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Space the Nation: Cold Comfort, or reckoning with an Endless Winter

Contributed by
Jan 9, 2018

The headlines:
The cold snap the D.C. area just went through was one for the ages
Britain’s BIG FREEZE: Bitterly cold night GRIPS UK as temperatures plunge to -10C
More than 2 dozen deaths blamed on record-setting cold blast

The trope: Fans, we need to ponder The Endless Winter.

Where you can find it: Cold weather living might not immediately bring to mind to speculative fiction — it sure feels real enough — but storytellers have been mining the symbolism of a world caught in deep freeze since stories started. The Norse, who you think would be used to it, held that “Fimbulvetr” — three consecutive seasons of winter — was the preamble to countless wars and the upheaval of Ragnarok. (So what is happening on the Korean peninsula?) Skipping ahead to the 20th century, there’s the “always winter, never Christmas” of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the ominous "winter is coming" threat pervading Game of Thrones, and the frigid landscape of Snowpiercer.

Whole planets succumb to winter, too: Hoth from Star Wars, The Left Hand of Darkness’s Gethen, a handful of Whovian realms (Ood, Ribos, Nekros). Sometimes, the Endless Winter is local but just as all-consuming — think the first season of Helix, The Thing, or At the Mountains of Madness. In more modern cli-fi, endless winter can be literal, the consequences of our own hubris and planetary exploitation, see: The Day After Tomorrow. It occurs to me that At the Mountains of Madness could be cli-fi as well: it’s the Elder Ones’ desire to tame the landscape leads to their end. (Feel free to suggest more examples in the comments!)

You’re getting warmer: Placing a story in the context of extreme cold gives creators at least two interesting narrative opportunities. First, almost every Endless Winter story digs into the simple mechanics of survival in the extreme conditions. Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy charts how civilization copes with seasons that are 2500 Earth-years long. Places such as Narnia and Hoth set the stage for learning the lengths to which characters have to go to fulfill the most basic needs — which brings us to the other reason you might set a story during an Endless Winter. At least among us Northern hemisphere Westerners, there’s something about extreme cold that makes us especially desperate. Perhaps because cold weather’s dangers feel so much more immediate than heat; perhaps because in our geography, the weather getting warmer is a sign that life is coming back to the land. Rob us of that hope, and we chill on the inside as well.

Relentless cold fosters paranoia and cruel competition for scarce resources. The Endless Winter forces people together in small spaces even as it is a constant reminder of how little there is to go around. Cabin fever sets in; everyone suspects everyone else of not playing fair. The fate of Narnia turns on Edmund’s self-serving suspicions, and would The Thing be as successfully claustrophobic if the scientists could just step outside for a bit?

Yes, in the western tradition, hell is supposed to be fiery and hot — but the Endless Winter reminds us that hell is also other people.