A Map the Size of the World

(Rudy Rucker is a guest blogger. His latest novel, Hylozoic, describes a postsingular world in which everything is alive.)

In the month of my birth, that is, in March, 1946, Jorge Luis Borges co-authored with Adolfo Casares a very short story, ""Del Rigor en la Ciencia," or "On Exactitude in Science," about a perfect map that's as big as the kingdom which it depicts.


Here's the first half of the story, as translated by Andrew Hurley.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless...

I also found, how great, a video dramatizing the story's ideas, with a sound track of Borges himself reading the story in Spanish.

The full text of the translation of "On Exactitude in Science" is online at the Language Scraps " blog.

And our Universal Library, that is, Wikipedia, has an entry about the Borges story.



  1. Wonderful. I discovered Borges about 4 years ago, and Hurley’s version of his collected works has a permanent place on my nightstand. Anytime I need some inspiration, I pick it up.

  2. I wrote a paper for school about Lewis Carroll’s “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded” in which there is a map that is 1:1. I never knew that this story existed! Thanks!

  3. Is the picture the back of the 1995 Nissan Path Finder? I own one and that pic looks just like my car…you see that stupid fin on the back? The entire car has them everywhere..are they called fins?

  4. I once estimated that a 1:1 scale map of the Earth on regular paper would be about 1 cubic mile when folded up. Different assumptions would lead to different sizes, but still pretty darn big.

  5. I was going to mention Lewis Carroll’s novel myself, that’s where Borges got the idea from.

  6. I would strongly recommend reading the Umberto Eco’s essay “On the impossibility of drawing a map of the empire on a scale of 1 to 1″. It’s a great piece to see this concept get a “serious” treatment

  7. Umberto Eco has also written an essay in “How to Travel with a Salmon” named “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1.”

  8. I don’t get it. I want to have a map of the world that is much bigger than the world itself in fact.

    The problem is not the size of the information, it’s the way to access it. I dream of having an augmented reality system and have access for a place to all the geological, topographical, historical, sociological, etc… This is not just for science either, I want to have access to all the art that cite this place as an inspiration.

    If all this was on paper maps, there would be many layers all over.

  9. In the sequel, they call in Benoit Mandelbrot to map the coast, and then things get really crazy!

  10. “I don’t get it. I want to have a map of the world that is much bigger than the world itself in fact.”

    I can’t even fold a regular-sized map properly. I’d just as soon not even try with a map that big.

  11. It also sounds a bit like the film Synecdoche, New York with it’s full scale model of New York City located in a warehouse in New York City

  12. Just stating the obvious, but Google Earth IS a map the size of the world. I haven’t checked how its coverage of maintenance hole covers is coming along though.

  13. Steven Wright has a bit about a map that’s 1 mile = 1 mile, and how difficult it is to fold.

  14. A similar bit by Steven Wright: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

  15. “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” ANSWER (given by a three year old): “I’d just leave it where it is.”

  16. Michael Martone has an excellent chapter devoted to McNally Junction, IN, in his awesome travel satire “The Blue Guide to Indiana.” It’s probably my favorite non-narrative work. You have to read it.

  17. When does a map cease to be a map to become a copy?
    Is it not a question of physics, of mass?

  18. Maps owe a big part of their utility to what information they leave out. Most are essentially a representation of part of the world as seen through a narrow lens, such as the roadways in a city or the wiring in a building.

    A map is a drawing of the world minus everything except the information you need.

  19. Ummmm, Im pretty sure that the concept of a 1:1 map was put forward by Voltaire about 300 years ago in one of his most famous bits of prose. It was either in ‘Candide’ or ‘Zadig’. In fact the language used in the passage is almost similar. Any lit buffs able to squeeze out a quote?

  20. Steven Wright – “I have the worlds largest seashell collection. You may have seen it, I keep it spread out on beaches all over the world. “

  21. A wonderful story…if untrue. Although the monumental stone carvings of sequential numbers and letters arrayed across much of Asia at what were the borders of the old Empire and the great Key at the South-East corner explaining the scale as “one inch=one inch” are a tourist attraction today.

    But modern archaeologists have determined that the Cartographer’s Guild eventfully became so dominant in the government of the Forbearers as to devote ever more of the Empire’s resources to the perfection of the Great Map, the reason it is believed for the eventual decline and fall of the Empire, but not before a full scale three-dimensional representation of the Empire indistinguishable in scope from the Empire itself was erected and contained in perfect congruity within it.

    The ravages of time make the remaining ruins of the Empire itself and the map contained within it difficult to distinguish but as the map is annotated as to dimensions, building materials, dates and so forth, and the Empire is not, modern enquiry has evidenced that the remnants we see today are in fact of the map and not the original Empire and, furthermore, that for many generations after the ruin of the Empire it was the map which the ill fated and ever dwindling population inhabited, and did so, it is now believed, without marking the difference.


  22. Isn’t there a place between perfect duplication and 5-second sound-bite oversimplication though?

  23. “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory; you must remember this.”
    — Neil Gaiman (American Gods)

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