New Worlds: Four Seasons, or Two, or . . . ?

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

“I miss seasons.”

I hear this sometimes from people who move to the San Francisco Bay Area from the East Coast or the Midwest of the U.S. Truth be told, it gets up my nose a little bit more every time I hear it — to the point where sometimes instead of smiling and nodding, I’ll tell the truth: “We have seasons. They’re just not the ones you’re used to.”

Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Summer (roughly June-August) is hot and may have thunderstorms. Winter (roughly December-February) is cold and may have snow. Spring is the March-May transition where all the dormant plants start growing again and everything is bright green and the flowers bloom. Autumn is the September-November transition where the leaves turn pretty colors and fall off and there might be frost at night, which I’m told is delightful if you like that sort of thing. It is acceptable to live in a place where summer is more like April-October (Texas, where I grew up) or winter shows up in November and stays until March. But you are still assumed to have the standard-issue four seasons out of the year, just with some of them compressed to make room for the big one.

Because you’re assumed to live in a temperate continental environment.

Where I live now, though, our climate more closely resembles the Mediterranean than Massachusetts. Like the tropics, we basically have two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season can happen anywhere in the October-March window, depending on the year and what the effects of climate change are like this time around, but it’s a mistake to assume the calendrical overlap means that it’s winter by another name: ‘round here, this is when things grow. Crops thrive in the mid-year months because of irrigation, but the natural vegetation is more inclined to go dormant, the hillsides turning gold as the grass dies. Come the rains, all that will be green again – in December or January. Contrary to what you learned in grade school, Persephone is in Hades during the summer; she’s reunited with Demeter in the autumn, when the new crops are planted.

When people talk about how cold the summers are in San Francisco, that’s partly because they’re assuming our warm weather should show up according to the temperate zone schedule. But atmospheric conditions mean that we may have what the southern California coast calls “June gloom” — a period of overcast weather and cool temperatures that occurs in part because of our characteristic marine layer (source of all that fog). “Summer” — by which I mean warm weather — often doesn’t arrive until more like August, September, even October . . . the first year I lived in the Bay Area, our hottest days came the week before Thanksgiving. (Not kidding.) As an absolute measure the average high temperatures for this area aren’t going to compete with places like Texas, but the curve is different, too.

This means that if you look around the world, you find that the four-season model doesn’t always apply. Some places have the two seasons I just described, the wet and the dry. Others have six: prevernal (early spring), vernal (spring), estival (high summer), serotinal (late summer), autumnal (autumn), and hibernal (winter). In some regions of India, it’s spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, late autumn/early winter, and late winter/prevernal (those of course being English glosses of the local terms). Indigenous Australians have multiple different approaches, varying based on which part of Australia you’re talking about — which is only logical, when you think about the ecological diversity across that continent. The core concept behind a “season” is that it maps to the shifts in vegetation, animal behavior, temperature, and precipitation that occur during the course of a year: ergo, your natural (as opposed to calendrical) seasons will depend on where you live.

So when you think about the seasons of your setting, two different angles can come into play. First, what is the environment like where the story takes place? And second, where did they get their calendar from? The words “spring” or “autumn” might never pass the lips of your tropics-dwelling characters, who speak only of the wet season and the dry season. But people in a temperate environment might dutifully talk about the upcoming monsoon season, even though there will be no monsoon, because they got their calendar from an imperial power that originated in a place that does have one. Do your spacefaring colonists keep the calendar of their home despite living on a planet where the year is 592 days long, or do they adapt to the new schedule? You might be writing about a world like George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, where the seasons appear to have bugger-all to do with the yearly round. Heck, you could make up your own seasons, based either on an alien ecology (natural seasons) or the cultural division of time (calendrical seasons). Want to have three divisions to the year, or seven? Go for it.

And then, for the love of little raindrops: remember the seasons are there. This applies to any kind of fiction, even the ones that aren’t speculative at all. What time of year is your story taking place? What does that mean for the weather? Does enough time pass during the story that the seasons are going to change? What does that mean for your characters? I sometimes wonder if TV deserves some blame for stories where everyone seems to live in a season-free bubble. The logistics of filming (your location, protecting your equipment, maintaining continuity, the potential mismatch between time inside and outside of the story) mean that precipitation of either the liquid or frozen kind only shows up on special occasions (it’s a Christmas episode; time for snow!), and the characters seem to wear the same clothes all year round. Unless you happen to glimpse a leafless tree in the background, it’s difficult-to-impossible to guess what time of year it is from natural cues. I’m nearly three seasons into Haven, a show set in Maine, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single snowflake pass the camera’s lens.

Even if your characters live in a city, the planet still turns and the world still changes around them. They build up the fire or turn down the thermostat or grab their waterproof outer layers, just like you and I do every day. As with so many of these details, remembering that makes the world of the story feel more real.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Four Seasons, or Two, or . . . ? — 8 Comments

  1. Persephone is in Hades during the summer; she’s reunited with Demeter in the autumn, when the new crops are planted.

    Indeed, as I recall, when Demeter is distraught, in the versions I have read, its hot and dry, hence summer.

    • Yup! But I never knew that growing up; I’m pretty sure the kids’ versions I read either said outright that Persephone was gone during the winter, or else I just assumed that, because those were the “dead” months, right?

    • I’ve always heard she was gone during the winter, and Demeter goes back on strike, and things don’t grow.

      Of course, they also never had any dead souls, arriving in Hades, NOT find her there. . . .

      Total random questions: How would you mythically retell Persephone and Demeter if you had to take into consideration Australia and other southerly locations that have their seasons opposite.

      • You mean, tell a story of Persephone that can apply worldwide, despite the seasonal flipping? That’s a tough one — not sure what I would do with it, to be honest.

      • Maybe have the young couple spend half the year with their in-laws on one hemisphere, then the rest of the year with the other in-laws. Granted, in that, Hades probably wouldn’t be any more a death god than Persephone is.

        (i thought _Haven_ had no snow because of all the superpowers in that town…that or i missed the episode with snow)

  2. I’m a recent transplant to the Bay Area and I don’t miss the seasons of other places at all. If I never shovel snow again, it will be too soon and, as my sweetheart points out, it’s very easy to visit winter by going to Yosemite in January (or summer by going to Joshua Tree in July).

    One thing I’m learning living in a climate without temperature extremes is that the consequences of weather are different. In Oakland, if I misjudge the weather and don’t wear warm enough clothes, the worst thing that will happen is that I will be mildly uncomfortable. In places with serious winter, I could harm myself if I didn’t dress right, especially if, say, my car broke down and I had to walk home in sleet and ice.