Catherynne M. Valente
Clarkesworld Magazine: May 2008
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Short Story
“A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” is a similar story, stylistically, to Catherynne Valente’s recent story from Federations “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”. That is, the story being told is ostentially about something else and it is told in chunks about something else. The obvious story here is a series of auction entries about maps of Antarctica. Hence the title. The entries alternate between maps created by Naheul Acuna and those creased by Villalba Maldonado. According to the auction house, the Acuna maps are marvels of cartographic accuracy and are masterpieces of achievement given the tools available in the early 1900’s. Maldonado’s maps, however, present a different Antarctica.
The Map Legend explains that the pair of dogs, called Grell and Skell, may be found at coordinates (redacted) and that they require gifts of penguin feet and liverwort before they are willing to part with a cupful of the sun, which if carried at the end of a fishing pole and line before the intrepid polar conquistador, may burn with all the heat and pure light that he requires.
This is presented as truth by Maldonado and it is the Maldonado maps which cause a flurry of excitement and exploration, much moreso than those of Acuna.
The true story of “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” is that of the one sided rivalry between Acuna and Maldonado, of the decades long jealousy felt by the scientifically accurate Acuna. That is the story told between the lines and in the auction house’s entries describing the various maps.
There is a definite narrative to Valente’s story and it involves the clash of science and mythology. This is our Antarctica after all, and one would think we’d have heard about these mythical creatures inhabiting the continent. Except, there is that glimmer of hope for a sense of wonder that Valente exploits in the story.
“A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” has been recognized and praised by many and is being reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies, and the story deserves that praise. On its surface it is not a straightforward narrative going from Point A to Point B, but in a sense, it does. It features a hero, a villain, a conflict, and a resolution. Valente just tells the story in a non-traditional manner, one which serves the emotions of the story in a more authentic manner. The story works.