Ice Dragons of Antarctica

So help me, I’ve just had an inspiration. I’ve been worldbuilding and tinkering with the general concept of an extreme world dominated by ice dragons in a (somewhat) hard-science-fictional take on a medieval fantasy setting (see my original argon snow world post, plus an abortive attempt to combine it with cities dangling from pots on ropes), but it’s never quite come together. When thinking about my Antarctican civilization concept, though, it hit me: forget the argon-world part; an alternate Earth where human civilization emanates from Antarctica would be the perfect setting for the ice-dragon concept. It would also be a perfect setting to bring in my matrilineal patriarchy concept, since the idea has a vaguely indigenous vibe, and the Antarctic civilization is (distantly) descended from Native Americans from far-southern South America.

The civilization in Antarctica will develop as normal through a technological stage vaguely similar to our Age of Discovery; think less “The Lord of the Rings” and more “Pirates of the Caribbean”. The distant Arctic Rim is reached and becomes an outpost of civilization (think what Australia and New Zealand became compared to Britain), with diseases like bird flu ripping through the world in virgin-soil pandemics, causing a mass die-off of the non-Antarctican population. Indigenous peoples are not wiped out, however; native Europeans do especially well, owing to their appearance being as attractive as it is exotic (fair skin, just like Antarcticans have and prize, facial features exotic yet not hugely alien to Antarctica, plus diverse and vivid eye and hair colors which Antarcticans lack). Their numbers thinned to mere thousands at their trough, they will be in high demand (as actors, models, high-end companions…).

Dragons from Outer Space

Anyway, just as everyone has settled into this new world order, huge white-feathered ice-breathing dinosaur-like flying aliens from outer space settle themselves on the ice sheets of interior Antarctica, their objectives mysterious and their powers fearsome, especially whenever they wander anywhere near an Antarctican city on the coast. As space aliens, they will have knowledge, technology, and biological abilities far beyond the ken of any terrestrial life-form; unlike in a true fantasy, it’s nothing supernatural (even the ice breath is really just liquid nitrogen), but it’s nevertheless just as impactful to this alternate Earth as (as I understand it) the arrival of dragons was to Westeros in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

The dragons might be simply colonizing what to them is a hospitable enclave of this new world, or they might be mining some valuable resource deep underneath those ice sheets. Not ore or anything like that, necessarily, seeing as they could procure that much more easily from asteroids; perhaps historical artifacts or unique biological specimens draw them to Earth. One idea I think is cool is the idea of a hostile terraforming, or “xenoforming”, as it’s sometimes called; some time after the dragons establish themselves, clearly alien creatures start to show up in the seas around Antarctica, as if they’re being introduced by the aliens. Whether it’s accidental or deliberate, and whether this is benign or hostile xenoforming, might be left ambiguous. This would be an excellent way to introduce new classes of draconic life-forms in later eras of this setting, including the likes of sea serpents. For bonus points there might be some strange shifts in climate as well.

One does not simply steal a Dragon’s Egg…

I’m thinking that the dragons might be more or less content to leave the humans alone…were it not for the humans’ nasty habit of stealing dragon eggs and taming the hatchlings, imprinting on them to the extent the dragons so raised can be ridden and turned to their master’s bidding. The rub with that is that the dragons’ mothers are deeply attached to their children, and are wont to go on roaring rampages of revenge against any such kidnapper…and the entire kingdom that harbors them, turning entire countries’ populations into human popsicles with their liquid-nitrogen breath.

The Dragon Throne?

Why, then, would anyone take the risk of stealing an egg and raising a dragon? Some humans are just very foolhardy, especially when the dragons hold a great many secrets, and taming even one dragon successfully grants the wielder enough power to conquer swaths of civilization single-handed. Not too long after the dragons arrived, a great conqueror successfully subdued the vast majority of the civilized world with a small army of dragons so hatched and raised; like Alexander, his empire didn’t last after his own demise, but the dragon cult even then was strong enough to ensure that rather than collapsing altogether the position of emperor managed to retain enough prestige and influence to still be a thing, a very important thing, even if the powers are far more symbolic than they are substantive, with all the kingdoms who swore allegiance to the original conqueror forming a college of electors who proclaim each emperor. Think the crown of the Holy Roman Empire…with the internal political fragmentation and diversity to match.

One cool aspect of it is that the seat of the emperor is the Dragon Throne, hewn out of a dragon’s claw that was sliced off by the first emperor himself.

Again, much like “A Song of Ice and Fire” there is ample political intrigue and plotting around the Dragon Throne, especially when there’s a vacancy. A bit of a “Game of Thrones” ripoff, but in all fairness squabbling over a throne and a draconic invasion is hardly unique to G.R.R. Martin.

A Matrilineal Fantasy World

One distinguishing characteristic is the matrilineal kinship and succession system being all-dominant in this world, meaning that in every major or civilized country children belong to their mother’s family and descent is traced through the female line, with paternity being irrelevant. Mosuo-style “walking marriages” are the norm, where women live with their maternal family and husbands just visit, assuming there even is a husband. The paternal role is filled by the maternal uncle, or failing that the closest female-line male relative.

Debutantes from the Antarctic

Legitimacy, and hence marriage itself, is less relevant in such a world than it was traditionally in ours, especially as far as law and inheritance are concerned, but it still has great religious importance, with it being universally considered conducive to the wholesome formation of a human soul. As such, it’s the norm for both men and women as soon as they hit puberty to embark on ships, going to debutante balls from one end of the earth to the other, dancing every night with new people until they find their true love.

This might actually be the center of social life, with new colonies established in far-flung New Zealand, Australia, and South America (and, later, even further afield) making it their first great project to construct a splendorous ballroom to attract debutantes to come there on those ships, so as to jump-start their social scene and bring in steady, new, and growing business from what we would call tourists. The further equatorward you get the less the Antarctic agricultural complex can work, so they’ll need those other industries to have any kind of viable economy!

A Taste of Demographic Modernity?

As I suggest in a related post, the social structure might be geared toward youth being for sex and babies, with any kind of career or serious money-earning work being the preserve of midlife. The optimal demographic structure for this to work, particularly a strong version where the parents slut it up, the grandparents care for the kids, and the great-grandparents earn the money, would be one where median childbearing age is low (check) and fertility rates are low.

The last criterion is because a world where the average woman has 1-2 children means there will only be 1-4 grandchildren, so it’s easier for a more distant ancestor to see to their care than if women had 10 children, equaling 100 (!) grandchildren, too much for anyone to handle alone! A pre-industrial society might not be expected to have such low fertility, but an earlier discovery of good hygiene and germ theory, which was technologically possible far earlier than it actually happened, could get you most of the way there. Think instead of 8 children per woman with only 2 making it to adulthood (the historical norm) you have 3 or 4 children per woman with only 2 making it to adulthood. I think I’ll go with this because a world that’s traditionally sorta halfway to demographic modernity already is an interesting twist over “realistic” medieval fantasy.

Patriarchy…but with Matriarchies growing because Dragons

One characteristic this world has in common with classic medieval fantasy, though, is the generally patriarchal gender norms; descent is traced through the female line, yes, but men rule, it’s just that usually power passes from a man to his sister’s son rather than from a man to his own son. Though even here there’s a twist: unlike matrilineality, which is all-dominant and pervasive, patriarchy is not quite so strict in many if not most parts of the civilized world. Commonly, women inherit if there is no male heir or even in preference to a more distant male relative. A significant proportion of countries are egalitarian, and a few are even outright matriarchal, with a marked trend in that direction seen throughout the civilized world.

The reason? The dragons, which this civilization reveres as living gods, are known to be all-female and to reproduce by parthenogenesis. Their relatively recent arrival has inspired female rulers and their backers the world over to invoke the feminine nature of divinity as justification for passing over males (when they can get away with it…). Given this form of legitimation the matriarchal countries tend to be the most hardcore devotees of the dragon cult.


That’s about all I’ve got for now, but does one even need all that much more? Lots of stories could be told in a setting like this, which is our very own Earth yet is so different bar the bare facts of geography it might as well be an alien planet. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I say it’s worldbuilding at its finest.

This post’s featured image is of Mendenhall Glacier Ice cave by Gillfoto of Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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