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This week: SolsticeEdited by: Robert Waltz
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In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.
I will love the light for it shows me the way. Yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, another winter solstice is almost upon us. (Those of you in the southern hemisphere, feel free to save this newsletter for six months).
First, a note: I've been a regular editor of this newsletter for nearly five years now. Also, I'm lazy and have a terrible memory. So it's entirely possible that I've done this subject before - I don't remember, and I don't feel like going through the archives to look it up. So if you're getting a feeling of deja vu, feel free to skip to the Editor's Picks.
One thing I do remember is that I've done editorials related to the calendar here before. The important thing to note about the calendar we use today is that it's arbitrary. Sure, it was based on observations of the moon and sun, but our current calendar is only vaguely tied in to any real phenomenon (and that would be the spring equinox, but that's another season). Unlike lunar calendars, it doesn't have beginnings or endings tied to phases of the moon; unlike purely solar calendars, important sun dates such as equinoxes and solstices happen 2/3 of the way through certain months.
But still, lip service is paid to the presence of equinoxes and solstices, for those are what officially begins and ends seasons. Winter, as defined by the people whose job it is to define such things, begins on the winter solstice and ends on the spring equinox.
Except that doesn't make a lot of sense, does it? The sun has its least influence on or about December 21 of each year, so why is that considered the beginning of winter, and not the middle of it? Well, some cultures did consider the solstice to be the midpoint of the season (this is reflected in things like the title of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), but we don't - and the reason is that the perceived seasons lag behind the azimuth of the sun.
But no matter - the solstices and equinoxes reflect real astronomical events, points in the Earth's orbit where the path of the Sun does interesting things. They're not arbitrary; they're not subject to being moved to Mondays so we can have long weekends. So if we were to go about designing a calendar for, say, a fantasy world (you were wondering when I'd get on topic, weren't you?), we might want to start with equinoxes and solstices.
Except maybe not. The Earth's axial tilt (which is the true Reason for the Season) is fairly severe as those things go - about 23 degrees, or roughly 1/4 of the angular distance from pole to equator. The way it works is this: The Earth's axis remains constant with respect to the rest of the galaxy (well, almost, but I'll not get into precession right now) while we orbit the sun, and so the north pole spends half the year in darkness and the other half in light.
Point is, though, that a fantasy world doesn't have to have a similar tilt. A tilt of one or two degrees would be barely noticeable on the planet's surface, and so it wouldn't get seasons like the ones we're used to. Conversely, some planets (like the planet whose name is impossible to pronounce without someone snickering) have a tilt of close to 90 degrees. Such planets would have remarkably extreme seasons. Now that would be an interesting world to speculate about, I think. Any of these options, or anything in between, would serve to set your world apart from our own, make it different without being too weird.
There's a persistent belief that our ancestors feared the coming darkness, believing that if the gods weren't propitiated, the sun would continue its southward azimuthal journey forever, leaving the world bereft of light. I think that gives the ancients too little credit, given the presence of ancient astronomical sites such as Stonehenge or Nim Li Punit (look it up - it's in Belize). Humans can be quite clever, actually, and I think they figured out soon enough that the sun's apparent journey wasn't the result of the random whims of the gods, but something regular and predictable.
Did they fear the extinguishing of the light, or did they celebrate the knowledge that the light would certainly return? I don't know, but I choose to believe the latter. So remember that on this solstice - which will NOT be the end of the world (I lie all the time in the Comedy newsletter) but rather just another end, and just another beginning.
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Last time, in "Fantasy Newsletter (November 20, 2012)" , I talked about holidays in a fantasy world. However, this comment is part of an ongoing discussion about the previous newsletter, which discussed how far we can go as fantasy writers.
Fyn-feeling Elfish : RE:This I agree with, but I still ask the rhetorical question: How far can we go and still maintain some sense of the familiar?
Isn't it up to the writer, who, if they are reeeally going to stretch things, to make the reader feel as if they are familiar with hints and bits and pieces...to indoctrinate through story such that they are in a place where, of course!, they knew that?
Well, yes. To a point. I'll throw out there Tolkien and Herbert, one fantasy and one science fiction author, who managed to do enough world-building, and make their worlds internally consistent enough, to withstand the test of time. And yet, when reading Herbert's Dune, you have to slog through a couple hundred pages of setup to get to the good stuff - but the payoff, according to me and thousands of other fans, is worth it. Today's audiences probably wouldn't stand for that sort of thing, their attention spans shortened by the fast cuts of modern TV and movies. Tolkien, on the other hand, made it seem effortless - at least to everyone but me, because I had the misfortune of trying to read The Silmarillion first.
Nowadays, I think, you have to hit the reader hard and fast, because there are thousands of other entertainments at their fingertips. I know even for an old fart like myself, if I'm sent a link to a video on YouTube or whatever, I have a five-second rule: if you're not done with your logo or setup or whatever in five seconds, I move on to the next shiny thing. I call it ADOS: Attention Defic-Oooh, shiny! If you start with things outside our everyday perceptions, many people will abandon the work as "too hard." That doesn't mean we shouldn't do such things, but we're not here, in my opinion, to change peoples' reading habits, but to work with them.
I've done a newsletter before about Neil Stephenson's Anathem, and I'd look to that as a perfect example of being able to hook the reader from the get-go, and yet be about a completely alien world. At least at first.
My opinion, of course. Your mileage, as always, will vary.
And that's it for me for this year - have a great solstice and whatever else you celebrate at this time, and I'll see you in 2013. Until then, stay safe and
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