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10 August 2016

The Harshest Frozen Landscapes from Fiction

Half of fantasy writing is sheer one-upmanship, whatever extreme environment might exist here on Earth, you take that basic concept and amp it up to 11. We have volcanoes; fantasy has entire worlds of molten lava. We have deserts; fantasy has endless plains of sheer nothingness. We have e-coli outbreaks; fantasy has zombie viruses. You get the idea, and with this in mind, the exaggerated approach to the ‘frozen landscape’ is certainly familiar territory.

Whether it’s a book, a TV show, a film or a video game, it’s ground well-trodden, but how do you make these icy frontiers even more daunting than they are in real life? There are a number of different answers to this question, and these are some of the best.

Ribos – Doctor Who

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This chilly planet featured in the 4-part finale of the show’s 16th season. The Doctor visited it in order to find ‘the key to time’, a trinket which would restore balance to the universe. Not only is it barren, icy, and populated by a medieval society who are controlled by a ruthless mining company, but it also plays host to Shrivenzales – giant carnivorous beasts which lurk below in the catacombs of the planet’s capital – Shur.

Mann – Interstellar

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Named for the first human sent to investigate it, this is the second alien world the crew visits in Christopher Nolan’s quixotic interplanetary epic. Not only are the clouds frozen (which is technically impossible), but the planet has no surface, only a never-ending honeycomb of thick, heavy ice formations. Just to add insult to injury, the atmosphere is completely toxic and even a few minutes in it would be lethal.

The Phendrana Drifts – Metroid Prime

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Throughout the course of Metroid Prime, mute bounty hunter Samus Aran (ie – you) explores just about every environment that the mysterious, ghostly world of Tallon IV has to offer, and the snowy Phendrana Drifts were by far and away the most memorable. A maze of caverns and abandoned temples stalked by giant bats, spiky beetles and the Thardus, a sentient well of radiation which builds its own body from icy boulders (and then chucks them at you).

Gethen – The Left Hand of Darkness

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If you’ve never read any of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing, fix that. She is one of the most important science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century, creator of a number of fictional universes, and Ekumen is perhaps the most well-known. Gethen features heavily in this universe, and it’s so cold that it’s sometimes referred to simply as ‘Winter’. Most of it is coated with permanent glaciers, and the inhabitants are so used to the extreme cold that a 30 degree summer day would be a ‘furnace’ by their standards.

Beyond the Wall – Game of Thrones

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Now, I’m well aware of the fact that this series was inspired by books, but since the series has now actually overtaken them, it has almost become the more prominent version of the story. In the central country of Westeros, winter can last for years, and it blows in from the far north, an arid Arctic wasteland populated with hostile ‘wildlings’, undead wights and the mysterious, terrifying White Walkers.

Hoth – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

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Easily the most famous ice world in cinematic history, this inhospitable ball of snow was the setting for one of the fiercest battles of the Galactic Civil War, as the rebels were forced to hold their ground against a massive, mechanised imperial ground assault until their ships could escape the blockade of orbiting star destroyers. As if that wasn’t awful enough, one of the only types of native fauna you might run into is a wampa – a big, furry, cave-dwelling yeti capable of making you look like you were recently in a car accident with one conveniently scripted swipe.

E.D.N. III – Lost Planet

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Many stories deal with the idea of humans having to flee Earth to find a new home among the stars, and it usually doesn’t go too well, but the humans of Lost Planet probably drew the worst card in the hand. Not only is E.D.N. III well below freezing, heavily volcanic and low in gravity, but it’s also natively populated by giant invertibrates with no qualms about ripping you apart on sight. The inhabitants are forced to harvest the thermal energy they use to stay alive, a resource so vital that if you were to run out, you would instantly freeze solid.

Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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While Narnia does enjoy some very green, balmy summers, when Queen Jadis is around, it’s as cold as they come. When she seized the throne, she encased the entire country in the hundred year winter. Towns froze, snow fell relentlessly and anyone who had anything to say about it was turned into stone and repurposed as throne room decoration. This caused widespread famine, increased crime rates and just to add insult to injury, Christmas was completely abolished.

The Ninth Circle of Hell – The Divine Comedy

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Yes, the most bleak, inhospitable ice world in fiction is meant to be sitting right beneath our feet. In Dante’s hell, each circle corresponds to a specific sin, and the ninth and final circle is for traitors. It’s a vast, dark, frozen lake, with sinners half caught in the ice, as far from light and warmth as it’s possible to be. It’s divided into four rounds of traitors, each more severe than the last, ending with Judas’s circle, where all the tenants are completely frozen, twisted and contorted. In the dead centre, frozen up to his waist, is Lucifer, a huge 3-faced winged beast. He endlessly flaps his six wings, perpetuating the icy wind that keeps him confined, and in each mouth he eternally gnaws on a traitor – Brutus, Cassius and Judas himself. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.