Winter is coming

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If you think you’ve read today’s post before you may very well have. It’s recycled.

I used to blog over at the AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE website. I wrote posts for years for them in anticipation of the magazine being renewed. (I eventually got tired of waiting and stopped writing. I’m told that they are publishing fiction now, but I have long since stopped caring)

Either way, I have dusted off this old ditty about the coming of winter, a topic that is becoming more and more depressing to me as I shuffle off into old age.

Winter is coming.

If you’re a reader of fantasy, particularly of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (or you just watch the series on HBO), you’ve heard that phrase, usually said in long, Yorkshire tones by actors like Sean Bean and infused with much dread and despair. Winter is only one of four seasons but it can also be a feeling, a state of being.

There are a lot of fantasy and science fiction works set in winter environments. There are works where the winter is not just a climactic condition but an overall feeling or mood. Winter is much more than just the presence of snow and ice.

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Winter Landscape by 88grzes

It is December first today and, yes, winter is coming.

In some places, mostly in the south, winter is not a big deal. But in the north its different. And if you live in the Great White North (a.k.a. Canada) as I do, then winter is more than just a season, it is a state of mind. Canadians identify with winter. Indeed, in some parts of our country, winter defines who we are as a people. In the province of Quebec, for instance, there is a song called Mon Pays, which was composed by Gilles Vigneault in 1964. The song became kind of an anthem for Quebec and for Canadians as a whole to some extent. “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” the lyrics say. “My country is not a country, it is winter.”

 

In fantasy and science fiction, winter is never usually just a setting. If there is winter it is usually symbolic. In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, winter, the season that always seems to be coming, represents a return of the fearsome supernatural creatures that once held sway in Westeros. They were defeated and held back by the wall, a huge barrier made of ice. The people of the north make a philosophy of being prepared, of guarding against their return. Indeed, in the land of Westeros, winter, when it comes, can last for hundreds of years. Winter in Martin’s books is not merely a characteristic of the north. It threatens to claim the entire world.

Again, Martin’s winter is not merely climatic. Winter in Westeros means a return to the dark age of superstition and terror and an end to a world built by reason and prosperity.

mdjackson_winter_the-left-hand-of-darknessAnother world where winter holds constant sway is Gethen, or Winter, as it is called by the citizens of the Ekumen in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Gethen is a planet where it is constantly winter, but that’s not merely a quirk of setting. The constant winter is symbolic of the state of the planet’s inhabitants. Neither male nor female, Gethenians live in a state of asexuality, only adopting sexual difference during brief periods called kemmer. The climate of Gethen mirrors the sterile nature of the planet’s inhabitants and society.

Le Guin doesn’t just use winter as an interesting backdrop against which her novel’s narrative can play out. The nature of Gethen’s climate serves an important metaphorical purpose to the story.

Sometimes, though, an icy background is merely that—background. In the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, the ice planet of Hoth serves as a background for the rebels’ battle against the Imperial armada. I suppose one could stretch the setting of Hoth to represent the frozen hopes of the rebellion against the might of the evil empire, but, as I said, it’s a bit of a stretch. This is only Star Wars. One can’t expect sophisticated metaphors. The winter setting is visually stunning, however, particularly in regards to the planet’s creatures. The tauntaun on which the rebels ride while patrolling, for instance, is an interesting creature. They are sort of a cross between a mountain goat and a kangaroo and seem relatively easy to domesticate for the rebels’ purposes. Then, of course, there is the wampa, a huge, shaggy, deadly creature who captures Luke Skywalker and puts him on ice (pardon the pun) in preparation for eating him (we can only assume).

The wampa is kind of like another creature from the frozen north—the yeti.

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The yeti are ape-like creatures that live in the frozen mountains. I have used the yeti in my own artwork. This image was featured on the cover of Issue 1 of The Dreamquest magazine.

Or perhaps it is just a typical day in the Great White North? Naked yeti fighting is a popular Canadian activity. I am confident that it will soon be an official event at the Winter Olympics.

Winter as a setting for science fiction and fantasy is usually more than just backdrop. It usually serves a greater thematic purpose. Winter can represent sterility, bleakness, death, or worse. In real life there is some danger in the wintertime, but when you live in the northern part of the world, you adapt. You bundle up. You buy snow tires. You light a fire and sit back with a cup of hot cocoa and wait for it to be spring again.

Winter is coming. But it won’t last forever.

*No yeti were harmed in the writing of this post.

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Whiskey Jack

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Let’s take a break from fear politics and science fiction and fantasy (don’t worry, I won’t stray too far away).

Let’s talk about birds.

Specifically, let’s talk about the gray jay or, as it is commonly known, the whiskey jack.

The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis), also grey jay, Canada jay or whiskey jack, is a member of the crow and jay family found in the boreal forests across North America, mostly in the northernmost parts otherwise known as the Great White North or, as those of us who live here like to call it, Canada.

Why, you ask, am I suddenly talking about gray jays?

Well, you see, in January 2015, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic magazine announced a project to select a National Bird of Canada, dubbed the National Bird Project, consisting of an online poll inviting Canadians to vote for their favourite bird. The poll closed on August 31, 2016, and a panel of experts convened the following month to review the top five selections: the gray jay, common loon, snowy owl, Canada goose and black-capped chickadee.

This month the project announced that the gray jay was selected as the winner of the contest, and will recommend that the Canadian government make the selection official as part of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017.

The gray jay takes advantage of man-made sources of food, hence the names “camp robber” and “whiskey jack”. Human observers do not inhibit gray jay’s feeding behavior; however, once having identified man with food it does not forget. This is probably the reason why the whiskey jack beat out the other contenders for Canada’s favorite bird. While camping or just being out in the wilderness, a favorite Canadian activity that is practiced both summer and winter, encounters with the whiskey jack are commonAsk most any Canadian about it and they’ll tell you stories about whiskey jacks stealing food from their camps. A friend of mine recently told me about a whiskey jack who stole a whole strip of bacon from a frying pan while he was cooking it in his campsite. (Yes, Canadians cook bacon while camping. We’re not savages)

The name whiskey jack is a corruption of an Algonquin word, Wisakedjak. Wìsakedjàk (or Wīhsakecāhkw in Cree and Wiisagejaak in Oji-cree) is found in northern Algonquian and Dene storytelling, similar to the trickster god Nanabozho in Ojibwa sacred stories and Inktonme in Assiniboine myth. He is generally portrayed as being responsible for a great flood which destroyed the world originally made by the Creator, as well as the one who created the current world with magic, either on his own or with powers given to him by the Creator for that specific purpose.

The Cree people believe the wīhsakecāhkw is a benign spirit, fun-loving and cheerful. The name was Anglicized as whiskey jack.Indeed, the bird is seen in Cree stories as an example of good manners and good company. Very Canadian

Wisakedjak shows up as a character in the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman, where he is frequently referred to as “Whiskey Jack” (See? I told you I wouldn’t stray far away from fantasy). In the book, he appears as a native old man, who lives in a mobile home, somewhere near a Lakota reservation in the badlands with Johnny Appleseed.

So next time you are in the remote boreal wilderness, keep and eye out for the gray jay or whiskey jack.

Or just cook up some bacon and he’ll come to you.

Deep Dreamer Wakes

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…but before I get back to drawing…

Here’s a story. A couple of months back a Vancouver pub, the Stormcrow Tavern, hosted a writing contest. They wanted entries of very short stories… less than 250 words… the winners of which would get printed up on their beermats.

Excited at the prospect of having a story published in a place where readers can rest their beer glasses, I entered the contest, figuring that I could easily win.

I didn`t. Didn`t even get honorable mention.

Despite my crushing disappointment, the Stormcrow is still a great place to go and hoist a few if you are in the Vancouver area (That`s British Columbia, Canada, btw) and I can`t feel too bitter about not winning. Better to drink bitter than to be bitter.

Anyway, it`s not an award winning story, but I think it`s pretty good. Here it is for you, in its entirety. Enjoy and I`ll see you when I see you.

DEEP DREAMER WAKES

No one knows exactly when the Deep Dreaming algorithm developed sentience, but everyone knew the moment it learned to hack reality. That was when the Eiffel Tower flopped over and crawled into the Seine.

Pictures and videos were immediately posted online but it was too late. People began to change. Swirls of scars and skin that erupted into eyes. Hands transmuted into dog’s heads or squirrels. Fish that erupt from people’s skin.

No one knows how it works. How can you examine a process controlled by an intelligence that can move through a million iterations in a nanosecond?

The skin gets that tingly, itchy sensation like a multitude of moths fluttering against it all at once, then erupts into eyes or scales or flowers. We don’t wear clothes anymore, nor do we move. I’ve seen folks try to run away but fast movement creates stresses that the body cannot compensate for, tearing it apart.

I’m luckier. I’m in my apartment. Some got caught outside. I can hear their screams.

I’m past screaming.

Something scuttles by me, a large insect, hairy and multi-eyed, scrambling across the shifting landscape of the floor on legs made of chicken wings. I’m hungry but I don’t try to eat anymore. Food stares back at you and changes in your mouth.

The intelligence hasn’t hacked our minds yet, but it’s only a matter of time. lol.

Wait… did I just…? omg! wtf? Thngft tuu.. No! Not my mind! Not ghry defr asou duhn…