Every December, a holiday-themed zone opens up in Star Trek Online: Q’s Winter Wonderland, a place where players can forget about spatial anomalies and chroniton fluxes and enjoy themselves in a place where no one ever dies, where the only enemies are made of snow and candy, and where it’s always winter. I found myself spending a lot of time there in 2017, even if I no longer have any real in-game reason to, and not just because it was 2017. I wondered why until it clicked — winter, a proper northern winter, is one of my sources of joy.
See, I grew up in Central Ontario, in the snowbelt south of Lake Huron. I never thought to wonder what “lake-effect snow” was; all I knew is that every year, regular as rain, the snow came down and buried the world. There’s a certain perspective, I think, that comes from living in a place where the snow is thick and reliable. It doesn’t just deflate arguments about how settling other worlds is ridiculous, since for a good chunk of the year Canada is a hostile environment — it teaches humility. It reminds us that we’re not all that. It hides our works and reminds us that we have limits.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was reminded, pretty forcefully, of those limits. In December 2013 Southern Ontario was visited by an ice storm, and four years later it’s still just “the ice storm.” Here in Toronto, something like a fifth of the city’s tree canopy was destroyed by it. I was caught in the middle of it. I remember hearing a noise and going to the window to find everything west of the next street replaced by a sea of darkness. I had maybe twenty seconds to process this before the power went out on my side of the street, and it stayed out for two days. That night was a strange night because it lacked loud neighbours, car engines, light pollution, and all the other things I’ve come to associate with “night.” There was only the occasional, distant sound of transformers exploding and overburdened trees snapping.
After that, there’s the calmness and the silence that comes from the ordinary world being buried. So much of the world we live in is artificial, regimented, and defined that some people have real trouble imagining a world without any of those familiar accoutrements — which is itself a huge problem for writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy, when worlds that are supposed to be centuries and light-years distant or were never Earth at all instead look like high-technology Ohio or Minnesota but with magic. When it snows heavily enough, the lay of the land remains the same but the specifics are buried, and when taken to extremes it makes for tantalizing possibilities in fantasy and science fiction — and when new things are possible, new joy is possible, too. This field of snow might be covering the ruins of an ancient city, and *that* glacier might be where you’ll find the bones of the last Atlantean, but you can’t explore too far in one day because you have to stay warm.
As a writer, I think that’s an important lesson to internalize: that limits exist. Not only in the sense of not picking up more than you can carry, but of guiding your options. A world of limits is a world where things that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought possible can become absolutely critical. This is something of critical importance to me, because everything from my earliest stab at short fiction to the first draft of my latest novel takes place in one setting — different points of spacetime, sure, but the same universe. There’s a joyousness in finding an answer to a question that not only doesn’t conflict with something I’ve previously established, but gives new meaning to that old establishment and lets me bounce off in a direction I never would have predicted. An offhand mention of people searching Io for the back door to Hell in one story turned into an entire story of its own.
I’ve been able to find that joy in the limits imposed by winter, in the adaptations demanded by winter, probably because they’re indifferent and blameless. The environment isn’t responsible, it just is. When it’s cold out, it’s nothing personal — cruelty is only a property of people. It’s a joy that comes from having my limits tested. It’s the bracing cold of the air clearing out my nose and cleaning the cobwebs out of my brain. It’s the thick and fuzzy socks I’m wearing as I write this. It’s the joy of living in an environment where, if you go by the genetic blueprint, no human has any business living. It’s the joy of testing and of improving.
But it’s also the bright crispness of the first clear day after a thick snowfall, with the ground a mirror and the sky so blue.
Andrew Barton lives with a robot in the sky, and has been described as a hard science fiction writer, a pencil-neck geek, Canadian, and “hey you”; some of these are more accurate than others. You can find Andrew’s work mostly in Analog Science Fiction, though they spent most of this year working on a brain-exhausting novel draft, so fingers crossed. Andrew tweets at @ActsofAndrewB and maintains an irregularly-updated weblog at www.actsofminortreason.com.