel has already introduced Donizetti to the discussion. Tip of the iceberg is right. Emilia di Liverpool is set in the mountains of Liverpool!


John Emerson 12.20.05 at 12:45 pm

Chateaubriand’s Atala and Rene is set in an imaginary Florida — I remember a hilarious passage when the narrator was describing the crocodiles howling at the sunset. My bet is that Rimbaud’s line “J’ai heurté, savez-vous, d’incroyables Florides
Mêlant aux fleurs des yeux de panthères à peaux
D’hommes !” (Bateau Ivre) traces back to Chateaubriand.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a non-imaginary pre-Plains-of-Abraham map which shows my home state of Minnesota as part of Louisiana, bordering on Quebec.

Daniel — The most famous such town in Wales is Llareggub, right?


Timothy Burke 12.20.05 at 12:47 pm

Cool. Interesting point, I hadn’t really thought of this particular issue.

Like some other commenters, I can think of exceptions. In the height of the Cold War, lots of popular entertainments would offer generic fictional Eastern European countries to substitute for real ones, for example. Herge actually reversed the pattern you note: the real Belgian Congo, a fake Europe.

I think closer to the mark is to say that places which typicall are the subject of anthropological inquiry can just be made up; places which are the subject of sociological inquiry are subject to demands for versilimitude in popular entertainments. This makes Africa particularly prone to geographic fabulism, but not uniquely so.

Or you could just study this in terms of comic books. Gotham City and Wakanda are both geographical fictions. Gotham sort of invokes New York, even down to its name; but so does Metropolis. (Though try watching the more recent WB Batman cartoons: Gotham City has desert mesas and jungle islands apparently within five minutes of its outer suburbs, popular adventure being what it is in terms of the genre requirements for settings). But Wakanda’s fiction is a major order removed from the referentiality of Gotham’s. Wakanda resembles no African place, just an Africa of the imagination, though more recent Black Panther stories essentially interpenetrate Merrie Olde Africa with Africa Land of Dictators.

Much of this comes down to what audiences already know, and what they’re prepared to be persuaded they might come to know instead. So many readers can make the move easily from generic imagined Africas that come straight out of Tarzan to the fairly specific and “realistic” Africa of Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency and probably recognize that the latter feels “right” in some respect. But offer to an American audience a fiction of place that’s about somewhere they know or think they know that simply feels flatly wrong–a New England fishing town full of flashy Hollywood types, Southern crackers and hardworking Mexican farm laborers and they’ll probably just curl their noses unless that “offness” is a deliberate conceit of the fiction in question for some plausible reason.


Arthur Davidson Ficke 12.20.05 at 12:51 pm


FMguru 12.20.05 at 1:02 pm

Superhero comics do it pretty well. Whole invented nations (Wakanda’s been mentioned, but there’s also Dr. Doom’s Eastern European monarchy of Latveria and the mutant-dominated island state of Genosha, while DC has the unstable Middle Eastern nation of Qurac and the Latin American drug hub of Santa Prisca) and imaginary cities (Metropolis and Gotham City are the most famous – light and dark versions of New York City – but there’s also Coast City, Keystone City, Opal City, etc.).

The Simpsons’ home town of Springfield deserves a mention, if only for making its everywhere-yet-nowhere status part of a running joke in the show itself (the state’s capital is called “Capital City”, the state’s motto is “Not Just Another State”, and so on.)


Andrew 12.20.05 at 1:06 pm

Western Europe: Genovia, from “The Princess Diaries.”

Middle East: Qumar, from “The West Wing.”

Latin America: San Pasquale, from “Commander-in-Chief.”

Then there are those parody travel guides to “Molvania” and “Phaic Tan”…


Shelby 12.20.05 at 1:07 pm

you can’t just invent some fictional new state in the Midwest

No, you have to do it in the West instead. And Michener actually makes it work pretty well.

Regarding The Mouse That Roared, was it OK before they turned the book into a movie, or did Peter Sellers jsutify it retroactively?


Mr. Bill 12.20.05 at 1:08 pm

This makes me think of Kurt Weil’s fantasy ‘Mahagonny’ somewhere in the wilds of ‘Alabama'(he was apparently enamoured of the name ‘alabama, no clue if he ever saw my native state, but surely it didn’t meet his expectations), as well as the geography of his “Seven Deadly Sins” with Louisiana as the pure ur-state, and each of the cities the two Annas visit representing a sin…
This before he had ever seen the US, and in “Seven Deadly Sins” while waiting to gain admission to the US..


dillyberto 12.20.05 at 1:25 pm

Relaxing the other evening after dinner, I heard the end of Family Feud coming on. You know, the part with the rapid fire questions. The contestant was asked for a country where spanish is spoken. He replied Europe. His family thought this would be a great answer. Geography is an alien science in America.

This blog is surely too confusing for me and the rest of our populace.


John Kozak 12.20.05 at 1:34 pm

Pabst’s film of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” has a scene set in the docks of Soho.


Ken C. 12.20.05 at 1:35 pm

Eugene, Oregon? Isn’t that down the road from Marathon, Cascadia?

Is there a plot keyword for “jumps out of airplane without parachute, hoping to catch one on the way down”? I could make do with “skydiving”, but….


garymar 12.20.05 at 1:38 pm

What about Kafka’s Amerika? I can barely remember the plot, but it was full of bizarre characters and events from out of Kafka’s imagination with almost no connection to anything in the real America. I had no trouble with it — “Amerika” was simply the place-holder for the name of this interesting kingdom he was describing.


Dustin 12.20.05 at 1:46 pm

Eco traced a scene from _The Three Musketeers_ (in an essay in _Six Walks in the Fictional Woods_, I believe) in which D’Artagnan leaves his house, wrapped in revery over the lovely Bonacieux. After wandering the streets, he arrives in front of Athos’ house just in time to see Bonacieux enter. Looking up the street names on period maps, Eco finds that D’Artagnan’s walk takes him in a full circle, and that Athos’ house is in exactly the same place as D’Artagnan’s (albeit the street names are different)!

The essay itself focuses on demands for verisimilitude Eco received from his readers, for instance letters exclaiming that the evnts of _Foucault’s Pendulum_ couldn’t have happened the way they were described because, for example, it was snowing (in the real world) on a day the novel describes as “sunny”. (It’s been years since I read the essay, so I’m reconstructing the *type* of complaint, not an exact example.) The question of how fiction intersects with the non-fictional world is an intriguing one — as Eco points out, authors are constrained in some ways (e.g. a cart moving up a hill has to be pulled by a horse) but not in others (e.g. a street with two names may well be two different streets in Dumas’ universe). Where that line is drawn may well be different for each reader, and may well be shaped by power relations in the society at large.


theCoach 12.20.05 at 1:55 pm

In the tower of possible blog posts, Holbo has his own wing.


pdf23ds 12.20.05 at 2:01 pm

The Simpsons’ home state actually has the abbreviation “NT”, as seen on some mail in the show. Reportedly the producers say this stands for “North Tacoma”.

The Funny Farm comic strip has one (villianous, anthropomorphic computer) character take over the country of Denmark, expelling its inhabitants, and rename it to “Siliconopolis”. Why the author chose Denmark when Belgium is the obviously correct choice escapes me.


BigMacAttack 12.20.05 at 2:06 pm

Arthur Davidson Ficke,

What a great list!

Not sure if New Crobuzon belongs on it but I enjoyed reading the entry.

Does anyone else think Thomas the Tank Engine stories are ironic indictments of capitalism?

Are they?


Sifu Tweety 12.20.05 at 2:37 pm

Thomas Pynchon invented two whole California counties in “Vineland”, including one (Trasero county) somehow wedged betweeen Orange and San Diego counties, and it works quite well.


Morpeth 12.20.05 at 2:47 pm

Ursula Le Guin invented an Eastern European country, Orsinia, that’s vaguely Czech/Romanian, in her series of short stories collected as “Orsinian Tales“. Those stories follow the country from the 1200s to the Iron Curtain days, and later she wrote a last one that takes place during the 1989 revolutions.


jim 12.20.05 at 2:54 pm

“The general rule is: there is some threshold of presumptive clear and distinct awareness of the actual facts, and you stay below the radar of that line.”

I don’t think so, actually. I don’t think this is a question of reader response. I think this is entirely a function of the author’s comfort. Take Trollope as an example. To the extent that his novels take place in London, he’s totally faithful to the actual geography of London, without saying so. He doesn’t use street names. But it’s perfectly possible to work out exactly where incidents take place. A few years back we went on a Trollope Walk led by a member of the Trollope Society from Marylebone through into Mayfair and the enthusiast pointed out where (by deduction) scenes from the novels must have taken place. Barchester and Barsetshire, by contrast, are completely imaginary. Barchester is not a renamed Salisbury, though Hiram’s Hospital is modelled on an almshouse near Salisbury. Barsetshire is sufficiently consistent that people can draw maps of it but it doesn’t mirror any existing county.

It must, I think, be assumed that the streets of London were ever present to Trollope’s imagination, available as he needed geography (Mr. Bonteen’s murderer can cut through by this alleyway, for example), while no part of rural England was (at least in the detail he needed), so he needed to invent his own.


stephen judd 12.20.05 at 3:12 pm


Thomas Palm 12.20.05 at 3:13 pm

In Fountains of Paradise Arthur C Clarke doesn’t invant a country, but he moves Sri Lanka down to the equator because he wanted to write about Sri Lanka and the space elevator in the book had to be built at the equator. Unlike many authors he is quite open about what he did in the preface too. (Otherwise he probably could have gotten away with it without too many readers noticing)


CG 12.20.05 at 3:14 pm

Nabokov invents a Scandinavian (or Baltic) country, Zembla, in “Pale Fire”.

Regarding the Africa list, I think a particular trope that crops up often when people think of South Africa, at least (and also Namibia and other sites of heavy white settlement) is “humble white farmer besieged by lawless, incomprehensible bushmen”.


Daniel 12.20.05 at 3:34 pm

on the Africa list, you can’t do without the Eton-educated tribal chief’s son, calling people “old bean”, cricket bat and monocle optional.


Peter 12.20.05 at 3:36 pm

Patrick White’s fictional Australian suburb was Budgiewank, knowing which tells one so much about his views that one has no need to read his novels.


Bro. Bartleby 12.20.05 at 3:37 pm

Mission Impossible had a field day with East Europe and South America. Veyska, U.C.R., Santa Costa and …


tortoise 12.20.05 at 3:43 pm

(Also, it’s obviously 500 million, not 5 million. Even I can read French that well.)

500 million old francs=5 million new francs, perhaps?


Hogan 12.20.05 at 3:47 pm

Fredonia is a town in upstate New York, which I’ve always suspected was a stop on the vaudeville circuit when the Marx Brothers were on the road.

Florin and Guilder, from The Princess Bride, presumably in western Europe.

And maybe you can’t invent a street in Manhattan, but only the dead know Brooklyn.


harry b 12.20.05 at 4:05 pm

bigmacattack — I’d be amazed if so (but I can see the point). Think of the engines as children in a very small village school.


theophylact 12.20.05 at 4:05 pm

In Islandia, Austin Tappan Wright invented a whole bloody continent.


Londoner 12.20.05 at 4:09 pm

But you can’t invent even a neighborhood of LA or New York (or London?) that doesn’t really exist.

Evidently you can in London:

Sun Hill


Martin 12.20.05 at 4:29 pm

1. Not only did Vladimir Nabokov invent the country of Zembla, but I believe the narrator of Pale Fire immigrated from Zembla to the US state of Utana. I believe Humbert Humbert also ended up in a motel in Cedarn, Utana.

2. The small fictional European country of
Ruritania, from the once famous book and movie Prisoner of Zenda, was once so famous that it was used as a placeholder reference to the entire class of small fictional European countries. Note that this class was once so prominant in the American imagination as to require a placeholder reference. Of course, Ruritania was also used as a reference for not-specifically-known real European countries as well, implying a mysterious-Africa phenomenon as in the original post.


stephen judd 12.20.05 at 4:31 pm


harry b 12.20.05 at 4:38 pm

But you can’t invent even a neighborhood of LA or New York (or London?) that doesn’t really exist.

Evidently you can in London…

not to mention Walford:


John Quiggin 12.20.05 at 4:46 pm

Going back to Henry’s recent thread, I actually read and enjoyed The Begum’s Millions. I guess I must have been 10-12 at the time, and I suppose juvenile SF fans are the ultimate literary completists. I would happily have read Jules Verne’s collected shopping lists while I was ‘doing’ him.


Hank 12.20.05 at 5:00 pm

Sue Grafton has done roughly the opposite with her <some letter> Is For <some word starting with some letter> books. They are set in Santa Teresa, California. Santa Teresa is, as far as I can tell, exactly Santa Barbara with new street names (eg, Anacapa becomes Anaconda, Carillo becomes Capillo, etc).


Errol 12.20.05 at 5:54 pm

on the Africa list, you can’t do without the Eton-educated tribal chief’s son, calling people “old bean”, cricket bat and monocle optional.

The Crown Price of Tonga (in a place so obscure as to be ignored in the discussion so far) has plummy accent (not sure which school), monocle (changed to specs more recently, but I’ve seen photos), fancy uniform, etc.


Scott Martens 12.20.05 at 6:18 pm

IIRC, there’s a footnote in Les Misérables, where Javert is chasing Jean Valjean through the streets of Paris, in which Hugo actually says that the part before they cross the Seine is an accurate description of pre-Haussman Paris, and after they cross the river, they’re in a totally fictional neighbourhood.

As Mitchner’s books show, if you can sell the appropriate level of suspension of disbelief, you can even invent a fictional midwestern state and an Apollo 18. As for the fictional images of Africa, well, there’s a fair amount of fiction about remote Pacific Islands too. I can recall a few fictional Latin American countries. Gulliver’s Travel’s relied on the lack of clear knowledge of the Pacific Northwest to advance its plot. There’s a fair amount of 19th century literature fictionalising – totally inaccurately – China and Japan. But then, who could possibly believe in a country where people eat raw fish? Or use sticks to eat rice? Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes projects his criticisms of France onto a fictional Persia; Swift’s Modest Proposal cites “reliable sources in the Americas” about the taste of roast babies; heck, the whole Princess Caraboo schtick smacks of the same capacity. I can probably think of a few others if I try. I’m not sure Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is really any different, with its fictional Mars and Martians, from Lettres Persanes in terms of projecting the author’s criticisms of his own society onto aliens.

I think the right track is to think that the capacity to support fictional geography and sociology has less to do with Africa than a need for authors and readers to have an empty spot in their mental maps onto which they can project whatever they like with a minimum of interference from reality. If Africa became rich, powerful and well-known, they’d just find somewhere else.


soru 12.20.05 at 6:26 pm

In Smallville, every place within the USA is fictional, every place outside it is real. Notably, the high school quarterback from the first season leaves Smallville, joins the army, and ends up fighting in Aceh, Indonesia.

In the US spy drama 24, all terrorist and anti-terrorist groups are fictional. In the UK Spooks, mostly real organisations are used, but making fictional attacks, which makes you wonder if they could sue for libel.



Gary Farber 12.20.05 at 7:21 pm

“Of course, in fiction there is always allowance, in any locale, for some invention – a sliding scale of geographic plasticity. You can invent a small English town, or a small American city. But you can’t invent even a neighborhood of LA or New York (or London?) that doesn’t really exist.”

And thus all of science fiction and fantasy is invalidated. Not the real stuff. Doesn’t follow the rules.

Perhaps you should have specified “realistic fiction,” or some other modifier?

“The Middle-East?”

Might look up “George Alec Effinger.”

“What about The Mouse that Roared? I suppose as long as the country is small enough, and you have Peter Sellers in your movie, you can even muck with western Europe.”

Us fans of Leonard Wibberley are also now moping.

But the entire principle that “you can’t invent even a neighborhood of LA or New York (or London?) that doesn’t really exist” in fiction is apparently beamed in from an entirely different universe than mine. We have whole fields of literature that do this as a matter of course and commonplace. Unless they’re defined as, somehow, not counting. (Which saying you were only discussing realistic fiction would do nicely.)


Shelby 12.20.05 at 7:30 pm

The movie “The Lost Boys” is set in the imaginary town of Santa Carla, which is a virtually-undisguised Santa Cruz. Most of the rest of California seems to regard Santa Cruz rather askance, and I would not be surprised if the producers half-thought vampires might really be rife there.


Tom T. 12.20.05 at 7:35 pm

Gorilla City, home of the society of super-intelligent, peace-loving race of gorillas that also spawned the evil Gorilla Grodd, one of the Flash’s deadliest enemies. Reliable accounts locate it in “the Congo basin.”


Paul 12.20.05 at 8:09 pm

In the TV Show “Veronica Mars”, Veronica and her world take place in and around the fictional town of Neptune, California. It seems, judging from the lifestyle, the affluence, the trips down to Mexico, that its been shoehorned into the more expensive areas of Orange County, but its never made precisely clear–L.A. is clearly nearby, though.


dq 12.20.05 at 8:12 pm

I’m pretty sure chateaubriand wrote about the “deserts” of louisiana, not florida. which would make more sense, as louisiana was still a posession of france.


Nabakov 12.20.05 at 8:17 pm

Herge sustained Syldavia, Borduria and San Theodoros through half a dozen books and intermingled plots – starting with that great Guide to Syldavia sequence in King’s Ottokar’s Sceptre.

And of course there’s the Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic.


Tad Brennan 12.20.05 at 8:39 pm

“the Eton-educated tribal chief’s son, calling people “old bean”, cricket bat and monocle optional”

33 and 46 are on to something, John:
see: Buffy Toto, tribal chieftain and old friend of Bertie Wooster,
as well as Prince Bumpo, Oxon-educated friend of Dr. Dolittle.


garymar 12.20.05 at 9:27 pm

There’s also the English-educated African prince in Waugh’s “Black Mischief” who returns to rule his kingdom and institutes a Birth-Control festival that his subjects mistake for a fertility rite.


Matt 12.20.05 at 11:39 pm

My god- Metropolis clearly has nothing to do w/ New york City. It’s the DC universe version of Chicago, as everyone knows. And Keystone city is Philadelphia, obviously enough.

Marvel, at one time, had a map of New York city that had Peter Parker’s apartment, Empire State University, Aunt May’s house (in Queens) Avenger’s Mansion, etc. It was pretty cool. If I recall correctly the Avergener lived in the Met.


Russell Arben Fox 12.21.05 at 12:36 am

“Marvel, at one time, had a map of New York city that had Peter Parker’s apartment, Empire State University, Aunt May’s house (in Queens) Avenger’s Mansion, etc. It was pretty cool.”

Indeed it was Matt, and I should know–I had that map in my possession when my family drove, in a big old RV, into Manhattan on a family trip when I was 15 years old. It was the first time I’d ever seen New York, and I ate it up. I sat on the rear couch, constantly cross-checking between that map and the (I think AAA) guide book in my lap, as we past various landmarks and street corners. “Let’s find Dr. Strange’s house–it’s in SoHo!” I shouted more than once. (We never did. Damn shame.)


lalala 12.21.05 at 12:47 am

In addition to the Genovia of the Princess Diaries books, which has an entire origin story, the romance author Jude Deveraux has one book about, and refers to in other books, a country called Lanconia.


Gene O'Grady 12.21.05 at 1:30 am

The crown prince of Tonga is hardly imaginary; he’s a frequent visitor to Palo Alto and Redwood City, where there is a large Tongan community (largely Catholic or Evangelical, for what it’s worth).

Buchan’s later (and largely unread) political thrillers invent fictitious countries in Central/Eastern Europe and South America. I don’t understand the political background of the 30’s or Buchan’s attitudes (I am familiar with the party line on them) to understand what he’s saying.


washburn 12.21.05 at 3:20 am

Ah yes, Zembla. That distant Northern Land.


bad Jim 12.21.05 at 4:08 am

I spent about a week in San Sebastian, and there were areas in the Parte Vieja which changed their appearance by the hour, such that a certain tobacco store seemed to be variably existent.

R.A.Lafferty dealt occasionally with the quotidian superposition of states. Perhaps realities so fragile are only on offer in certain cities at different times.


Scott Martens 12.21.05 at 5:10 am

Well, if we’re on the subject of superheros and fictional exurbs of LA, I think there ought to be some mention of Sunnydale, California – I always assumed it was meant ot be a stand-in for Irvine – complete with a fictional University of California campus. Southern California, like Africa, is one of those blank spots on the mental maps of people, even those who actually live there. Just as one can invent fictional African tribes to suit one’s purpose, so it seems that one can invent fictional SoCal suburbs where any depravity one seeks to imagine can be normal. Who knows what’s going on in the next town over, or what mysteries are enshrouded by the cul-de-sacs of another postal code?


abb1 12.21.05 at 5:43 am

OK, question to y’all, educated people: Prince Florizel of Bohemia. I know there’s a place called Bohemia; but in this case this is an invented country, correct?


soru 12.21.05 at 6:11 am

eton in Africa

The Eton tribes live primarily in the Lekie division of Cameroon’s Centre Province with major settlements at Saa and Obala. They speak the Eton language or dialect, which had 52,000 speakers in 1982.

The story of how that small tribe came to rule so much of Africa, Nepal, Kuwait, Tonga, etc is fascinating, but too long to explain here.



chris y 12.21.05 at 6:46 am

I know there’s a place called Bohemia; but in this case this is an invented country, correct?

Well, since Shakespeare famously gives it a sea coast, we can safely say you’re right. He used an invented Illyria too in Twelfth Night, although Illyria was the legitimate name for what is now Albania and Dalmatia in antiquity.


bad Jim 12.21.05 at 7:15 am

Scott Martens unnecessarily postulated that “one can invent fictional SoCal suburbs where any depravity one seeks to imagine can be normal”, entirely missing the point, probably known to everyone else, that in these climes it’s difficult to imagine – or, for many, to recall – that anything could be consdiered impermissible, forbidden, unconscionable. Dude, such a thought as that would be way too judgmental.


Chris 12.21.05 at 9:04 am

“By contrast, you can’t just invent some fictional new state in the Midwest: Oklaharkanas, or Arizode Island, ruled by a ruthless Governor/drug lord.”

I don’t see why not. I know nothing of these places, and would not be suprised to find them full of strange life forms.


Daniel Wolf 12.21.05 at 9:21 am

The hero of B. Traven’s _the Ghost Ship_ refers to “Chi(cago), Wisconsin”. Steve Erickson’s _Days Between Stations_ features a hidden street that’s in both LA and SF.


Hogan 12.21.05 at 10:36 am

Neptune, CA is closer to San Diego than to LA (Logan’s mother jumped off the Coronado Bridge). Think La Jolla.


John Holbo 12.21.05 at 11:14 am

This is the best thread ever. (Wipes tear of joy.) Sincere thanks to everyone for chipping in. (Of course you all realize it was just a trick on my part, saying ‘of course you CAN’T do x,’ when what I really wanted was a long list of x’s.)


ben wolfson 12.21.05 at 12:22 pm

you can’t haul off and put some new country between France and Denmark.

Not even a eensy weensy Lichtenstein-sized one? I think you could do that, in, say, a magical realist novel.


Shelby 12.21.05 at 1:49 pm

tom t.:
Another (extremely silly) account places Gorilla City in the Antarctic. See Foglio’s Angel and the Ape series.


Steve 12.21.05 at 1:56 pm

Yes on #57, although I believe if you go back early enough in the comic, Metropolis is recognizably Siegel and Shuster’s hometown of Cleveland. (And the original movie serials reportedly used Providence as the model skyline.)

Nobody seems to have mentioned Pynchon’s San Narcisco yet. And Prester John’s kingdom (which I can’t remember there being an actual name for) seems to have floated from Asia to Africa sometime during the 14th century; I’m not quite sure how that happened.


saurabh 12.21.05 at 2:26 pm

On an unrelated note, I’d like to point out that “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” definitely has at least one exploding boat in it.


Mr Ripley 12.21.05 at 3:01 pm

Finian’s Rainbow is set in Missitucky.

Benson‘s state was on the West Coast; inasmuch as the Governor was originally a Jerry Brown parody, it could be seen as Californiaesque.

Avram Davidson’s “British Hidalgo” is pretty literally Belize; his Central European empire of “Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania” doesn’t map quite so easily onto reality. They’re not so much “campily amusing” as Borgesily witty.

PKDick’s Japanese read the I Ching and treat their occupied nations a lot better than did those in our world (be careful about giving The Man in the High Castle to a Korean): they’re drawn from analogous list of “Images of Asia” tropes. YMMV on how irritating that is –since it’s explicity an alternate-universe story, I can accept it.


Errol 12.21.05 at 3:14 pm

60. The crown prince of Tonga is hardly imaginary

Absolutely, but proof that just because something is a stereotype doesn’t mean it there aren’t real-world examples. Watching him give an interview to a Western journo was almost surreal.

Just remembered the African country part of the plot of a Yes, Prime Minister ep.


Timothy Burke 12.21.05 at 3:49 pm

I don’t think Keystone City is Philadelphia. It’s been said, post-Crisis, to be across a river from Central City. I don’t think Central City = Camden.

Also Geoff Johns’ run on The Flash pretty much made Central/Keystone out to be a meat-and-potatoes working class burg: Kansas City or Minneapolis kind of came to mind for me in his image.

Metropolis as Chicago? Yeah, maybe, only more important than Chicago, I think.

Speaking of fictional California suburbs, there’s always Tarzana to consider: a real suburb named out of the real estate holdings of a maker of fictions about Africa (and Mars).


Josh 12.21.05 at 4:53 pm


I think Neptune, CA pretty much floats between the San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties of the mind. La Jolla is a good feel, as would be Laguna Beach — but in one ep this season Veronica and Jackie’s friend pop on over to Chatsworth to an outlet mall after school, a 2 1/2 hour drive from San Diego.


harry b 12.21.05 at 5:57 pm

What about Bay City? Is it Santa Monica?


Scott Martens 12.21.05 at 6:31 pm

Bad Jim: Fair point.


radek 12.21.05 at 7:11 pm

I always liked the innocence with which Ron Howard just plucked a bunch of archaic sounding names with some tenous historical basis, like Cimmeria, Kush, Argos, and slapped them all together into an impromptu continent.


Jonquil 12.21.05 at 7:56 pm

A close contemporary — never say copy — of Ruritania was Graustark; in America, “Ruritanian romances” were also known as “Graustarkian romances”.

There’s a charming bit in one of the Cuckoo books (The First Cuckoo, The Second Cuckoo, the Third Cuckoo, The Last Cuckoo) in which letter-writers debate in the London Times the precise location of Ruritania, given the clues in the manuscript. German-speaking, Catholic, somewhere on the train route from Vienna…


Alan 12.21.05 at 9:16 pm

If you follow Gulliver’s course to the northwest of Tasmania, the islands of Blefuscu and Liliput actually lie deep in the South Australian desert.


Gary Farber 12.21.05 at 9:50 pm

“Of course you all realize it was just a trick on my part, saying ‘of course you CAN’T do x,’….”

It certainly was a head-scratcher to me, coming from John Holbo. I kept going back to check that the post was from you. I was absolutely baffled that you’d make such a completely bizarre assertion.

“I always liked the innocence with which Ron Howard just plucked a bunch of archaic sounding names with some tenous historical basis, like Cimmeria, Kush, Argos, and slapped them all together into an impromptu continent.”

Ah, yes. I loved the episode where Conan met Gomer Pyle, and cut his head off. Also, Cocoon, as directed by Robert E. Howard, where the old people, well, get their heads cut off. Oh, the lamentations of their women!


Jay C 12.21.05 at 10:39 pm

Uh, Radek: I think in your post no. 82, you actually mean Robert E. Howard (the famed pulp writer of the 1930s, and creator of Conan the Barbarian), rather than Ron Howard, the actor/director: but you’re right about his marvelous ability to pull archetypal place-names out of standard reference texts (IIRC, he’d had only a high-school education, and spent his whole life in a small town in Texas) – and still make everything seem normal.


anon 12.21.05 at 11:09 pm

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals, set in the city of Isola, which is a thinly veiled NYC.


dr ngo 12.21.05 at 11:20 pm

A couple of well-known (well, known to me) fictional countries not hitherto mentioned:

Jan Morris not only made up a fictional Mediterranean state, but wrote a virtual travel guide to it: Last Letters from Hav

Lederer & Burdick introduced the Southeast Asian state of “Sarkhan” in The Ugly American, then made it the title of their sequel.


Matt McIrvin 12.21.05 at 11:25 pm

Some people claim that Metropolis is now in the approximate location of Lewes, Delaware (the map apparently has to do with some role-playing game; I don’t think it has a huge amount of textual support).

Metropolis does seem to have started out as a Midwestern city and then gotten increasingly East Coast over time.


Matt McIrvin 12.21.05 at 11:32 pm

As for Exotic Nation Fiction tropes, I remember a while back noticing the trope of an American guy going to a fictitious Caribbean island undergoing revolutionary upheaval and accidentally becoming a pivotal political or religious figure (Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”; Woody Allen’s “Bananas”; probably a few Hope-Crosby movies for all I know). I suppose on some level it’s just the Western Hemisphere counterpart of the Ruritanian adventure.


Matt 12.21.05 at 11:42 pm

Providence has a sky-line? Or had one in the 50’s? No wonder ‘ol supes could leap those in a single bound. I’d thought Keystone city was likely philadelphia or perhaps Pittsburg becuase of the obvious “keystone state” reference, though I guess I could be wrong on that. Among other reasons why Metropolis must be Chicago (there are lots) is that if you’re a farm boy from Indiana (or wherever in the mid-west smallville is) Chicago is the big city you go to to work at the major newspaper.


lalala 12.21.05 at 11:56 pm

We know Neptune is 90 miles from San Diego, from the episode where Veronica helps that boy find his father, John Smith.


Stephen Frug 12.22.05 at 2:07 am

“I always liked the innocence with which Ron Howard just plucked a bunch of archaic sounding names with some tenous historical basis, like Cimmeria, Kush, Argos, and slapped them all together into an impromptu continent.”

Kush is also the fictional country in a John Updike novel, The Coup. But it’s actually a fictional African country, so it doesn’t count as a counter-example…


lurker 12.22.05 at 2:48 am

You can find a few more in
the Dictionary of Imaginary Places
by Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi.
Not that it is definitive or anything.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.22.05 at 2:57 am

It’s not fair to call Sunnydale a center of depravity, Scott — LA is clearly still that. Sunnydale is just on a Hellmouth. Kinda bypasses depraved.

What’s the Ruritanian-type country in “The Great Race”?

And in one of the Amelia Peabody mysteries (Elizabeth Peters the author) — I think maybe the one with ‘ape’ in the title? The intrepid archaeologists find some relic civilization or other — I want to say pre-Old Kingdom, or maybe remnants of Kush? Just ‘cos John started out talking about Tim’s tropes.

On that topic, how many of Tim’s Africa tropes hold true for South America — especially the Andes and Amazon?


Liz 12.22.05 at 6:11 am

The 1985 season of ‘Dynasty’ ended with the infamous ‘Moldavian massacre’ cliffhanger, where all but two of the cast were attacked at the wedding of Amanda Carrington to Prince Michael of Moldavia. (All the regulars miraculously survived.)


John Emerson 12.22.05 at 7:26 am

Hm, 100 entries and no one has mentioned Shangri-la, in or near Tibet. Tibet and neighboring areas such as the present Uzbekistan were inaccessible until well into the XIXc.

In Muslim traditions Tibet was a magical fantasy land for centuries as a place where “When a Muslim goes there, he becomes so happy that he never returns”. So was Korea sometimes.


Anna in Cairo 12.22.05 at 8:23 am

The lost city in the Amelia Peabody series appears in two books, the first being the Last Camel Died at Noon, and the second being something like Guardians of the Horizon. It does not have a name. It is called the Lost Oasis, I think, in general conversation. They are very fun. She (Elizabeth Peters) modeled them on the Rider Haggard books such as King solomon’s Mines. Another thing she uses a lot for inspiration is the Prisoner of Zenda (which she uses a lot in the Vicky Bliss novels). Yes I possess many of her paperbacks. :)


Timothy Burke 12.22.05 at 12:49 pm

ADM: quite a few of those tropes apply to Central/ South America and/or the Pacific and Papua New Guinea. In fact, a few of them, in my view, originate from there historically. (The chief’s daughter married to the explorer strikes me as a gloss of Western reactions to Polynesian sexuality…) One of the interesting things that I noticed preparing my introductory presentation on the visual trope of the missionary in the cannibal’s cookpot (besides discovering, that there is an entire icky genre of pornography devoted to images of naked women in cookpots) was that more recent popular culture basically takes the substance of the cannibal trope and makes it more contemporaneously acceptable by grafting it onto…headhunters. (The Far Side is really notable for this).


Bill McNeill 12.22.05 at 1:47 pm

Given the number of counterexamples here, I propose a revision of the claim about representations of fictional places in Africa. For specificity’s sake, let’s focus on representations of Africa vs. Europe in U.S. popular culture. It is not the case that it is easier to make up fictional African countries than it is fictional European countries. However, even if U.S. popular culture contains many made-up European places, it also contains many real European places. We have WWII dramas and spy thrillers with very specific European settings. We have “Sex and the City”, where at one point Mr.Big moves to Paris, and not some mythical European city. We even have the Meg Ryan comedy “French Kiss” that takes place in a France full of snooty concierges and slick lotharios–which are all broad comic stereotypes, but they’re stereotypes of a specific real culture instead of just something spun from whole cloth. What’s different about the representation of Africa is the absence of these specific representations. There isn’t a “Hotel Rwanda” for every “Sahara”, so in the end the generic Africa is all we’ve got.


Bill McNeill 12.22.05 at 2:22 pm

The degree of specific knowledge a popular culture assumes about a particular region of the world varies over time. For instance, there a joke in Portnoy’s Complaint about a U.S. soldier who marries a Japanese woman for the sole purpose of upsetting his mother. It’s primarily one of the Jewish mother jokes on which Roth’s career is based, but there’s a detail that always threw me. The name of the Japanese bride is something like “Ming Ling”. It’s clearly supposed to be a made up nonesense name, but it’s also clearly a nonsense Chinese name. I could never tell whether this was on purpose, to show what an idiot the soldier was, or because a man of Roth’s generation didn’t have enough command of east Asian stereotypes to come up with Japanese gibberish.

Either way, that detail dates the novel. Today you’d have to call her “Akiko” or something, or else the joke would fall flat. Times have changed. For the typical American of a few generations ago, east Asia was just one big Oriental blur. That’s not the case today. Today Americans generally grok that there’s a difference between China and Japan, and of course everybody knows about Vietnam and Korea. The level of cultural literacy has increased via the usual suspects of war, trade, and immigration.

So the phenomenon we’re talking about here is likely not specific to Africa, and is possibly also more sensitive to cultural contact they we realize. As an American, it’s hard for me to get a sense of it: this culture’s idea of Africa is particularly abstract because there hasn’t been as much war, trade and immigration from that part of the world. (Lingering guilt over slavery and its reprucussions muddies the waters even more.) Africa is still one big black blur. I wonder if representations of Africa are more specific in European as opposed to U.S. popular culture because African immigrants are more common there.


Bill McNeill 12.22.05 at 2:37 pm

Also, does anyone else find the whole made up place trope as supremely annoying as I do? Not because it indicates some pernicious cultural blind spot, but because it makes suspension of disbelief impossible. Of course intentionally fake places like Gotham City are fine, but I just can’t buy a thriller that’s set in the tiny Central American country of San Marcos, because I know there’s no such place, and it sticks in my craw. It’s like in the movies when somebody writes down a phone number that begins with “555-“. All I can think for the rest of the scene is doesn’t that guy realize he’s being given a fake number?


Nathaniel Thomas 12.22.05 at 9:17 pm

There’s always the made-up university of campus fiction (and the closely related invented Oxbridge college, that is, an invented college of a real university). But campus fiction descends into the roman à clef much of the time.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.22.05 at 9:25 pm

LOL Bill — I have that problem with the Sue Grafton novels, because I know Santa Barbara pretty well. But never have that problem with made up countries — except when they’re clear analogs, like Qumar in The West Wing.

But wrt the Roth comment, it wasn’t all that long ago that Hollywood came out with Gung Ho — a film about a Japanese car company in the US.


Omri 12.23.05 at 2:07 am

Western Europe isn’t as sacred as one might like, at least in the airport class of novel. Tom Clancy takes enormous liberties with geography in the Rhine valley. The worst was a character getting in trouble driving from Aaschen to Aix-la-Chapelle.


Robbie Taylor 12.23.05 at 4:23 pm

What state was Gov. Gatling the governor of in Benson? I think it was either fictional or undefined.

Either Rhode Island or Connecticut – since it was a spin-off of Soap, it was the same state that the Tates and Campbells lived in.


wil s 12.23.05 at 5:52 pm

Thinking back into the mists of my childhood… I don’t know how universal this was, but we were assigned to write thick reports about countries in the sixth grade. I received Africa. The continent. I didn’t really possess the social, racial or historical vocabulary to express the utter wrongness of it at the time, but honestly… Bless education in Arizona.


Gary Farber 12.23.05 at 9:05 pm

‘On that topic, how many of Tim’s Africa tropes hold true for South America—especially the Andes and Amazon?”

ObObvious: Begining of Raiders Of Teh Lost Ark.

Particularly apposite remark by Bill McNeill, i think, also.

Re wil s, I did a Super-8 film I alleged was based on Rhodesia for an elementary school project, which should give a clue as to my age. (It was entirely moronic, by any possible standard, and it shames me, in retrospect, save as a memory of the possible innocence of childhood, or the cleverness of trying to pass a class with no effort. The major feature was film of me climbing on pipes in our basement. Speaking of African stereotypes. I confess this only because I want to have Holbo’s babies. Is that job taken? Also, I was 9.)


Gary Farber 12.23.05 at 9:07 pm

Okay, maybe 12 or 13.

I am shamed yet further.


Bill McNeill 12.23.05 at 9:50 pm

Response to ADM #105…I never saw Gung Ho, but I remember the 1980s and 1990s pop culture stereotype of the Japanese as a nation of highly regimented factory workers (either comical or sinister, depending on the context) who were led by ruthlessly efficient corporate masters. (A stereotype that became noticably less prevalent after the Japanese economy took a nose dive.) But I’d maintain that this sort of stereotyping is of a different sort than the representations of Africa discussed at the top of this thread because the foreigners being mocked were specifically Japanese, and not generically Asian.

As a thought experiment, imagine an American comedy that made fun of European characters. You could get laughs out of having an Italian guy be all cornball romantic and perpetually on the make, or a German guy being really uptight and overly-punctual, etc. Now imagine an American comedy that tried to get similar mileage out of depicting stereotypes of a “typical” Nigerian or a “typical” Somali or…Well, I can’t imagine a movie like this, because I, like a lot of Americans, lack the cultural knowledge about Africa to come up with even the most clumsy stereotypes, because even stereotypes indicate a certain level of cultural familiarity.

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