Weather's Big Brother--by Ellen Jensen Abbott
I’m about to head to Florida for a few days of &R and one of the first questions I will get asked when I return to cold, still-snowy Pennsylvania is “How was the weather?” This question, almost a space filler in conversations, becomes a central question when one sits down to write a fantasy or science fiction novel.
Okay, weather might not be the right word. Try weather’s big brother, Climate. One of the central jobs of the fantasy writer is world building, and from the early decision you make on climate flows enormous world building elements. For example, in my novels in the Watersmeet Trilogy, I created a world based very loosely on my childhood view of New Hampshire. Think of the White Mountains only bigger and craggier; New Hampshire lakes only colder and bluer; pines trees only taller and needlier. You get the idea.
New Hampshire also means seasons, particularly winter, so for my pre-industrial society, survival through the winter became a driver of culture. My societies had to be obsessed with food gathering and preserving in order to survive the cold months. Food meant power, and battles were waged over sacks of flour and baskets of dried meat. Festivals were oriented around the seasons: celebrations involving light in December, harvest festivals in the autumn, fertility rituals in the spring. One of their central deities, the Green Man, reflected the society’s obsession with the growth cycles. (Who’s the Green Man? He’s that wild guy with plants coming from his mouth who is the patron of all things green and growing. Think the Jolly Green Giant before General Mills got hold of him. Once you start looking for him, you’ll see him in stone work everywhere.)
Climate drove decisions about flora and fauna, too. I wanted my world to be both believable and imaginary so I studied Peterson’s guides, taking trees and flowers and shrubs from northern climates---the reality—then mixing and matching features and changing names—the imaginary. My Seldara trees were based loosely on white birches, but with glowing bark and golden leaves. As I researched edible plants, I found a delicious root that grew in my climate but it was called Solomon’s Seals. “Solomon” was too much of this world so the roots became “blister roots,” a dwarf favorite.
Even the action of the story was affected by climate decisions. I couldn’t wage wars during the winter months. Long journeys became longer with snow on the ground. Shelter, clothing, cuisine, economy and religion were all driven by climate.
And perhaps that’s why we’re still obsessed with weather, why people go nuts when snow is predicted and why everyone is relieved when temperatures start to climb in the spring. Despite the insulation of heating and air conditioning, the ubiquity of fresh vegetables and fruits no matter the season, we still recognize at some basic level that our own lives, our survival even, are tied closely to climate.
Something to think about next time someone asks you, “How’s the weather?”