Great moments in pedantry: Winter is coming. But why?

A work of fiction doesn't have to be scientifically accurate. It just has to make sense. All it has to do is maintain an internal logic and consistency strong enough that you, the reader, aren't inadvertently thrown out of the world. If you're frequently frustrated by detail accuracy in fiction, that's likely your problem, not fiction's. Chill out. Breath deep. Smell the flowers. Experience some imagination and wonder.

I fully endorse all the sentiments outlined above. And yet. And yet. There are some fictional details that drive me crazy. Like the seasonal shifts in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where winter and summer last for years—sometimes decades—and nobody knows exactly when the seasons will change. It's not that I feel a burning need to prove to Martin that this can't work. Instead, it makes me ravenously curious. I keep wondering whether, given what we know about astronomy, there's any way that this could actually work somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away.

A couple of weeks ago, io9's George Dvorsky put together a little round-up of five possible scientific explanations that would make Westeros' magical reality make more sense. I chatted about Dvorsky's list with Attila Kovacs, an actual astronomer who has a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology. They've got differing perspectives on how unpredictable and ridiculously long seasons might work. Thanks to both these sources, I feel like I better understand our universe, and can read Martin more comfortably.

Dvorsky's list starts with planetary tilt. Specifically, what would happen if the planet Westeros is on had a particularly wobbly tilt.

Earth's seasons are caused by the tilt of its axis of rotation - a 23.4° offset of the axis to be exact. The direction of the Earth's rotational axis stays nearly fixed in space despite the fact that we're also revolving around the Sun. As a result, depending on the Earth's location during its orbit, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, causing us to experience summer. Half a year later, when the Earth is on the opposite side of the Sun, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, resulting in — yes, you guessed it — winter. The seasons are, of course, reversed for the southern hemisphere.

The seasons themselves are the result of shifting daylight exposures. In temperate and polar regions, the seasons are marked by changes in the intensity of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface. The less sunlight, the colder it is. Makes sense. It's important to note that the Earth's axis of rotation is extremely stable. If it wasn't, the Earth's tilt would be very wobbly, resulting in inconsistent and unpredictable seasonal lengths like the ones portrayed in Game of Thrones.

But thankfully we have the Moon. Or more specifically, we have a very large moon. The Earth's moon is disproportionately large compared to other planetary satellites in the solar system. And without it, there might not be any seasons, or the seasons could be very different than what we're used to. The Moon has the effect of stabilizing the tilt of the Earth's rotational axis. Without it, Earth would be a wobbly mess.

Kovacs, though, says Dvorsky has this backwards. Our Moon isn't a stabilizer at all.

Rotational axes of planets are almost impossible to nudge (IO9's #1), unless by a powerful tidal force — such as the one exerted by our large and close Moon (short of a catastrophic collision with another planet). IO9 has this completely upside-down. Earth's rotational axis would be extremely stable were it not for the Moon. Because of the Moon, it is constantly changing — precessing — with a 26,000 year period.

Basically, Earth does experience some erratic, hard-to-predict changes to its orbit which probably result in changes to observable weather/climate patterns. In fact, it's a big part of some theories on why Ice Ages happen. It's just that, here, unlike on Westeros, those changes happen over thousands of years, not tens or dozens. Instead, Kovacs offers two potential causes for unwieldy seasons that weren't mentioned in the io9 piece at all. First, he says, you could get a very irregular orbit—and thus, irregular seasons—just by having there be two suns.

IO9's list is missing my favourite explanation, that of a disrupted planetary orbit, a.k.a the 3-body problem. Earth goes around the Sun on a nice regular orbit, only because the effect of all other planets on Earth's motion is tiny, so one really only needs to consider the Earth orbiting the Sun (2 bodies) or the Moon orbiting Earth (2 bodies again). However, things get hairy with more large bodies close by — such as with planets orbiting binary stars. Around binary stars, most orbits would be chaotic. So much so, that in the long run planets would tend to be either ejected or collide with one of the stars. But, perhaps, Westeros got lucky, and stayed around long enough by slim chance... And, the second object in the binary could be a brown dwarf (essentially a very large planet, that is just short of becoming a star itself), which would explain why it still only has one real sun still...

And, here is one more possibility, just for fun: What if Westeros' sun has a variable energy output? It could have structural instabilities (resulting from changes in its stellar structure, or from recently swallowing a large inner planet). Or, it could have a close binary companion from which it accretes material at an unsteady rate...

Of course, Kovacs' "three-body problem" explanation has implications for the seasons on Tatooine, as well. But that's a whole 'nother issue.

Read the full io9 piece on the theoretical astronomy that could cause weird seasonal changes like the ones depicted in Game of Thrones.

Read astronomer Attila Kovacs full response to that piece.

Image from a T-shirt Of the Day on RIPT Apparel


  1. I got the impression from the books that they still had mini-seasons within the macro seasons of long winters and summers. That is, it’s been generally warm and mild, but they’ve still had winters. The winter that’s coming means that everything will be colder and winters will be harsher, but not that there will be literally NO summer. Just that the summers during the long winter will be short and not very warm.

    Of course, it’s been a while, so I might be totally wrong, and maybe Martin really did mean that summer has literally lasted for ten years and winter is also going to last for ten years.

    1. I interpreted that as well – yearly seasons superimposed on a larger climate change which cycles over several years. Because even in the books they mention several harvest cycles even as the longer seasons change. 

      Also, I read an interview somewhere where GRRM claims there’s a magical element to the seasons which will become evident by the end, and that it has something to do with the dragons.

      1. Actually, in the book they talk about hoping for a long autumn so that they have time to harvest before winter.  You’re right about there being milder winters and summers, but in the big bad winter that’s coming, the characters talk about whole years without any sunlight whatsoever.  No mini-summers.  Just darkness and freezing cold. 

  2. I got the impression from the books that they still had mini-seasons within the macro seasons of long winters and summers. That is, it’s been generally warm and mild, but they’ve still had winters. The winter that’s coming means that everything will be colder and winters will be harsher, but not that there will be literally NO summer. Just that the summers during the long winter will be short and not very warm.

    Of course, it’s been a while, so I might be totally wrong, and maybe Martin really did mean that summer has literally lasted for ten years and winter is also going to last for ten years.

  3. I don’t think it’s pedantic to be curious about the mechanism, as I was.

    My explanation was that they actually have completely regular seasons, but they’re too busy with the stabbing and humping, or just too thick, to count the years and spot the pattern.

    1. Lump in enough different variables, make record keeping erratic, and they won’t be able to untangle it enough to predict anything.

      1.  They do have a dedicated research body, though.

        The Maesters of the Citadel should have been able to spot a pattern, if there is any…

        1. The Maesters of the Citadel seem to be quite inept. 

          Their order is a couple of thousand years old, there were no really bad invasions in Westeros, no devastating plagues and yet they produce nearly no new knowledge.

          1. Not sure how far you are in the books, but a particular character’s storyline might answer those questions in future books.

          2. @boingboing-9150af663ce704426e8486f1593edde3:disqus I’ve read them all in March, but don’t remember anything conclusive – yet.  Yes, I think that there will be some  relevations about the Citadel, but they better be good. :)

          3. I think that the Maesters’ role in society has been the destruction of magic, rather than attempting to learn. Someone says (in AFFC maybe?) that nobody should trust the maesters, as they are attendant to all the kings and know all their secrets. I don’t think that was a throwaway line. BTW, check out GRRM”s website, there are some bonus chapters on there from Winds of Winter. 

          4. @boingboing-9150af663ce704426e8486f1593edde3:disqus  But the Maesters are mainly limited to Westeros and yet the rest of the world is mostly on the same technological and societal level. 

            Do you have a link for  the chapters?

          5. Sure, here’s the link to the new chapter (Theon):

            Definitely has a lot going on, and took me a reread to understand what the plan is.

            It’s true what you’re saying about the other continents. I’m mostly going off of what Marwyn says to Sam about the maesters killing the dragons two hundred years ago.  The theory has been thrown around the boards on for awhile, it’s really fascinating. There’s also quite a few about the Faceless Men. 

          6. and yet they produce nearly no new knowledge.

            Neither did the scholars at the library of Alexandria FWIW.

          7. @wysinwyg:disqus The Maesters are more than Librarians, though. They are an order of “scholars, healers, postmen, and scientists” and distinguish between some sixteen “majors”, so to speak. Also, they are in business far longer than the Library of Alexandria.

          8. My take on the Maesters is that they are dogmatic archivists first and clerks & bandagers second. Any Maester seeking unsanctioned “new” knowledge is frowned on or possibly treated as an apostate. I guess any ancient organisation needs to justify itself and its value by insinuating itself into the world at large (like all lordlings must be taught by Maesters or Maesters need to maintain ravens… despite there being no real evidence that this matters).

            Which makes me wonder if  GRRM’s treatment of the Maesters is not a commentary on how some “truth seekers” can be just as dogmatic and arrogant as “people of faith” and thus ultimately stifling any productive growth of knowledge.  The books certainly seem to, at least to me, imply that Maesters have ulterior motives.  Which I guess we’ll see more of as the books continue with that particular storyline.

            In any case, I think it is telling that any time a book is mentioned, which is written by a Maester, it is always some ridiculously boring sounding, pedantic examination of an insignificant king or event which all the characters in the book seem to roll their eyes about. 

            Regarding Plagues & Seasons: Doesn’t one of the short stories (maybe the third one) mention a devastating plague in a “spring” after a long winter? Mind you, it didn’t sound like the Maesters were much help during it (at least based on my memory of the short story in question).

  4. Another explanation:
     variable rotational axis, plus an exaggerated, and long path of revolution. A Long Winter is when the rotational axis tilts the 7 Kingdoms away from the sun, and is simultaneously at apogee with regards to the sun… the instance that the planet itself is farthest from the sun.

  5. Interesting!

    I also like to think of what the human evolution looked like on whatever planet Westeros is on. Has this been cleared up? As far as I can tell, there are two huge continents on the planet; Westeros and Essos. Is there more? 

    I wish they would have included a scale on the maps in every book. How far is it from say… The Wall to King’s Landing? Thousands of miles? I imagine northern Westeros to be North America, and the south would be South America. Wow… that seems really obvious.

    I need a Globe of Ice and Fire. That would rule.

    Anyway… back to the evolution thing. It’s interesting to think how ecological (long seasons, less genetic separation, fewer continents),  factors might have played into the apes that eventually eventually evolved into the Game of Throne humans. More aggression? These are the kinds of things that I think about when the electricity goes out.

    1. There is another “continent” called Sothoryos which has been all but unmentioned thus far through the first five books. Maybe it will be explored in books six and/or seven…

      1. Also, there have been hints about marsupial predators far away, which I took as relating to a pendant for Australia.  

    2. I don’t believe humans evolved here, I believe they came from somewhere else.  There do seem to be cold weather creatures that we don’t have.  Presumably they evolved there.

      1. Apart from a few fantasy creatures nearly all wildlife seems to be Terran. When mammoths and lions can evolve in the world, so can humans – the probability/believability  is really more or less the same. 

        The other humanoids in that series are probably closely related to humans. 

    3.  Well, the Wall is 300 miles long according to the section of book 3 I just finished.  It so happens that the wall is exactly 1 inch long on the map in the front. 

      Assuming the map is to scale and taking the kingsroad,  from Castle Black at the Wall to:

      Winterfell: 625 mi
      Moat Cailin: 1100 mi
      The crossroads at the Trident (to Riverrun/Vale of Arryn): 2000 mi
      King’s Landing: 2450 mi

      That means convicts being sent from the capital to the Wall are traveling roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. 

      Those distances seem awfully large for the amount of riding (and walking, in the case of a certain young lady) back and forth these people are doing.  I wonder if the long seasons arose from the author’s realization that timing the change of seasons would add another layer to what is already approaching impossibly complex plotting.

    4. Westeros is roughly the size of South America and most of it lies in the Northern hemnisphere. 

    5. Thanks for the discussion guys. If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be discussing an epic fantasy series on the internet today, I’d tell you there’s approximately a 10% chance of that happening. 

  6. Magic. I always got the impression that it was only Westeros that had the weird season problem. Not the rest of the world.

    1. The rest of the world has it, too. But it is much less severe, as the other lands are on the the same latitude or below that of Southern Westros. It’s mostly the North that suffers.  

      I imagine that the few islands north of Essos are populated by people who live mostly of the sea and do not need to farm. 

    2.  The ancient enemy that destroyed the First Men is returning.  The winters get longer and colder as it builds power.

  7. Unfortunately, astronomical causes don’t apply – the world of Westeros exists inside of a giant’s eye, and is thus on the inside of its eyeball. You can see the Dyson-sphere-esque curve of it in the show’s intro sequence. Hence, the variable seasons can presumably be attributed to something that makes a bit more sense, like the Giant’s diet or disposition.

    1. I think we can safely regard this very Discworld-y theory as local religious lore. 

  8. Yeah, I got the impression it was like an ice age, so even though they talk about it as a winter it could be  a climactic shift.  I imagine human societies talked similarly after the last ice age about fears of another great winter.

     But even if we are talking a seasonal change caused by a change in available sunlight,  I am not sure why the tilt would be the first place you would go.  My first thought was that this planet could actually be a moon  and has a very long orbit around a larger planet that occasionally casts the moon in shadow.   Also, volcanic activity can randomly obscure the sun with ash for extended periods. 

    1. It’s not a moon. It’s quite clearly another Earth, the author himself stated this.  But an Earth with slightly different rules and magic. 

  9. What an enormously aggravating post.  The seasons in Westeros are very obviously counterfactual; they are, along with ravening undead, dragons that can fly, etc etc, the fantastic element that contrasts with the staid low-fantasy medieval politics that form the basis of the plot.  Do you also sit and wonder how the ‘Eat Me / Drink Me’ potions work in Alice?  How werewolves gain and lose mass after transformation?

    Despite the efforts of a lot of people to turn fantasy into ‘science fiction lite’ over the past thirty years, fantasy doesn’t work that way.  Even in trite secondary-world genre books.  fantasy is Dionysian, unbounded, imaginative, orgiastic.  The Mad Hatter is not deranged because of a bad childhood.  Cthulhu doesn’t have hit points.  Griffons don’t have thrust-to-weight ratios.  And the seasons in Westeros don’t follow any logic except the logic of emotion and narrative resonance.

    1. ftw. but, nerds will be nerds and they (we) will always attempt to come up with the besest mostest scientificallyest awesome way to explain what was never intended to be explainable by anyone other than the author, maybe, if the author feels like it needs to be explained more than it is in the text.

    2. While it may not be of importance to A Song of Fire and Ice’s narrative, the book’s weather is a good jumping-off point for readers to learn about the science of weather.

    3.  Fantasy may be dionysian, but getting butthurt on the internet is appollonian; your urge to impose rigidity and disjunction bears no fruit, and engages in the very punctilious over-analysis of which you complain. Accept that fiction is all creativity. Why should a creative enterprise be tarnished by being the font of further inspiration?

      Fantasy is not damaged in its essence by analysis any more than science fiction is hurt by mysticism. If you have some concerns about the scientification of fantasy, by all means, share them. But refrain from public discourse if what you really want to say is “Hey guys, stop imagining things!”

    4.  Congratulations, you just got an F in Worldbuilding 101, good luck re-taking it next semester (which lasts 17 of your Earth years). Next g0-round, pay closer attention to the bit on establishing clearcut rules for your world; changing the rules doesn’t eliminate them entirely.

      1. But has Martin created any rules to break?  And does he have to?  My impression from the books has always been that Martin is consciously choosing to avoid the sort of over-explained world building that Gabriel is complaining about above.   The absence  of any detailed exegesis on just why winter is coming and what exactly is coming with it seems to be deliberate – Martin’s world is messy and chaotic and nobody’s going to sit you down and explain everything for you.  You just have to figure it out as it comes at you, like everybody else.

      2. Yeah, but in a world where real magic is allowed, the clearcut rules don’t have to make any scientific sense. For example, you could say that in ancient times the gods (or a really powerful wizard dude) created a magic field around the plan that periodically shields the planet from more or less of the Sun’s energy, on a cyclic basis. Does this ignore any rules that are implied by the rest of the setting?

        edit: I see below that someone mentions the days also change length, so that doesn’t work. But you could also imagine that, thanks to magic, the planet has been caused to move much slower in its orbit than gravity would dictate. MAGIC!

        1. Everyone misses it, but it was clearly mentioned in the post that the idea is that these worlds have an internal and consistent logic in order to keep the reader engaged.  No one said the books *have* to be scientifically consistent, just consistent with the rules already laid out previously.  Having read all the books, the world seems internally consistent to me, and that’s fine.

          Asking questions about potential scientific explanations is about engaging the material in another way because it is ALSO fun.  I don’t know why people freak out when someone is thinking about a book or film “too much.”  It’s like they’re demanding everyone just receive the world uncritically because otherwise they must be joyless pedants.  What total nonsense.  Sputtering “B-but!! MAGIC! DRAGONS!!!!” sounds like another way of saying, “THIS ISN’T HOW I ENJOY THINGS SO SHUT UP!”

          Not everyone feels so threatened by a little curiosity. 

          1. OK, I was just responding to Halloween Jack’s comment, I didn’t say there’s anything wrong with enjoying thinking about the details about how a fictional world might work, I do this all the time myself. It’s true that Halloween Jack was responding to Gabriel Morgan’s comment which called the original post “aggravating”, which I don’t agree with, but I also don’t agree with Halloween Jack’s seeming position that you “get an F in worldbuilding” if you just allow for certain details of a fantasy novel to be explained by magic rather than some detailed law-based explanation.

    5. fantasy is Dionysian, unbounded, imaginative, orgiastic.

      Little of it is orgiastic or Dionysian; most of it’s rather stuffy.  Tolkein is about as stuffy as I can imagine, and obviously he’s the granddaddy.  I’ve only read a few bits of fantasy that were really explicit about anything sexy.  Nerds are often rather inhibited people. 

      Fantasy is never unbounded or imaginative.  It’s genre fiction.  it’s bounded by genre conventions and the imagination only comes in when those conventions are broken, i.e. when the work straddles the line between fantasy and not.

      I’m a little aggravated that you would count the Alice books as fantasy.  Note the distinct lack of juvenile male wish fulfillment in them.

  10. They are in fact talking about seasons — the nights get longer, the days get shorter, and they’ve had years without sunlight.

    Based on the TV series opening, it’s obvious that they live on a ringworld that has destabilized a bit.  (Well, probably more of an Banksian Orbital.) 

    1. Or a Banksian shell world, as in Matter. The stars run on rails there. It’s a generation ship in the far, far future. But that doesn’t make it watchable TV.

  11. It is something Martin has addressed in interviews before, albeit in a slightly cryptic manner. He has said the erratic and long winter/summer cycles are not natural, they would normally be earth like and we will find out why they exist by the end of the series.

  12. What about a non-emitting, close-orbiting companion to the main star that creates a partial eclipse for Westeros for years at a time? I suppose orbital mechanics would make this explanation impossible, but an idea.

    1. A brown dwarf would do as a non-emitting companion, but it would be hard to synch up the two orbits.  Would you settle for a really bad axial tilt that precesses a lot more than ours?

  13. Can we talk about Middle Earth?  Why are the winters warmer in the continental climate east of the Misty Mountains than in the coastal climate to the west?  As to why Rivendell, in a deep valley, stays warmer than the surrounding terrain, I guess it’s just attributed to magic, because that’s not how it happens in real life.  It really is nicer when authors make their worlds work a little better instead of letting plot necessities dictate climate and topography.

    1. The Peter Jackson films, they all feel like autumn weather to me, everywhere and all the time.

    2. “As to why Rivendell, in a deep valley, stays warmer than the surrounding terrain”

      It’s populated by ELVES…*nudge* *nudge*

    3.  Hey, I’m still trying to figure out how you have eternal winter in one zone in World of Warcraft right next to one that has a permanently subtropical wetlands. Or what the actual “world” of World of Warcraft consists of, since the “continents” that it takes place on are really medium-large islands that don’t take up that much area.

    4. The only thing I want to know about a new high fantasy deal is whether magic’s effects diminish according to the law of inverse squares. No inverse squares, no deal.

      1. You obviously haven’t read Tolkiien’s notes on elf nookie. They do it a couple of times until they have children and then get bored and wander off.

  14. Jardine I actually asked GRRM about this and he said winter was coming to the whole world but all the lands in the east we have seen are significantly south of the upper parts of Westros.  If you look at a maps all of Essos is below “The Neck”

  15. What an enormously aggravating comment.
    The fact that Westeros’ seasons seem to have some basic internal logic to them (long summer = long winter), causes some of us analytical folks to wonder about the mechanism behind them. We wonder if a planet with unbalanced seasons could be possible in our own realm of physics. It’s a thought experiment, and nothing about it attempts to devalue or debunk the world of Game of Thrones; it’s just for fun.

    Lighten up!

  16. Might it be possible that shifts in the continents themselves cause this? I know that the process is far too slow on earth to account for such weather patterns, but are there any conditions that might allow for much speedier movement? If, for example, Westeros and Essos were both located on a plate that was riding an elliptical current then they would would still have their regular summer/winter patterns each year but then would experience long periods of harsh winter whenever the continent drifted north.  

  17. Speaking of implausible weather.

    Some years ago, my then-girlfriend and I watched a rom-com with Claire Forlani and Freddie Prinze, I think it’s called “Boys And Girls”.  Anyhoo, the story is set in Berkeley, and throughout the film, there is never a cloud in the background, nothing but clear blue skies as far as the eye could see.  In the Bay Area.

    First I thought, either that was a very quick shoot during a very lucky week, or it must have taken months and months, with long periods of waiting between takes.  Then I thought, why the plastic environment?  What’s the point?

    1. “First I thought, either that was a very quick shoot during a very lucky week, or it must have taken months and months, with long periods of waiting between takes.”

      Or, more likely, they just painted in a blue sky and re lit the scenes in a davinci or something. This is called “fixing it in post.”

  18. All the rational issues that arise in sci-fi don’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that most of the questions could be answered with a few lines from specific characters…

    I just saw the Avengers and all I keep wondering if a. how much time has passed since Thor?  b. It’s implied at the end of Thor when the bridge is destroyed they will no longer be able to leave Asgard, so how did he get to Earth?

    1.  I believe that there’s something when Thor first shows up when another character talks about how much energy (dark energy, I think) they’d have had to expend in order to bring him to Earth. The Tesseract powers their return journey.

    2. In the Avengers, Loki did drop a line aimed at Thor along the lines of,  “with Bifrost destroyed, it must’ve taken Odin quite a lot of dark energy to get you back here. Just how long did that take to collect?”

      I think it’s actually important for authors — especially in comics, since you mention them — to distinguish between the productive explanations the ground a character in some form of reality, and unproductive “no prize” explanations that fanboys demand. Marvel has been particularly horrible about the latter in the past 20 years.

      For example, Gabriel Morgan rhetorically asked above, “do you also sit and wonder how the ‘Eat Me / Drink Me’ potions work in Alice?  How werewolves gain and lose mass after transformation?” Without missing a beat, my immediate thought was, “they’re actually related. First, consider the impact of Pym particles, and the manner in which shunting mass into non-Euclidean dimensions can affect a large-body quantum shift between planes… like the Hulk does when he transforms, or like anyone traveling to the Microverse or Negative Zone does….”

      I know these things because they were once thrown out as a bone to comic fanboys. I know that the Microverse is not _really_ a scaled-down universe within some subatomic particle, but rather a parallel plane of existence that you are shunted to once shrinking down any farther (as by Pym particles) would violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I know that that Cyclops’ ruby beams are not lasers produced by his eyes, but beams of non-Einsteinian energy with the effect of a concussive force upon impact, pooring from a portal to their dimension of origin by small portal which _are_ created by his eyes (‘punches from the punch dimension’). I know that Cyclops is not harmed by these because the mutation that creates these portals also creates a skin tight forcefield around him that protects him, and that he and his brother Havoc are immune from one another’s powers because their mutations and resulting forcefields are so similar. I know that speedster mutants like Quicksilver have ancillary mutations for super-strong bones, high tensile muscle, hyper-conductive mylenated nerves, and eyes that constantly secrete protective tears to support a body that’s moving over concrete and through air faster than most organisms can think. I can distinguish between the types of time-traveling shenanigans that are likely to effect a universal quantum shift (re-writing reality), lead to paradox (splitting the timeline into two parallel worlds), and are consistency preserving (preventing you from changing what already happened). I know the origin of countless extraplanar Old Ones like Shuma Gorath, lesser planet/race/culture-specific deities like Zeus, how they are arranged and conduct themselves, how they are beneath the One Above All, and how that creator divides reality to be governed by quasi-platonic embodiments like Infinity, Eternity, and Galactus. Yes, you heard me. Galactus.

      I know a lot of garbage about handwavy fantasy physics. I could distill the Marvel cosmos into a dissertation that would make Plato’s body reconstitute itself for the express purpose of spinning in his grave. And yet none of these things matter one wit to the stories. “Cyclops blasts things (he’s fine). Quicksilver is fast (and fine). The Hulk grows big (and is otherwise fine).” The productive line of explanations are things that limit the characters, keeping them interesting by keeping them away from hitherto unmentioned abilities like Super-basket-weaving or being able to move so fast that they can dodge the atoms making up a solid wall.  These things bound what’s required of us in suspending our disbelief. Everything else is a pointless distraction: if you explain enough you must admit that your story is impossible, which we all knew and were fine with in the first place.

      1. Preach it.  I like to know certain underlying rules within a given fantasy or science fictional world, but usually just the ones that can potentially affect the plot.  With werewolves, for example, I find it useful to know whether the werewolves in question can transform at will, or whether they’re on an involuntary lunar cycle.  Whether they can convey their lycanthropy to others via nonlethal bite, or whether theirs is simply a genetic, inherited condition.  Whether they’re immortal and invulnerable to any wound short of a silver bullet, or whether they’re perfectly mortal and simply very, very tough.  I’ve written two werewolf stories myself, one of the genetic, lunar, mortal variety, and one of the contagious, non-lunar, argyrophobic flavor, and I like them about equally in different contexts.

        I don’t micromanage my fanhood, though, and I don’t demand explanations for every last little thing.  I’m fine knowing that Warp Factor 9 will get me very very far very fast, but I’ve never really bothered caring how it works.  Same thing with wormholes.  If nobody in the history of speculative fiction had ever bothered to come up with “hyperdrive” or “wormholes” and instead just told me that humanity explored the galaxy using conventional rockets, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the stories very much.  Knowing that a conventional rocket would take months just to get to Mars, my suspension of disbelief staggers and falls when faced with the prospect of Apollo-era equipment being used to colonize other star systems.  But someone just needs to say “hyperspace” or “warp drive” or “wormholes” and my mind thinks, “Oh, that’s all right then,” and everything’s just peachy for me.

        I get irritated when a writer doesn’t bother to explain enough, especially when it seems evident that the writer didn’t bother to even think up an explanation.  Stephen King’s From A Buick 8 pissed me off no end.  But since A Song of Ice and Fire hinges on its seasonal weather system, a system whose underpinnings most schoolchildren grasp fairly readily for our own planet, I too am quite curious to know what GRRM has in mind when it comes to the weather of Westeros.  I am able to enjoy the books without knowing the reason behind the weather, however, especially since he does plan to reveal it.  Honestly, I’m more bothered by his spellings for “Maester” and “Ser.”  Those seem to be entirely arbitrary, and bug me way more than they should.

        1. I’m more bothered by his spellings for “Maester” and “Ser.”  Those seem to be entirely arbitrary, and bug me way more than they should.

          Digital copy > find/replace ; )

          1. “Ser” I didn’t really get, but I always though – probably the German in me – the Maester was intended to lean more towards Meister than German, to emphasize that it’s a title of learning and craftsmanship, not of rule.

          2. Well, the English “Master” would have worked perfectly well in that context as well.  Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books had a pretty standard hierarchy of apprentices, journeymen, craftmasters, and Mastercraftsmen which is roughly analogous to British and American apprenticeship programs.  For Americans, at least, Master is used more often as “a title of learning and craftsmanship,” as you say.  Especially since the abolition of slavery, with the absence of titled gentry in the U.S., we only use “master” in the authoritarian sense when we speak of dog ownership.

            So I didn’t really see a reason for Martin to subtly alter the spelling of those two words by themselves, when nearly every other non-proper noun in his books seems to be modern American English.

          3. Digital copy – find/replace ; )

            Nah, couldn’t bring myself to do that.  Too much like the edition of Huckleberry Finn that removed all instances of the N-word.

            I can live with it as is.

          4. @boingboing-096f32c997988c54d6d7c09ff0be4d32:disqus Sure, nowadays “master” isn’t used to imply lordship (except over dogs), but here it happens in a specific context where “master” could be a lord/servant relationship. 
            Granted, Vader *was* an apprentice to Palpatine, but I don’t think that was the vibe people got when they hear him talk “What is thy bidding, my master?”. 

            Anyway, it’s not that important.  I’m even more conflicted about the dubbing and translation of this work. On one hand, the whole thing is clearly a take on the British islands (complete with Germanic and Norman invasions) and the War of the Roses, on the other hand it is a fantasy world with no relation to Earth. 

            There are nearly religious wars on how to translate names  – is is Jon Snow or Jon Schnee ? 

            Thanksfully, I can read and watch it in English. :-) 

          5. Ah.  Well, though I’m still not very far into the second book (and I don’t have HBO so I have yet to see the series), but so far I get the impression that the Maesters are similar to the Harper Masters of the Pern books, acting as bards and politico-cultural advisors, but not wielding any direct authoritarian power.

  19. The speculation in this article focuses on astronomical reasons for Westeros’ odd seasons, but doesn’t touch on geological ones, which are far more plausible I think. On Earth, we have had Ice Ages triggered by the opening of polar oceans. When the Bering Straights opened up and let cold arctic water flood the Pacific, it chilled the entire planet for thousands of years. Perhaps Westeros has something similar that works on erratic cycles, hence the unpredictability of the seasons. If, on another continent there is a landlocked sea of ice-cold water, and some feature that lets it free every few decades, that could easily plunge the whole world into a long winter that lasts until the sea is blocked again, building up it’s reserve of ice for another generation before releasing it again. The primitive warring kingdoms would have little knowledge of distant lands, and no way to predict when…Winter is coming!!!

    1. Thing is: The days grow shorter. If we assume that the world of Ice and Fire is a world that circles a sun – and there being a moon implies that it does – that can be only explained with a shifting axis or other astronomical effects. 

      Incidently, when I first read about the series a couple of years ago, I assumed that that it was a SF series, with humans having settled a rather peculiar world and reverting into barbarism. 

  20. I was thinking that maybe there is an asteroid belt/gas cloud between the planet and the sun with extreme variations in density which orbit with nearly the same period. During winter the planet is behind an area of high density and is colder. The individual items would be hard to see, even with a telescope so it would be hard to predict when the planet would be behind an area of high density.

  21. When I realized how long their winters were, my first thought was wondering how they managed to store enough food to last them through it, given that it’s a preindustrial civilization. They could freeze much of it, sure, but they’d have to also have enormous stores of fuel to keep themselves warm and cook with, and any wild animal not given access to food would end up starving, even if they hibernate. (I’ve only read through part of the first book; if someone could tell me if the question is answered in the books–not even how–I’d be grateful.) 

    1. It’s not really been well explained (I’ve read all the way through book 5). Honestly, this is one of those things I’m willing to hand wave and not get too anal retentive about, as they do say “Yup, in Winter, lots and lots of people starve to death.”

      As long as that’s acknowledged, I don’t need tons of detail and believable explanations to make the issues and risks believable. Which is what matters for fiction.  

    2. Perhaps the summers are accompanied by a proportional overabundance of food which they preserve or perhaps the plants and animals in Westeros do not hibernate through the winter, but have adapted to stay somewhat active during the cold (thus allowing for hunting and gathering).

      1.  I’d accept a combination of your answer and Maggie’s. Yes, a certain number of people would just die off, and you might have an encroachment of more “arctic” species as the long winter wore on, but I’d also imagine that it’s happened often enough that they’d get ready for it somehow.

  22. I actually had the privilege to attend a book signing with Martin there and he was asked this exact question. According to him it is entirely magic based and not the product of odd astronomy. (Though he acknowledged the theories floating around.)

    Personally i have suspicions that it ties into some longer age spanning cycle with its own internal logic (he hinted at this but only cryptically) but that explanation is only a guess, Martin is too consistent with his world not to have a reason but he has not told us yet.

  23. Just a quick comment concerning Attila Kovac’s statement on the effect that the moon has on the stability of our Earth’s axis.

    There has been quite some work on changes of the obliquity of the Earth’s axis on long timescales by Jacques Laskar and his group at the Bureau des Longitudes in Paris. I think that this work shows that Attlia is not entirely right. While the Earth’s axis would indeed be very stable in a simple two body problem, torques by the other planets would cause it to vary chaotically and with large amplitude. This is what was happening with Venus and Mars, for example. Before tidal dissipation stabilized them there was chaotic angular momentum exchange between Venus and the inner planets, and as a result Venus has very extreme weather. As Laskar et al. showed in a seminal 1993 paper (abstract at, the full paper, which is worth reading, is unfortunately behind Nature’s pay wall), the moon *had* a stabilizing effect on the Earth’s obliquity, in the sense that it keeps the Earth’s axis outside of the chaotic region. What this means in the end is that the fact that we on Earth only have rather mild ice ages is due to the moon and on very long timescales, our moon has stabilized the climate. So in principle Dvorsky got it right.In order to get more extreme ice ages, one would need a planet in the dynamically chaotic zone, with very large amplitude changes of the axis on short (few year) timescales. This is virtually impossible to do by changing the rotation axis of a planet. The required torques are just too large and in this point Attila is correct. Such changes just aren’t feasible.But I agree with one of the previous posters, in a world in which ghosts kill people, the dead walk, and dragons exist, celestial mechanics is probably the least of the problems that one would have to explain ;-).

  24. I was just talking to my sig-other about this. I was theorizing that it must be some orbital phenomenon- like the post has stated- maybe an eliptical orbit-
    But what really hit me was- how do they deal with food issues? Ok, so I can believe that there are plants and animals that have evolved to flourish in the planet’s bizarre and sporatic summers- but think of all the hoarding you’d have to do for winter! I mean, really, how long can you go on dried salted meat and stale grain?
    They’ve got to have some really spectacular method of food preservation too- and some DAMN big grain silos. The peasants would have to work day and night 24/7 during their “summer” to store enough food for a potential 8 year long winter- and you couldn’t just survive on hunting since doubtless animal populations suffer severely from this – the whole food chain would be strained to its limit. I guess there could be giant edible fungi in the winter- but with all that darkness, nothing besides that could grow- even if it could adapt to the cold.
    Fun topic. I have no trouble brushing aside the fantasic nature of fantasy & sci fi, but it still makes for an entertaining thought experiment.

  25. I was more concerned about the reanimated dead, fireproof women, dragons, blood magic, shadowy assassins, and Kevin Bacon, but maybe I’m just odd in that way…

  26. If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax…’

  27. This is all assuming that these lands are on a planet and not some mythical ‘realm’, a flat dimension based on magic.  There could very well be an edge to the ‘world’, four elephants and a turtle holding them up.  The weather could be entirely dictated by Gods, demons or Clint Eastwood.

  28. Its obvious that the variability of Winter is caused by Climate Change. Stark is trying to tell them that Winter is Coming, but there are “Deniers” out there. I mean they have Dragons, that has to put out some CO2! Sure they died off, or was that a geoengineering experiment gone wrong leading to more instability?

    Another more likely theroy is that they are stupid superstitious uneducated people, with poor records, and a penchant for exaggeration.

  29. I absolutely loved the books and so far, love the series. However, it isn’t the weather that bothers me (although, OK, that’s a good point and a good write-up), as much as the fact that their societies are stagnant since thousands of years.

    Of course, we only have ourselves to compare them to, but if they display the least bit of intelligence and innovative thinking as we earth humans do, then it doesn’t make any sense. They’d have discovered more “modern” technology by now.

    The fact that they’re a society based on many different types of people, gathered together over large areas of land, sort of necessitates changes over time – again, if they’re even remotely like us. Very few societies made absolutely no changes in the last few thousand years on earth after reaching a certain level of technology and trade (medieval, in this respect). Certain natural observations would have been made over and over again to the point that they would have become common knowledge and people would have acted upon that information with other observations.

    It’s just a nitpick, I know. But it’s something which always bothered me about fantasy stories. Eventually, you’re going to get people who will notice things, create things, or invent things to make other things better. It’s a natural course of evolution. It’s a little hard to see how they could have reached the art of making a sword and plate mail, with all that innovation and technology required to create such things, and then completely and utterly abandon everything which led up to that point in their evolving brains. I think it would actually take a willful and concerted effort on the part of all of the societies to accept that no more changes should ever be made and life should stay exactly the same as it is forever more. And, even that would fail. I mean, in some respects…the Church and “Powers that be” during the Middle Ages held that view (in different places, mind you) – the order of societies; never being able to move outside of your birth rank; never challenging the precepts of “holy writ”; and on and on. And still, with an entire set of rules, dogma, and society itself hammering down on everyone’s head, including the threat of Hell itself on a daily basis, they couldn’t hold back innovation for more than a couple of hundred years.

    Change is basically inevitable. We know it is at least on our planet. And I submit that a planet that discovers their level of technology over the years would continue developing and not stop in the same way that we didn’t stop either.

    Sorry for the dissertation, but it’s something I always wanted to rant about. =)

    That being said, I’m still a fan. =)

    1. Actually, it’s a great modern myth that Western societies were stagnant during the Middle Ages.  There was certainly a lot of stuff lost after the fall of Rome, but lots of other stuff happened shortly after – many of the staples of Western civilization – down to how our cities work – got hammered out in these times, with many new inventions surpassing those of antiquity.  Regression – a downfall – seems much more likely to happen to human societies than being stagnant for centuries. 

      1. Well I said that… =) I said that even with all the rules about keeping the status quo, people still innovated during the middle ages. =) Maybe not as fast as during the Roman period, but it never stopped. =)

        1. Well, you wrote “they couldn’t hold back innovation for more than a couple of hundred years”.  And looking back at the Middle Ages, that’s not really what happened.  I’m not even sure that the Romans were that great innovators. Great builders, yes, but much more pragmatic than the Greeks who really were on their way to invent modern science.

          1. Oh I guess it could have been taken that way. Sorry. =) I meant to say slow it down, really. I think they did actually slow it down somewhat more than if there had been no dogmatic approach to “the way the world works”. I suppose it is alternate history and we’ll never know for sure, but I agree that it never was stopped and, obviously, I think that it did increase in time regardless. =)

          2. @SummerSeale:disqus Well, we can bicker about the details, but why, when we [don’t] disagree about the main point: It’s absolutely puzzling that nothing much happened in Westeros during thousand of years, even though their have a fairly developed technology and society.(Feudalism, yes, but a rather lenient one.)

            Edit: Added ‘don’t’ to my text. See
            @SummerSeale’s post below.

          3. @retepslluerb:disqus I thought that it means we agree about the main point… =)

            And yea, I think it’s silly when fantasy novels do that. I understand why of course, but it still makes me go ‘argh!’

    2.  It’s implied in a few places in the books that the “official” chronologies are inflated and absolutely not reliable (there weren’t almost 1000 Lord Commanders). If you reduce the supposed 12000 years of history (most of them pre-Andal Invasion) to 2000-3000 you get something a lot more reasonable: the Children of the Forest were a Neolithic hunter-gatherer culture, the First Men were agriculturalist with bronze weapons, the Andals were an Iron Age culture, the Valirian Freehold was a Roman Empire equivalent. Also, it’s implied that most of the legends about the Age of Heroes are anachronistic, à la Matter of Rome, and don’t reflect the actual culture of the time but the “current” Westeros.

  30. Started watching the series just last night actually. My only thought at the mentions of erratic season-lengths was “cool, a three-body system!”

    Then I thought “Or maybe seasons are just like Earth’s, but there are one or more
    orbiting bodies large enough to obscure the sun, with cl0se-to-heliosynchornous orbits, but affecting each others’ orbits enough to make them erratic, like the moons of Saturn. Or some kind of atmospheric behavior, like a cyclical ozone layer, or cascading cloud cover changes, or…”

    Then I thought “…or magic. Glowing-eyed undead WERE in the very first scene, after all. Maybe magic flux-lines are affecting the planet’s orbital path; or magic is locally affecting the passage of time on the planet while still keeping it constant WRT the orbit; or magic is affecting the planet’s mass WRT the sun without affecting its local gravity; or magic is affecting the sun’s own gravity.”

    Then I… got bored and went back to watching.

  31. Started watching the series just last night actually. My only thought at the mentions of erratic season-lengths was “cool, a three-body system!”

    Then I thought “Or maybe seasons are just like Earth’s, but there are one or more
    orbiting bodies large enough to obscure the sun, with cl0se-to-heliosynchornous orbits, but affecting each others’ orbits enough to make them erratic, like the moons of Saturn. Or some kind of atmospheric behavior, like a cyclical ozone layer, or cascading cloud cover changes, or…”

    Then I thought “…or magic. Glowing-eyed undead WERE in the very first scene, after all. Maybe magic flux-lines are affecting the planet’s orbital path; or magic is locally affecting the passage of time on the planet while still keeping it constant WRT the orbit; or magic is affecting the planet’s mass WRT the sun without affecting its local gravity; or magic is affecting the sun’s own gravity.”

    Then I… got bored and went back to watching.

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