Editor’s note(s): Because we’ve grown so much in the past year, we asked you, our readers, to let us know what your early favorite stories were, so we could share them with everyone during the months of November and December. We’re so pleased to share our fifth Reader Favorite Wednesday story: Yoon Ha Lee’s “Nonstandard Candles” — now free to read — from March 2022. ~ Fran & Julian, December 14, 2022. (We include our original editors’ note with each story as well, below.)
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Why hasn’t Yoon Ha Lee won all the awards? His writing is always smart, inventive, and above all compelling—everything you want Science Fiction to be. This story, about making maps through the darkest of spaces, is just one example, and especially apropos given everything going on in the world right now.
~ Julian Yap, March 6, 2022.
I didn’t want to travel into the outer darkness, where all the stars were burned-out husks, but the mapmaker insisted. Our ship was vast, too vast for a single mapmaker and her apprentice, and its emptiness weighed on me. During the journey, whose length I cannot describe to you, the mapmaker kept me busy, and for the most part I didn’t think about the corridors and cargo holds with their surfeit of light, their attenuated shadows.
The mapmaker was the last of her kind, trained by a guild so old that its name could only be spoken in boustrophedon utterances. She had told me once, when she accepted me as her student, that a human could not pronounce her name, and not to try. I never saw her wear any colors but white embroidered in feathery patterns of red, the specific lambent red of a candle flame’s outer edge.
For her part, she had no such difficulty with my name, back when I still remembered it. The mapmaker told me it had three syllables, after the custom of my people, but she would not tell me what it was. She spoke all the languages of the outer darkness, and many more besides. When she was in a good mood, she would translate stories and stelae for me.
Most of our time, however, was taken up with the work of mapping.
I had studied long years and hard to learn the most modern techniques. I could calculate the redshifted boundaries of vanished empires and the trajectories of battledrift that encompassed whole systems. I knew how to construct holographic maps exquisite in fractal detail, shining with notations on demographics and trade routes and unrecovered treasures. I could inscribe compass roses in a hundred hundred styles, cultivars of electromagnetic glory.
The mapmaker eschewed all of this. “I’m a traditionalist,” she said time and again as we hurtled past ungardened planets in the predatory dark.
She had spent most of the journey teaching me her methods, which involved quills and paper, brushes and ink in every color I could imagine, and a few I couldn’t. I had never seen a quill pen before she brought out her collection, each one the color of ash after the last ember sputtered out. The brushes were more familiar, yet they sported hairs harvested from kirin, softer and more responsive than sable. I practiced until she deemed me skilled enough to use them without her supervision.
I was doing some warm-up exercises, hatching and crosshatching, the calligraphy of numerals, when the mapmaker’s shadow fell through the doorway. “Come with me,” she said.
I wiped the luminous ink-of-stars off my nib and set the pen aside—I had learned my lessons well—then rose.
The mapmaker led me to the starship’s bridge, with its empty seats. We had a truce with the ship, a veteran of the deep: we minded our own business, and it minded its own. Every so often the mapmaker would suggest a course to it, and it usually obliged.
“We have reached the center of the outer darkness,” the mapmaker said.
I was familiar with her sense of humor, yet this time it stung. “That’s meaningless,” I said. “One place is the same as another, out here.”
“One center is as good as another,” she countered. “Nevertheless. It’s time you learn the truth of our art.”
I inhaled, exhaled. “There are no stars here, no beacons in the dark.” I gestured at the viewports.
There comes a point at which blackness becomes so severe, so unbearable, that the eye denies it. At least if you’re human. I knew there was no light to be had for any distance I could name except what we had brought with us. When I looked at the viewports, the blank vast void was overlaid by a static of afterimages: the deck plates, the unused seats, the mapmaker.
“There are not,” the mapmaker agreed. “But here, where the universe has slipped into sleep, there are no maps. We will begin here.”
I am not a violent person—one of the many modifications they make to would-be mapmakers—but for a moment I wanted to hit her. “Here? There’s nothing to map.”
“Even emptiness requires a chart, if only to give space for the imagination. ‘Here there be dragons,’ as your people used to say.”
“My people used to draw maps with the Earth at the center of the universe. I don’t think that’s a recommendation for their cartographic practices.”
I did not often speak of Earth, even to her. It was long ago and far away, and lost before I was born.
“You’re serious,” I said when she continued looking at me with that phoenix-eye expectation, as though I owed her the heat of a fire, or the heart of a pyre. “Why not just upend all our black ink on the paper? It’ll all be the same in the end.”
Her disappointment weighed on me like the crushing pull of a neutron star. “It’s not the same at all, and you know it. Rorschach splashes are not the same as conscientious mapmaking. You will do a proper job, as I trained you to.”
For a second I entertained the notion of stomping out, going to the mapmaking room—one of them, anyway—and emptying every ink bottle in her collection over the best and brightest of her sheets of paper.
Then the impulse passed, and I resigned myself to a task that would take longer than the lifetime of my people.
* * *
Let me tell you about standard candles.
Distance is a curious thing in the outer darkness. In the place we came from, the parts of the universe that still have stars, we used to measure distances by a variety of means. One of them is standard candles.
If you stand on a world and look out into the night-veiled sky, you see stars, some bright, some dim. Which of the bright stars are bright because they are close by, and which are bright because they are furnaces more ferocious than their kindred? Which of the dim stars are dim because they are far away, and which are dim because they are close to death? It’s a question that once dogged astronomers in many civilizations.
If you know a star’s intrinsic brightness—its absolute magnitude—you have a standard candle. At that point, you can compare the absolute magnitude to the apparent magnitude you observe from wherever you are, and find the distance to that star. I won’t trouble you with the formula, but it’s easy enough to derive.
The only problem with this scheme, of course, is that it does you no good if there are no stars in sight, and no maps at hand.
* * *
My life became a cycle of drudgery, or would have been if I’d still been capable of boredom. They remove many inconvenient traits from mapmaker candidates, extracting them with fine instruments of wire and stagnant poetry. I asked the surgeon who performed the procedure what they did with the things they took away, and they informed me that it was none of my concern.
Every day, the mapmaker and I consulted the ship’s sensor readings, which the ship gladly gave up to us. (I wondered sometimes if it, too, had had its boredom removed.) Every day we saw the same all-encompassing nothing. Every day we painstakingly inked every nonexistent nuance of that nothing onto our charts of paper.
“Were you the only one willing to volunteer for this?” I asked the mapmaker one day, indistinguishable from the one before.
“Of course not,” she said, and I remembered that she sometimes lied. Then she added, “You’re here, after all.”
“That’s hardly the same thing. I didn’t volunteer specifically to do”—I waved at the nearest bulkhead—“to be here.”
“Is it any worse than the other places you could be?”
I shrugged. I didn’t think nostalgia was one of the emotions I’d lost, but it was hard to tell sometimes. “It’s a lot of ink.”
That was another of the mapmaker’s trade secrets, one she hadn’t yet divulged to me. The paper never ran out, nor the ink. Neither of them took up the infinite space that I would have expected, given how much of the outer dark there existed, and how long we had been mapping, even using her esoteric methods. And the ship was big, but not that big.
“You sometimes daydream about tipping out the ink. I can smell it on you.”
I also wondered what it would be like to smell people’s random impulses, because I was pretty sure she was being literal. Perhaps I was better off not knowing. “You’d only make me clean it up.”
“You’re an excellent mapmaker candidate.”
“Whoever wanted these charts, if they’d wanted them done within an ordinary lifetime or ten, they should have sent more than two people to do the job.” Not that “ordinary lifetime” was an issue at this end of time.
The mapmaker shrugged. Her white-and-red blouse—I thought of it as one although it had eldritch embellishments, and hid more of her form than it revealed—shimmered and warped. “Get to the point.” Remindingly, she tapped her quill pen against the rim of the ink bottle: the ink was drying, bellicosely black, and we had work to do.
“We’re not going to finish,” I said, “before the outer dark swallows the universe.”
“We’ll do the best we can in the time we have, then.”
Her unconcern infuriated me. “We’ll have gone through all this, and for what?”
“The map is its own reward. It has to be.”
I shook my head.
“You can leave,” she added. “The ship has some shuttles.”
I laughed bitterly. “That’s not much of an option. No. I’m staying. But . . . I want to know why.”
“The map is its own reward,” she repeated, and I knew then that I would receive no further enlightenment from that direction.
* * *
Let me tell you about the mapmaker’s inks. Each one of them had been stringently tested and formulated for its archival qualities. She told me about the pigments they were made of, sometimes. Black ink produced from the last lanterns of toppled democracies. Red ink of cinnabar, which would have been toxic if I had still been an ordinary human specimen. Candescent gold ink, my favorite, formulated with real gold. The mapmaker made me practice with mica-derived inks before she allowed me near that last one.
Strangest of all the pigmented inks was the white one, thick and viscous, and so pale it hurt the eye. I never had any cause to use it, but it was part of her collection all the same.
There were other inks, pigment-based ones that we used only for our own amusement during downtime, due to the fact that they faded with exposure to light. One of them was derived from the crushed petals of the aurora flower that grew in the methane snows of a disassembled world; the solution sparked and glowed with specks of yellow pollen. I liked that one best, because it reminded me of the gardens I once longed to visit in the city of my birth. I had lethal allergies, and I surrounded myself with pictures of the flowers that I didn’t dare approach in person.
One of the things I appreciated about becoming a mapmaker, even an apprentice mapmaker, was that they’d extracted the allergies along with everything else. They’d left me that one memory, perhaps so I could appreciate my good fortune. Of course, it also meant I would never be able to see those gardens again.
* * *
I grew resigned, or accustomed, to the rigors of our work. Smoothing the large sheets of paper so that they didn’t curl or warp at the edges. Ensuring that our brushes were well maintained. Painstakingly painting areas of black line by line, as though the unrelieved black were in fact composed of subtle dense contours.
At last, when I had found a certain meditative fulfillment in the creation of our charts, the mapmaker swirled her brush in a jar of water, tinting it dark, then put it down. “We’re ready.”
I didn’t hear her at first. I had one more brushstroke to paint. The wet ink glistened in the room’s stark light, and then dried, so that the brushstrokes could no longer be discerned. The chart was black and whole and perfect in its silhouetted severity.
“We’re ready,” the mapmaker said again.
My hand shook. My brush knocked against the ink jar, and I almost spilled it. Even that much of a lapse was unusual, and I chided myself for my clumsiness. “What do you mean?”
“We’re ready. The real work can begin.”
I wished the surgeons had not excised my temper, because this seemed like an excellent occasion for an outburst. We had made charts beyond numbering, a comprehensive map of the outer darkness. I was certain, based on what I knew of cosmology, that the last faint stars were on the verge of guttering out, if they hadn’t already—and this was just the preliminaries?
Since temper was beyond me, I said the temperate thing, which was: “What do you mean?”
“Wait here.” The mapmaker rose and passed out of the room, upright like a flame on a windless day. She returned shortly afterward, bearing two bottles of white ink. One for me, one for her.
I stared at her. “We’ve mapped all this empty darkness. Everything’s as black as a dragon’s bowels. We’re done.”
She tilted her head, looking at me strangely. “Not at all.” She set one of the bottles down on my side of the table.
I still didn’t understand.
The mapmaker didn’t reach for the brush, still damp from its earlier labors, but for her favorite quill pen. She opened the bottle of white ink and loaded the nib, and drew a single perfect star onto her chart. Then another, and another.
Somewhere in the outer darkness, three stars candled into existence.
Somewhere in the inner darkness, I remembered the three syllables of my name.
The ink shone on the nib, bright as dawn, as desire unfurled.
“You can’t be serious,” I whispered.
The mapmaker smiled in the way of her people. “You can’t see white ink on white paper.” She gestured at the case that contained the quill pens. “Will you help me?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes.”
Yoon Ha Lee is the New York Times bestselling author of Dragon Pearl and Tiger Honor. He lives in Louisiana with his family and has not yet been eaten by gators.
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That sound you just heard was me letting out a deeply satisfied "Ahh!" at the conclusion on this fantastic story. 💙
What a lovely story. The lines "The map is its own reward. It has to be.” really struck me as powerful. Though the connection is rather tenuous, they bring to mind my own work in basic sciences research. I often hear the saying "the map is not the territory" in the context of the models we make in scientific research. Working in basic sciences, I am frequently asked essentially why I bother to research what I do, when there are so many other things more relevant to people's lives. And yet I still find the work I do to be meaningful, in the pursuit of knowledge itself. This story reminds me of that, and the meaning behind work that is done even if others don't understand the significance. Thank you for sharing this story!