Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.
Come join the fun!
This week we look at Extreme Climates
Perhaps the hansom prince lives in a castle surrounded by green countryside and sunny days. The rest of the land is forced to deal with freezing cold, searing heat, and every other extreme climate mother nature can throw at you.
As far as extreme climates go, there is no place more inhospitable than Arrakis, the desert world also known as Dune: there is virtually no free moisture on Arrakis, and water must be reclaimed with ingenious means – wind traps, precipitators and so on. The deep desert dwellers, the Fremen, survive in these harsh living conditions by wearing stillsuits, complex skin-tight suits that process bodily fluids, and even the moisture from breath, into drinkable water, collected in various pockets from which water is drawn through a drinking tube positioned near the neck. Water is the most precious commodity on Arrakis, to the point that the Fremen reclaim the fluids from the bodies of the deceased – the process is labelled “returning one’s water to the tribe” – and phenomena like the shedding of tears, a rare happening, are called “giving water to the dead” and observed with superstitious awe. As if this were not enough, Arrakis is scoured by terrible winds, known to shear the flesh from the bones of an unprotected traveler caught in the open, and is home to huge worms – source of the precious, life-prolonging spice – that attack anything moving over the planet’s surface.
Going from one extreme to the other, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World paints a picture of a flooded Earth after the polar caps have melted: most of the world’s civilization has disappeared under tropical-like lagoons and the high temperatures have accelerated the growth and evolution of flora and fauna, that resemble more the kind that could have existed in prehistoric ages. The changes in living conditions have drastically reduced human population and the numbers keep dwindling because of reduced fertility: it’s an apocalyptic scenario that can’t leave the reader indifferent….
In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, winters can last for years, or even decades: with no appropriate conditions to the growing of crops, survival depends on the stockpiles of food (and animal fodder) accumulated during the equally long summers. When those stockpiles are not enough – because of bad planning or due to an overlong winter – people can die of starvation, or decide to resort to horrible, unthinkable means of survival. The motto of House Stark – guardians of the deep north and therefore accustomed to harsh living conditions – is “Winter is Coming”, a bleak but very realistic approach to the vagaries of Westeros’ climate and also a mindset geared toward awareness of the fragility of one’s condition and the need to be on a constant watch for the pitfalls of life in such an unforgiving land. Even during the long summers, there is a place in the far north of Westeros, where winter and ice hold sway and a frozen barrier – the Wall – marks the boundary between the world of men and the one where the Wildlings live and the Others, zombie-like undead with ice-blue eyes, roam the wastes.
One of my most recent reads, from independent author M. Terry Green, is Iced – a view of a future Earth in the grip of an ice age: it’s a fascinating if chilling (no pun intended) look at how human society can adapt to dramatically changed living conditions. A privileged few can live near volcanoes, from which they can draw heat and energy, and therefore cultivate crops and enjoy a normal existence, or as normal as allowed by the callous rulers of such enclaves. The majority though lives in the open wastes, on solar-powered boats that skim over the ice in constant motion: safety – even though quite relative – is in numbers and such boats tend to group in caravans for security, only a few bold souls daring to brave it alone in a wilderness that holds many dangers, from the weather-related ones, like freezing or the risk of falling into unseen crevasses, to the people-related ones, since bands of slavers scour the frozen pack in search of easy prey to sell.
And last but not least, there’s a short story from Ray Bradbury, The Long Rain, that caught my imagination when I first read it a few decades ago and still manages to bring a shiver of unease every time I think about it. The story follows the arduous trek of a group of astronauts who survived their ship’s crash on the surface of Venus: in Bradbury’s tale, the planet holds a breathable atmosphere and compatible gravity, but lies under a constant, heavy, relentless rain that’s depicted as “a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains” and it’s a massive, intruding presence, almost possessing its own personality. The four men are trying to reach a Sun Dome, one of the shelters erected by human colonists in the rain-plagued jungles that cover the planet: there they will find warmth, food and a safe harbor, but meanwhile they have to brave the rain, the treacherous ground and – more insidious – the mounting hopelessness that reaches its peak when they discover that the first Sun Dome they manage to contact has been attacked and destroyed by the planet’s inhabitants, who clearly resent the Terran invaders. It’s indeed a dismal tale and one that offers little solace in the apparently encouraging ending: if you read it, you will never look at rain with the same eyes…