Adrian Daub | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (5,033 words)


“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, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars […].”

— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked like.

Maps were my entrée into geek life, and they remained the medium through which geekdom moved: beat-up paperbacks handed around between school friends, boxed sets at the local game store — we probably spent about as much time poring over maps as we did reading or dreaming up the stories that took place within the worlds they represented. The science fiction we read did without them, but any cover featuring a dragon, a many-turreted castle, or a woman in a leather bra suggested you’d find a map the moment you peeked inside the book.

Like so many things that once set adolescent geeks apart, reading maps for places that aren’t there has gone mainstream. Nerds and non-nerds alike relish their weekly swoop across the map of Westeros in Game of Thrones’ gorgeous title sequence. The map that opens every episode of Game of Thrones addresses the viewer as two persons at once: a resident of Westeros, and a reader of a fantasy novel. The map appears in the title sequence of the HBO hit as a hat tip to our reading experience: the map is the first thing you encounter in a Game of Thrones novel, so why not open the TV show with the same visual? It’s a little call-back to a time before fantasy maps became a common trope.

In a show that invites us to fetishize its map, the characters likewise are obsessed with visual representations of their world. This season alone we’ve seen characters stand on it, touch it, crouch over it. Cersei Lannister had it painted on her floor, Daenerys Targaryen circles a map table of Westeros before she sets out to conquer the real thing, and Jon Snow is moving little miniatures around on his map up north. It’s the same map we swoop over: the representation we see of Westeros during the opening credits is what the characters possess and know.

Those among us who came to Westeros by way of Hyperborea, Middle Earth, The Land, or Krynn, find something else in that map: an echo of all the other invented maps we’ve known. It’s curiously reminiscent of all of them. There is a twitter account, @unchartedatlas, which tweets out randomly composed maps with fanciful names like The Lowlands of Reschtschluk and The Southern Archipelago of West Siastus. The maps look like they could be real places — they have peninsulas, coves, inland seas. What they don’t look like is the kinds of continents you would see when you crack open a volume of your favorite fantasy trilogy.

Fantasy maps are invented, but not all that inventive. Virtually all of them repeat certain features. The way coastlines, mountain ranges, and islands are arranged follows rules. For instance: a surprising number of fantasy worlds contain vast landmasses in the east, but only an endless ocean to the west. Generally speaking, if a fantasy world lacks islands and a clear coastline, do not go there. It’s bound to be a horrifying dystopia. Worlds you might actually want to visit as you run your finger over their maps come with oceans that lead the mind off the page.


Books with maps set you apart in the `80s, even among bookworms. There was a stigma to them, but also a snobbishness. I remember well the feeling of unfolding the map of Middle Earth at the beach or on the train. Rifling through poster-sized maps studded with runes in public places was like catnip to bullies, of course. And yet I always treated my expertise in nonexistent geography as a point of geek pride. I may have opened maps more often than was strictly necessary.

If the `80s and early `90s set a high watermark for unfolding poster maps in public places and getting beaten up for it, this had less to do with fantasy novels. Those had featured maps since Tolkien, and in any event their maps were usually just printed on the first page of the book. It had to do with roleplaying games. While Dungeons & Dragons’ first edition had done with relatively few maps, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first released between 1977 and 1979, with a second edition in 1989), began a world-building bonanza. Slim hardcover volumes gave way to an unending parade of boxed sets, and maps became their ready, eye-catching filler material.

They were all around us growing up, stitched into the texture of adolescence: a basic feature of nerd interior design imported to Western Europe from America. I remember a boy a little older than me whose room occupied the attic of his parents’ home, a typical half-timbered southern-German house tastefully updated in a cool, vaguely Scandinavian style. He covered one of the sloped walls with maps he collected from the various Advanced Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets that were released in the early 1990s.

They were all around us growing up, stitched into the texture of adolescence: a basic feature of nerd interior design imported to Western Europe from America.

I would visit and stare in awe — first at four massive posters depicting the world of Forgotten Realms, a standard issue Tolkien pastiche, then at additional maps completing the planet of Abeir-Toril: first came vast steppes to the east, a continent of Mayan-style temples and deep jungles to the west, then the calligraphic maps of a far-eastern setting. On my next visit he had been forced to shift the entire tapestry up towards the gable, as another boxed set had added an Arabian Nights-inspired continent to the south. Each box he’d ordered from faraway America added another facet to our knowledge of this invented world, arriving like an explorer at home port.

Encountering these spaces outside of the US — in a half-timbered house in a centuries-old city, rather than, say, in a rumpus room in suburban St. Louis — clarified something about them. The centerpiece of the world of Faerûn was a version of the world my friend and I inhabited: cities made up of houses similar to my friend’s. What arrived in these boxes from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was someone’s dream of our world, and we used it to paper over the tasteful concessions to modernity my friend’s parents had introduced, thumb-tacking the posters into centuries-old rafters. The publishers’ own part of the world was a far later addition to this massive cartographic undertaking, and they barely sketched it in when they got to it. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, seemed determined not to dream of America.

map of faerun
Map of the northwest corner of Faerün, courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

For a few years, as the world of the Forgotten Realms expanded to include Kara-Tur, Maztica, and Al-Qadim, the maps spread like ivy, the wall facing it held a single, much-smaller map. This was a map for Germany’s most popular pen-and-paper role-playing game — a single continent, bounded on three sides by oceans and by ice on the fourth. My friend ended up removing it, embarrassed at how much the American behemoth had come to dwarf it, a forlorn little island on the great white wall across from the blooming tectonic mass on the other side of the room.

The two continents facing each other in my friend’s attic lair raised a question for me that has interested me ever since. Two divergent acts of the imagination faced off in these two worlds. One was an exercise in American maximalism, the other in Germanic obsession with detail. One invited bold, exploratory roaming that brought to mind expeditions and road trips, the other a far more European, stop-at-every-chapel kind of tourism. It was clear to me that the differences between the island-continent framed by stormy, impassable seas and the massive world of interconnected continents meant something, something that neither I nor the designer had a complete handle on.

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Years later, when a high-school friend tried to explain to me what Marshall McLuhan had meant by “the medium is the message,” I remembered the massive wall of maps in the attic. The content of these maps seemed to matter little. Mount Plotoq was as unreal as the Jungles of Chult. The poster size was far too generous for its large and indifferently arrayed splotches of primary color. And yet the colors and nonsensical names, distributed on cheap poster stock, carried a powerful, clear message: they signaled limitlessness and openness. They were replete with blank spots that the spectator was implicitly charged with filling in.

At the height of this cartographic eruption D&D’s original publisher, TSR, printed maps faster than anyone’s imagination, let alone theirs, could fill them. I have to assume that the game designers in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, boldly christened vast swaths of land, majestic cities, and towering mountain ranges without knowing anything about them. They were more colorful terra incognita with more tuneful names. I imagine players looking at these maps, pronouncing those names, and wonder: how many of these places were really ever visited? Still, it must have been an incredible feeling for designers to set down a desert, make up a few rudimentary facts about it, and to know that out there thousands of imaginations would help you populate it in ways that you would never find out about.


“This was made by Thror, your grandfather, Thorin,” he said in answer to the dwarves’ excited questions. “It is a plan of the Mountain.”

“I don’t see that this will help us much,” said Thorin disappointedly after a glance. “I remember the Mountain well enough and the lands about it. And I know where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons bred.”

“There is a dragon marked in red on the Mountain,” said Balin, “but it will be easy enough to find him without that, if ever we arrive there.”

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

There is a famous dictum by Alfred Korzybski: the map is not the territory. Medieval maps look only vaguely like what we can see in satellite imagery today. But fantasy fiction deliberately acts like there is no difference. In Game of Thrones, the opening swoop is not across the territory of Westeros, but over its map. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — the second movie in Peter Jackson’s original trilogy — similarly features a moment in which the characters peruse a map of their own world. It is recognizably the very same map that comes with the novel, just a bit more crumpled, and covered with some prop-department soot. The map is that rare totem that is identical in their world and ours. When you look at the map, you meet the characters eye to eye.

For centuries, fantasy didn’t require maps. Sure, some speculative works included them — think of the map of Utopia that furnishes the frontispiece for Thomas More’s fictional travelogue. Usually, when an invented map showed up in a novel, it served as an attempt at realism. From Anthony Troloppe’s Barsettshire, via Sherwood Anderson’s map of Winesburg, Ohio, to William Faulkner’s schematic of Yoknapatawpha County, these maps were supposed to convince you that, though the specific place the novel described was fictional, it had its place in your world. You didn’t armchair-travel from Varner’s Corner to Sutpen’s Hundred. You wouldn’t want to be a tourist in Yoknapatawpha, even of the armchair variety.

Nothing like this was required in what would become fantasy literature set in “secondary worlds.” William Morris’s mock epics The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896) were sumptuously designed and illustrated, much like the collections of real-world myths of their day — but that design omitted any maps of the fictional world. Edgar Rice Burroughs published 11 volumes of fiction around John Carter and the invented Barsoom. He’d come up with Martian measurements and jotted down a rudimentary map, but never bothered to include either in any of his books. Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea: maps exist for all of these, but at the time no one thought readers needed to see them.

Part of this could be due to the fact that early pulp fantasy appeared in publications that were ill-equipped to reproduce a full-page map before each installment of the story. A hardcover children’s fiction like The Hobbit had a much better reason to get fancy with its design. children’s books traditionally came illustrated anyway, while pulps, at least initially, did not. The map entered fantasy literature as one illustration among many; it attained its status as the most important (and often, only) illustration in the book later on.

It’s equally possible that until Tolkien, fantasy authors just didn’t feel like they needed maps. Tolkien did. For the Oxford professor, maps were a natural part of the faux-scholarly apparatus he prepared to keep control of his fictional world. Tolkien himself said that he “started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances).” Through map design Tolkien could telegraph some of the complicated culture he had dreamed up for Middle Earth: the maps for The Hobbit were full of Runic inscriptions and historical notes, to the point that several scholarly books have devoted chapters to a detailed reading of these maps alone.

Tolkien was fine withholding the massive background mythology, most of it wasn’t available until his children decided to cash in on it after the author’s death. But he felt it was necessary to share these maps with readers. “Look at the map at the beginning of this book,” Tolkien’s narrator advises in The Hobbit, “and you will see there the runes in red.” Tolkien began experimenting with what would become Middle Earth in the 1920s, after the Great War had transformed people’s relationship to tracing the outlines of other people’s paths across unfamiliar terrain. During the war, Tolkien had sent his wife, Edith, coded messages in his letters, messages she could keep track of on a map at home. I’ve come to wonder whether her anxiety following her husband across the map of Flanders became a forerunner to the anxiety with which later readers would track Frodo’s frustratingly slow approach to Mount Doom.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo and Sam reach the Black Gate to Mordor, but are forced to turn around and try a different route. If you’ve seen the movies, you encountered it as one way station among many on their quest. But I can still recall that scene from my first reading of the book. Glued as I was to the map, I experienced the scene as a visual gut punch: barely an inch lay between the characters and their goal, and I could feel the visceral frustration as they suddenly and decisively had to move map-inch by map-inch away from it again. Perhaps mapping progress was for J. R. R., as it had been for Edith Tolkien, about managing wartime anxieties.

Concepts that we have grown distrustful of in our world — border, nation, identity — are magically appropriate in describing elf kingdoms, misty isles, or corsair ports.

But anxiety is only part of the story. For every moment when we take in glumly how far our heroes still have to travel, there are ten moments of the opposite: of luxuriating in how much world is yet out there for our heroes to traverse, a burning desire to see the lines and shadings filled in with people and story. This, too, is part of Tolkien’s maps. Between the world wars, the British Isles were seized by a hiking craze. Maps, organized tours, and walking guides proliferated during the years Tolkien began charting Bilbo’s great hike towards the Lonely Mountain. Thror’s Map, which Tolkien himself drew and which his characters use as a guide to get into the Mountain, may look like the map of Treasure Island that Robert Louis Stevenson included as a frontispiece in his 1883 novel. But the paths and pointers, the famous sight at the center, and the reams of text and historic markers make it feel like a hiking map.

To some extent that’s been true ever since. While cartographers have developed so many ways to present geographic information, the maps that accompany fantasy novels don’t vary a lot in terms of the information they display. They are about location, distance, and terrain for characters to hike through and for us to follow along. They are rarely political maps. They focus on geography over borders and on movement over status. The scholar Stefan Ekman suggests one reason why that may be: a lot of the borders and boundaries around fantasy realms are dictated by natural or supernatural features and have to do with states of being rather than simple movement in space. The kinds of borders we are familiar with — the result of historic processes or Gertrude Bell-style whim — are mostly banished. Concepts that we have grown distrustful of in our world — border, nation, identity — are magically appropriate in describing elf kingdoms, misty isles, or corsair ports.

Fantasy maps suggest that history and habitation follow much more cleanly from geography than they do in our world. And their geography is not the result of blind physical processes. In a recent essay, geologist Alex Acks called the map of Middle Earth a “geographical car wreck”: Tolkien’s mountain ranges meet in right angles, but, as he points out, “mountains don’t do corners.” Middle Earth’s geography suggests another kind of history than the one we see reflected in our landscapes. And why not: Tolkien came up with the map as part of Middle Earth’s mythology. Frodo and Gandalf’s moment isn’t some random point along millions of years of geologic time; the very continent they traverse has evolved along with the story in which they play a part.


All that is required for a good fantasy map are some evocative names distributed over vaguely geographic-looking splotches of grayscale shading or color. The novelist Ursula K. Le Guin acknowledged many parts of her Earthsea-series map “were, when I wrote them, merely words — ‘empty’ nouns. I knew that if my story took me to them, I would find out who and what they were.” In the same way, she adds, “I drew the map of Earthsea at the very beginning, but I didn’t know anything about each island till I ‘went to’ it.”

It’s strange, then, that we can detect clear conventions and preferences when it comes to how kingdoms, oceans, islands, and mountains are distributed on these maps. Authors who are free to use their imagination any way they choose somehow seem to imagine along the same stringent lines. Le Guin writes that fantasy “has rules,” that it “asserts a universe that, in some way, makes sense.” Fantasy maps make sense in a highly specific, and for that reason highly interesting, way.

Think of the ubiquitous great western oceans: Diana Wynne Jones’s satirical travel guide from 1996, The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, points out that most fantasy worlds have one, “but it is out of bounds for the Tour.” No one knows what’s beyond it, “and the Cartographer felt free to doodle in the space.” Fantasy that wants to unsettle the Western-Europe-with-elves-and-dragons mode — Le Guin’s Earthsea, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for instance — also resists giving totemic significance to east and west, north and south, or to having a forbidding ocean on the left side of the map. I recall a profound sense of disappointment when, as a young teen, I first cracked open one of the Earthsea novels: It’s just a bunch of islands, I remember thinking. I didn’t know where to focus; I was looking at a picture without being able to say what it was a picture of. I recall a feeling of vertigo at the fact that I couldn’t tell whether the edges of the map were perhaps also the ends of the world. The atoll could’ve been surrounded by endless ocean, or just by more islands. I couldn’t say which possibility frightened me more.

Map of Earthsea, drawn by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Was the anxiety I felt, in a comparatively small nation on the western shore of a large landmass, that of not seeing myself mirrored in a small nation on the western shore of a large landmass? In most fantasy novels this is where the smaller nations cluster and where the story takes place. Perhaps generations of map designers simply had Tolkien in mind when they emulated his geography, the haunting mystery of Frodo’s final voyage to the hazy west. Or perhaps they felt the same sense of anxiety I did. Perhaps the two are not even distinct. Middle Earth has a western neighbor, but it doesn’t have to be penciled in: going there means that the story is over. Meanwhile, venturing into the sketchy east and figuring out what it looks like is the story. There is an Englishman’s moral geography overlaid onto a continent that Tolkien positions as an oblique ancestor to Europe: the Shire, too sensible to take much interest in the dark east or the shining west, occupies a quintessentially English position.

Its middle-ness, its immunity to the charms of east and west alike, is both a necessary condition for adventure (both Bilbo and Frodo venture forth from this middle position against their will), and an assurance that the adventure can at some point come to an end: The Hobbit is subtitled “there and back again,” after all. It’s a place that launches you into adventure, but also promises a safe harbor once all the questing is done. Perhaps this is why the middle position between an ethereal west and an ominous east has proved so irresistible to fantasy mapmakers.

As we get to the right-hand edge of fantasy maps, things get rather hazy, and not a little racist.

Still, it’s hard to detach that middle position from its obvious Eurocentrism. The fantasy genre, cribbing as it does from our imaginary version of medieval Europe, seems wedded to an Atlantic Ocean setting firm limits to human curiosity to the west. There are clear remnants here of a colonialist mental geography. Think of all the maps of fantastic continents you know where the eastern lands are bigger, more savage, more mysterious. On every foldout map of Middle Earth there is a place called Rhûn (which is the word for “east” in Tolkien’s Elvish) on the eastern margin: the circumflex alone already signals that we’re far removed from the familiarity of the Shire. We learn nothing of it, other than that the people who live there are “Easterlings” in league with Sauron. As we get to the right-hand edge of fantasy maps, things get rather hazy, and not a little racist.

George R. R. Martin’s Westeros is a surprisingly navigable space — Littlefinger, Varys, and Euron Greyjoy pop about at astonishing speed in the show, and Catelyn Stark does likewise in the books. Meanwhile in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen spends five books roaming about in endless steppes, deserts, and seas. Her travels are a trip into something far more mysterious and otherworldly than anything the reader encounters in Westeros. But her travels also represent a trip back in time: with its abandoned cities, shadowbinders, and an upstart queen conquering foreign cities, Martin is riffing on early fantasy literature — above all the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. At least one of the city names in Essos, the Eastern continent Daenerys traverses, has direct antecedents in Howard’s novels.

The west coast of fantasy continents is differentiated and densely textured. In countless continents invented for D&D, the east usually contained mysterious, massive kingdoms stretching into the unknown. Khanates, hordes, red wizards, warlords, and dragons populated them, and they were off-limits for all but the most advanced player characters. East is where Daenerys Targaryen can play white savior and practice being queen, but her destination lies to the west.


LADY CRANE: Where will you go?
ARYA: Essos is east and Westeros is west. But what’s west of Westeros?
LADY CRANE: I don’t know.
ARYA: Nobody does. That’s where all the maps stop.
LADY CRANE: The edge of the world, maybe.

— Game of Thrones, Season six, Episode eight.

If on the eastern continents the fantasy genre frequently gives in to its most retrograde political instincts, towards the west it puts its radical, disruptive power. The east is usually known, however sketchily, but your typical fantasy continent has an uncharted, ignored sibling towards the west. As Arya Stark suggests, there might be land to the west of Westeros, beyond the Sunset Sea — but no character ever goes there, no character hails from there, and no one seems to pay it any mind. Arya’s desire to venture into the unknown is part of her desire to be “no one.” A Stark ancestor named Brandon the Shipwright is supposed to have vanished trying to go there.

Westeros, like the worlds of D&D and AD&D, was created by an American. If the classic Tolkien-style fantasy world is in some obscure way informed by Europe, the area that is at once shrouded in mystery and treated with incuriosity is whatever the particular world’s equivalent to America would be. These worlds’ supposed medievalness is reinforced by the absence of, and the disinterest in, the American horizon. Martin, for one, seems to think so, and has some fun with the idea: eagle-eyed fans have noted that the dietary palette in the Seven Kingdoms lacks potatoes, tomatoes, and other New World staples.

Fantasy worlds are defined by limits: much is unknown in these worlds, and the unknown either resists being known, or it is left in peace. These are fabled lands that no one has visited and lost empires known only through inscrutable ruins. Withholding an America-like landmass seems to be part of that. We live in an age of information overload and complete transparency, and fantasy worlds offer the succor of not knowing. Or of knowing only at great effort and consequence. One thing that is true for so many fantasy continents I’ve looked at: you can’t circumnavigate them. It isn’t all there for you to gawk at, for you to possess it whole. You are never a tourist in them. Exploring one part of a world commits you to never being able to explore others. The part that you choose defines you as a particular kind of person.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fantasize a world that may have suffered conquest and war crime, but that has a geography beyond past horrors.

But there has to be a reason why it is specifically to the west that mystery sets in and curiosity gives out. Whatever lies far outside of Westeros in other directions, be it a place called Yi Ti or the southern continent of Sothoryos, is known to the characters in Game of Thrones, they just don’t explore it. But for the question of “what’s west of Westeros” they don’t even have legend as a guide. I think my friend’s attic maps suggest why it’s the west that is missing in this way: we waited in that German attic for a fantasy analogue to our own part of the world to be dreamed up by colorful game sets shipped over from another part of the world. And yet America left itself out of the dreaming. Modern fantasy as a genre is about as old as U.S. hegemony, and the map behemoth dwarfing its tiny German counterpart was, in a way, a dream for people who experience the U.S. as so all-encompassing that to imagine a world without the U.S. pushes it automatically into the realm of fantasy. If science fiction became a buttress of the American Century as a celebration of American can-do spirit, fantasy literature is permeated instead by unspoken shouldn’t-dos and shouldn’t-have-dones.

This sense of world-historic regret, of turns not taken, lurks just at the edge of these maps. They are fantastical not just in that someone imagined them: even the most unlovely and inhospitable world represents a wish fulfillment. In fantasy settings cultures interact in ways that resemble cultural exchange before Europe began colonizing the globe — Marco Polo rather than Hernando Cortez. There’s war and conquest, often lots of it, but to be a traveller in a fantasy world is itself rarely a form of colonialism. While fantasy settings often mix in some (heavily exoticized) Arab cultures, or bring in East Asian elements, notably few of them include pre-Columbian civilizations (one exception is Aliette de Bodard’s recent novels). When AD&D attempted a pre-Columbian setting, the author suggested it answered “(fantastically of course) what might have happened if the native cultures had not been so totally conquered and overwhelmed by the invaders.” Many fantasy continents are environmentally devastated, but the forces responsible are divine, cosmic, and frequently the bad guys. To travel in such a world is not to travel through a topography of your own fault.

Traditional fantasy continents let their readers have their cake and eat it too: all the derring-do of exploration, war, and expansion, but none of the guilt. They’re encounters with “exotic” culture that don’t have to take power imbalance into account. No wonder that many of today’s most interesting fantasy writers design their worlds against these conventions. At the same time, it’s worth taking seriously a part of the wish that stands behind the archetypal fantasy map and behind its enduring popularity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fantasize a world that may have suffered conquest and war crime, but that has a geography beyond past horrors. There’s nothing wrong with imagining a world in which crossing a border makes a real difference — makes you a different you.

If fantasy maps address the armchair traveller in all of us, then the lands not found on them address something that we all sense but that can get lost in tourism: there are trips that you take and cease being you. Frodo’s departure from Middle Earth is both a physical trip and a death. Pushing off from a fantasy continent towards the left-hand edge of the map means acknowledging there are more metaphysical voyages on which maps won’t guide you. In the end, the impossibly snaky rivers, the misbehaving mountains, and the unpronounceable names are not the most important part of the fantasy map. That honor belongs to the place where, as Arya says, “all the maps stop.”


Adrian Daub is professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) “The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism.” He tweets @adriandaub.


Editor: Ben Huberman
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel