I’ve taken to A Game of Thrones with a vengeance lately, and it’s a great board game as well as a great story. The characterisation is some of the best I’ve seen in fantasy novels, and thanks to it being a mostly human world, it avoids all of the Tolkien-lite tropes and stereotypes that plague modern fantasy.
However, there is something that bugs me hugely about the world, and did from a few pages in. The unique selling point of the world of Game of Thrones, indeed the whole A Song of Fire and Ice series is that the seasons are nonlinear; summers and winters go on for indeterminate lengths of time, in many cases years. Indeed, the book starts with a summer that’s lasted for ten or so years drawing to a close, and a winter that’s expected to last for a similar amount of time about to set in. This is a wonderful idea, I love it. But if the seasons last for “years”, how on earth (or whatever world A Song of Ice and Fire is set on) is the length of the years determined?
Many of the theories for the variable seasons in ASoIaF assume the world is round, possibly before Martin stated that the ASoIaF world is round, has an orbit and so on. This is to me a somewhat disappointing position; that of simply assuming that things are earthlike unless specified otherwise. This is often the case with fantasy universes that postulate multiple worlds, such as Magic: the Gathering‘s Multiverse, which seems to use a default pseudo-Medieval Europe theme for many of the worlds mentioned in the novels (although thankfully not in the worlds that it uses for main settings in the card game). This also seems to be an issue with the (few) worldbuilding guides online that discuss climate. They generally discuss Earth’s climate in depth and leave it at that, without much consideration for what any difference to this template might mean.
This repeated lesson in idealised physical geography may just be a consequence of our own perspective; as residents in a round world, it’s difficult to leave those notions behind. But there’s not much of an attempt to flex those rules, to see what happens if they are bent and broken, what sort of consequences that they have. There are some nice explanations for why the world is round (such as Middle-earth gives) or why there are seasons in a flat world (something heavily implied, maybe outright stated somewhere about Creation in Exalted), but very few ways of bending those rules.
One of the best and worst examples of this sort of thing (at once) is the the world of Nirn in the Elder Scrolls series of computer games. The Elder Scrolls has a deliberately obfuscated cosmology, the crux of which is that the world (Mundus, which comprises the “earth” that is Nirn and its attendant corpse-planets) was made out of the bodies of various gods who were persuaded/tricked into forming the material world by a trickster/creator god, whose corpse now forms the moon. This is all very nice, and harks back to Norse mythology with the whole world-made-out-of-a-corpse motif. But then there’s the sun. The sun is a hole in the fabric of Mundus where one of the more central gods decided midway through the creation that he no longer wanted to be part of the whole deal, and so tore himself away. Various other lesser gods followed suit, hence the stars. This is magnificent, but it does nothing to explain why Nirn has the conventional four seasons; why would Nirn orbit the hole where one of its creators ran away? Why would it have to rotate at all? There is so much potential for different, weird, otherworldly, head-bending stuff to go on that it makes me furious that they didn’t do something different with this idea! They even have a semi-Gregorian calendar in some of the games! WHY!?
The most likely reason that I can think of for this is just the “it’s what we’re used to” excuse, or “it’s magic, neither of which is good enough. It might mean some boning up on exactly what causes different weather systems (like looking at mountains’ rain shadows, the presence or lack of different air currents that make up the equatorial tropics and subtropical deserts), but thinking about what your world’s sun is, why there are variances in weather patterns (if there are variances) and above all looking at what the logical consequences of your cosmology would be with an eye towards the weather and subsequent ecological differences to this world. It might mean something as simple as making it clear that your world functions according to a heliocentric Newtonian-physics-model system, or something as complicated as rewiring your entire world’s weather patterns to accommodate the effect of a “world spine” mountain range to a flat world, but it should at least be consistent.
Later in the week, I’ll be looking in-depth at how I envision the weather system of Mists of Albion and how it’s generated, as a “worked example” and showing that I try to practice what I preach from my online soapbox. I also feel the discussion of of a bigger general principle in fantasy stirring, which I’ll touch on next week after it’s had a chance to stew for a bit.
Do you have any thoughts about this? I’d love to hear them!