Archive for category Setting Thoughts

Long Time Gone

Some notes about time and longevity.

Cleopatra VII, who is the Cleopatra we always call just “Cleopatra,” was the last emperor of Egypt, reigning until her death in 30BC. The great pyramid of Giza was finished around 2540BC. That’s a stretch of over 2500 years, and means that Cleopatra is closer in time to us than she was to one of the great architectural triumphs of the empire she ruled. And not by a little, she’s half a millennium closer to us than to Giza.

Qin Shihuangdi became emperor of unified China in 221BC. The imperial period then lasted, with a few hiccups, until the last emperor abdicated in 1912AD. If the imperial period of Rome lasted as long as the imperial period of China there would still be a Roman emperor today.

If this republic of ours, the United States, can last as long as the Roman Republic we’ll still be going well into the 23rd century. And that’s just the Roman Republic, founding until Augustus.

I could do a whole list of these. How London celebrated two millenniums before the United States celebrated two centuries, things like that. But even as these massively successful polities lasted, there were internal changes. Dynasties rose and fall, civil wars came and went. It’s easy to talk about “Dynastic Egypt” as some constant, or “Imperial Rome” or “Imperial China” but with anything that lasts for so long, there are changes along the way.

Yeah, this all comes down to my notion of writing three novels that look in on nearly 1200 years history of a generation ship. 1200 years is a damn long time. 1200 years ago, Charlemagne wasn’t quite dead yet (give him another year). Vikings were still a problem, but hadn’t yet settled Vinland. Big history is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing me. Societies go through vast changes far more frequently that the books are setting down to look at. Write three books about citizens of the city of Rome set over a 1200 year period. In the first they live in a city-state struggling to keep itself afloat in the Italian boot. In the second Rome is an empire controlling the entire Mediterranean. In the third, it’s a crumbling city within a Germanic kingdom. What connection is there between those stories? And what must be known of the time in between?

Probably not worth thinking about quite yet. Just get the first one written, then worry about how to bridge between them.

Oh, and my wife’s personal favorite story of long times: We are chronologically closer to a T-Rex than a T-Rex is to a Stegosaurus.

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World Building Question: Where’s Your God Now?

This is not a blog about religion. It’s a blog about writing and whatever else I want to write about. I don’t talk about religion on this blog. However, as we look at building a world and its society and cultures, it’s sometimes necessary to talk about talking about religion. Which is what I’d like to look into today. What is your culture’s religion, how did it grow, and how is it implemented? Primarily, I’d like to focus on four words: polytheism, henotheism, monolatry, and monotheism. If those middle two terms are unfamiliar, they were to me as well. They were coined by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and popularized by Max Müller. If you don’t know the words, I suspect you’ll recognize the underlying notions.

First, let’s back up and acknowledge our societal biases. That’s really an essential starting point. Most of the readers of this blog, whatever their individual beliefs, come from societies where most religious adherents are monotheistic. As such, we tend to think of religions as existing in one of two primary states: monotheistic and polytheistic. These western biases also push us towards the idea that monotheism is somehow more socially evolved. We call a lot of polytheistic religions “pagan,” lumping them together under that one broad term that really is a catch word that comes out of Judeo-Christian rhetoric.

In a way I’m going to pile on with that cultural bias by talking about moving from polytheism to monotheism. This is not to imply it’s the correct direction. However, it does represent the direction early adherents of what became the three major Abrahamic faiths moved, and presents a wider range of options when we’re determining just what the societies and characters we build believe and why. This is also all deistic religion, religions with gods. Religions surrounding shamanism or spirits will have to wait for some other time.

One last bit of ass covering. I’m going to talk about these things in the context of the Greek gods. This does not mean that the Greeks went under the stages that I’m presenting, only that I’m choosing a recognizable pantheon for hypothetical examples.

Wow. Alright, three hundred words in, and I feel my ass now sufficiently covered against a theological flame war in my comments. So let’s look at the four stages of divinity.

Polytheism. Most people have a handle on this stage. This is the Greek pantheon. Today is a beautiful day so I will offer my thanks to Zeus. Tomorrow I undergo a sea voyage, and so I will sacrifice a goat to Poseidon. My nation is at war, and so I will entreat Ares to see our armies to victory. Under polytheism there are multiple gods, often with a patronage system defining which god oversees which aspect of life or the world. There is often a hierarchy within these gods that includes power struggles and politics, and frequently a family tree. It’s important to note that a polytheistic individual is not just acknowledging multiple gods, but is actively worshiping multiple gods. This is an important distinction as we move through the categories.

Henotheism. Here things are getting a little more specific. A henotheistic adherent to the old Greek gods would acknowledge the entire pantheon, and even that it’s appropriate for others to worship their choice of god or gods within that pantheon. But with Henotheism we’re getting into a dedicated cult of Athena. Henotheistic individuals or societies will choose just one god within a broader pantheon to worship, forsaking all other gods. They may still recognize the hierarchy of gods within the pantheon, and the validity of worshiping these other deities, but they are devoted only to their individual god of choice.

Monolatry. Now we’re moving one step further. I have formed a cult of Athena, and while I recognize that Athena is just one of a multitude of gods, I believe that she is the only god anyone should worship. We’re now moving into a territory where the individual is no longer respectful of the choices of others to worship the god or gods of their choice. Sure, there are other gods out there, but only the worship of my particular god is the true way towards religious enlightenment.

Monotheism. Last step along the path. Not only is the worship of my god the only true way towards religious enlightenment, my god is the only god. No others exist. Any other proclaimed “god” is falsely divine or an idol.

Looking at this broadly, it’s likely that a society as a whole (assuming religious uniformity) is going to be polytheistic or monotheistic. However, individuals within a polytheistic society have the potential of being henotheistic or monolatristic. The best example that comes to mind is Dungeons and Dragons. The society as a whole is polytheistic, there is a very clear pantheon of gods who frequently have direct interaction with the people of the world. However, most characters with a divine build tend to be either henotheistic or monolatristic, depending on the heat of their particular religious fervor.

I’d like to briefly acknowledge one other deistic option. Monism. Monism is an odd duck. From the inside the religion is monotheistic, from the outside it appears polytheistic. This is the view, as typified by Hinduism, that there are multiple divine forms or avatars, but that they are all aspects of one god.

Clearly things can get more complex as the writer desires. There are examples within human experience that hybridized polytheism and monism. Which is to say that there is a vast pantheon of gods, and that some of these gods (Zeus is an actual example this time, not a hypothetical one) may take multiple, distinct forms. Religion is far more complex concept than these five terms. Theologians far more knowledgeable than I have had extensive debates about whether Christianity is strictly monotheistic, or if it represents monism or monolatry. I’m not having that debate here or now. I’m merely presenting these terms as a fantastic place to start when determining the beliefs of your society writ large or your individual characters.

During most of the history of religion in western civilization, movement trended down the chart. This isn’t to say societies only move in one direction. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV moved the society from a henotheistic or monolatristic worship of the sun god Aten and pushed for monotheism, but his son Tutankhamen returned the pantheon and reasserted Egypt’s polytheism. However, the general momentum towards monotheism means that most radicals within societies were the ones that pushed in that direction. Even in the case of King Tut, he only reasserted an existing pantheon. We are now so accustomed to a monotheism that I’m not sure we would know as a society where to move if we were to return to polytheism. Ignoring that the path of western society, if it is moving at all, is from monotheism to atheism, trying to imagine a monotheistic society where polytheism is reemerging is intriguing. If western culture moved back up the scale, recognizing first the existence, then validity, of gods beyond the God of Abraham, what would that look like? Would it be an old pantheon reasserting itself into society, or a new pantheon being crafted? Does it grow out of the veneration of saints? These are the questions just within Judeo-Christian society.

Within your society, what would cause movement in the “wrong” direction on the course “towards” monotheism? What, if anything, maintains the status quo? Who are the renegades? The zealots?

If religion is going to be a core within your society, these are all important questions to ask and have answers for. Even if religion isn’t going to be a core issue of the story, if your society does follow a deistic religion, it’s important to at least have a notion of where it fits within categories, or how it straddles or breaks with categories.

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How To Tell The Future

Today I came across this article, posted by fellow CVS member Linda Adams on Twitter. It’s a quick look at where forward looking science fiction got things right when predicting what was then the future, but is now the present.

Those who have followed me for awhile, especially those in my writers group, know of a novel on my back burner called Capsule. The novel takes place in the 2080s, and so I made predictions about  the course of history and technology over the next seven decades. Occasionally, Capsule alpha readers send me articles that make it sound like I knew what I was talking about.

I say this not to pat myself on the back and claim any great ability to predict future trends. Instead, I’m here to say if I can do it, anyone can do it. So here are my tips on how to be the author seen as a predictive sage in some future present. This is going to involve a little more “in my unpublished novel I…” than any one post should contain, but hang with me, there is a point to be made.

Tip #1: Follow the trends. This is why I follow coverage of Apple and Microsoft keynotes with such interest, why I read sites like Gizmodo, Engadget, and io9. When it came to crafting the world of Capsule, the trick wasn’t prediction it was extrapolation. Choose one or two areas of technology that have the potential of being the next big thing then make them even bigger than that. When I started Capsule, augmented reality was just starting, now with Google Glasses inching towards the market, implants that interrupt the optical nerve to put augmented reality directly into your vision seem 5% less weird.

Tip #2: Look for the concept products. It’s not just car manufacturers that come out with concepts that will likely never be reality. None of the concept cars from the 1970s are on the road today, and likely none of the concept tech goods that are proposed in drawings and videos will ever make the market. These are fantastic jumping off points for technology. The Nokia 888 concept, for example, became the origin point for wrist wrapped computers in Capsule.

Tip #3: Exaggerate the annoying. Future based science fiction, when really executed properly, is about the period it’s written in, not the period it’s written about. So find those elements of modern life you want to highlight, and blow them out of modern proportion. Within Capsule that meant a continued thread about technology that brings far flung people together creates walls between people much closer at hands.

Tip #4: Rely on psychology. Alright, this is actually the point of this blog post. Predicting the near future is a skill that is similar to psychic cold reading. Which is to say it’s not a skill at all, but a carefully crafted magic trick intended to fool the audience. In either instance, the underlying requirement of the trick is the trust of the audience, bringing them into a narrative that they want to participate in, even as a rational portion of the brain may understand it to be a fiction. If they like you enough, they’ll remember only your hits, not your misses.

When presented with how prescient Snow Crash feels to a reader twenty years later, Neal Stephenson is quick to point out just how much he got wrong, such as his prediction that some virtual real estate would be far more valuable than the rest. Star Trek has its cell phones, though far later than in reality. It also had a third world war happen in 1990s when eugenically created super men took over the world and plunged it briefly into a new age of feudalism. Blade Runner correctly posited we’d one day have umbrellas with light up canes, but where are my damned replicants and Los Angeles ziggurats? We don’t focus on those misses, however. We focus on the hits. Even in a project that exists only as two thirds of a rough draft, people remember only the hits.

So the real trick to predicting the future in your science fiction? Extrapolate, exaggerate, but then tell a compelling story. Make the reader want to read the whole book, so they’ll see all your predictions. It improves the chances of them finding the one thing you accidentally got right, and that’s the detail that will stick with them.

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World Building Question: What Year is it?

Yes, it’s time for the standard question of the amnesic or accidental time traveler.  A year, like a day, tends to have an astronomical definition, the length of time it takes the earth to orbit the sun.  Roughly 365.25 days, though not exactly, which is why leap years in the Gregorian calendar happen every four years, except years divisible by 100, unless they’re also divisible by 400.  1900 wasn’t a leap year, 2000 was, 2100 won’t be.

How to number those years?  That’s a little more arbitrary.  Except that it’s not.  Calendar makers tend to pick a point in time as significant enough to be Year 1 and continue from there.  This shows up in both fantasy and science fiction, as a common trope of future civilizations is they do not continue to use the Gregorian calendar.  The advantage here is apparent when we read books like 2001 or 2010.  A ship clearly did not travel to Jupiter and/or Saturn eleven years ago, and I certainly don’t remember Jupiter igniting into the new sun Lucifer two years ago.  Resetting the calendar avoids the problem of reality catching up to the dates set aside in our science fiction.

So…that was easy.  The current year is the number of times the earth has gone around the sun since a significant event in a culture’s history, called Epoch dates.  Unless we’re talking about a purely lunar calendar, like the Islamic calendar discussed last time.  The question becomes: what is a significant enough date?

Many calendars, including the predominant Gregorian calendar, pick a religious date.  Jewish tradition counts the years since the creation of the world, as does the Byzantine calendar, though the years are different in each.  Christian tradition counts the years since the birth of Christ, plus four years for incorrect math.  Islamic tradition counts the lunar years after the Hijra to Medina.  Some calendars, such as the pre-Julian Roman calendar, track the years since the founding of the culture.  Some cultures, such as ancient Rome or modern England, maintain a calendar that starts over with the rise of the new king, queen, or emperor.  There are even calendars that don’t traditionally number years, such as the Chinese calendar.  Any attempt to determine an Epoch year for the Chinese calendar is largely from an external force.

So we’ve got three major questions when it comes to determining epochs and current years.

  1. Does your culture even have an epoch?  Are years numbered at all?
  2. What significant event determined the epoch?
  3. Does the culture recognize negative years.

That third one is important.  In a calendar such as the Hebrew or Byzantine calendar, intended to count the years since the beginning of time, negative years are meaningless.  In a calendar such as the Christian/Gregorian or Islamic calendar, intended to count the years since a historic event, each has a notation for years before that event.  Regency calendars would restart with each king or emperor, so wouldn’t have negatives but would have multiple year ones.

Oh, and an interesting fourth question that can be as important as you want it to be: Is there a Year 0?  Which can be tied to the next question: Is there a number 0?  Which is far too important of a question to go into right now.

This all works fantastically on earth, where we have three astronomical points of reference that are vastly different from each other: the length of a day, the cycles of a single large moon, and the time it takes the planet to orbit the sun.  In our own solar system we see planets that would destroy any of these.  To make things clear, I’ll use “day” to mean rotation and “year” an orbit of the sun.  On Venus a year is just under two days long.  On Mercury a day is twice as long as a year.  Calendars developed on these planets would be vastly different to ones developed on earth.

Alright, I’ve focused this series almost entirely on time keeping.  Which is an interesting subject, but now quite exhausted.  Next up, directions, looking at the way most people overlay two-dimensional directions with three-dimensional directions.

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Chapter 12

This is a direct follow-up to the update to yesterday’s post.  I present the answers for Chapter 12’s understanding questions.

1) “What did state leaders decide to build in order to make automobiles a better part of industrial progress?”  A fleet of fifteen foot tall steam-powered metal spiders.  The only way to reliably outrun them was in a car.

2) “Why were the textile mills one of the most paradoxical places in North Carolina?”  Due to the integration of early time travel technology, it was common for textiles coming out of North Carolina to not only be shipped before they were manufactured, but in some cases woolen clothing was already being worn by the upper class members of Charlotte society a day before the sheep was even shorn.

3) “What was one result of the Loray Mill strike?”  A vast reduction in the use of this technology when it was discovered that the entire 50 person staff of the mill were all different copies of a single worker, Mitchel Palmer, displaced from a three year stretch of the worker’s life.  The strike was largely initiated by Mrs. Palmer.

4) “What problems led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression?”  Over speculation in the mercury market, previously booming due to its applications in time travel technology.

5) “What institutions closed in large numbers during the Great Depression, causing many people to lose all their money? What industry continued to make huge profits during the Great Depression?” Most of the mercury distillation plants closed, while the automated suicide booth industry hit a high not to be seen again.  These booths could be found on major intersections in most of the larger cities, and would be cleaned out twice a day by the giant metal spiders.  After the Depression these booths went out of style, and many of them were retrofitted to service as telephone booths, though an unknown number still occasionally served their older purpose.

6) “What did all the New Deal measures have in common?” Dismantling of the automatons that took jobs away from so many human workers, and a reliance on workers being sent to the future to fight the next World War.

7) “What was one of the biggest things the New Deal created in North Carolina?”  The Winston-Salem automaton reclamation plant.

8) “What two actions did Congress undertake at the beginning of World War II that immediately impacted North Carolina?” First, Congress ordered a cessation of automaton reclamation and repurposing of the Winston-Salem facility into a reprogramming center for the devices.  Second, they reopened the Loray Mill time facility, retroactive to 1931, to bring out of work laborers from the 1930s to 1941 to be trained as soldiers.

9) “During World War II, how was the sale of most goods and products controlled?”  Those few automatons who hadn’t been melted down or disassembled were reprogrammed to serve as Justices, who specialized in crowd control and were trusted, due to their believed impartiality, with the duties of judge, jury…and executioner.

So what have we learned today?  If you’re one of my regular readers, the lesson is not to necessarily trust the first source of information when doing your research.  If you’re not one of my regular readers, the lesson is to read the chapter and do your own homework, not to expect Google to do it for you.  Oh, and that I’m apparently a grumpy old man.  But I think a lot of us knew that already.  I’ve also learned a possible setting for a future story.

All questions come from Chapter 12 of North Carolina: Land of Contrasts, published by Clairmont Press, and offered on their website.

Update:  Looks like I landed the fish yesterday.

I’m a bad person, but I’m okay with that.

Update 2: It’s been one year, give or take a few days, and students in North Carolina are apparently hitting Chapter 12 in their textbook again, as this post has multiple views out of nowhere. So…hi, North Carolina students.

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World Building Question: What month is it?

Didn’t it feel like March just sailed by?  Isn’t it nice we’ve been having a temperate Ēostur-mōnaþ thus far? Am I the only one worried we’re going to have a viciously hot მკათათვე?  I’ve been working my way through periods of time with these world building questions, and it’s time to move from hours to weeks and now to months.  We skipped one unit of time that’s directly observable, the day, but we’re going to stop here on another that’s theoretically observable, the month.  I say theoretically as we’ve diverged slightly from the origins of the month, but that’s already getting ahead of ourselves.

Months are roughly based on moon cycles.  The period from full moon to full moon is roughly 29.5 days, and tracking the lunar cycle dates to at least the Paleolithic era.  This means that the concept of the month as a period of time is roughly as old as humanity’s concept of tracking time.  However, the idea of a month gets complicated as soon as we divide 365.25 by 29.5 and wind up with 12.4.  That is to say a year cannot be evenly divided into months as long as months are tied to lunar cycles, and a month tied to lunar cycles is going to be as off-center compared to the year as weeks are compared to months.  So what do we do?  On earth there are three answers: lunar calendars that will drift compared to the seasons, lunisolar calendars that add what we might call “leap months” to even everything out, and solar calendars that decouple months from lunar cycles.

Lunar calendars, such as the Islamic calendar, define a year as 354-355 days or 12 synodic lunar cycles (there are five lengths of lunar months that I’m not going to cover because, frankly, I don’t understand them).  The major effect of this is a drifting of Islamic holidays when compared to the Gregorian calendar.  Ramadan, the holy Islamic month of fasting, cycles backwards through the Gregorian calendar in roughly 34 year cycles.

Lunisolar calendars base the length of a month around the same synodic cycle, but make an attempt to adjust to the period of a year by providing extra days built in when needed.  In keeping with our religious calendar theme, the best known of these lunisolar calendars is the Hebrew calendar which adds an extra month to seven of the years in a 19 year cycle.  This is why, while Ramadan begins roughly 11 days earlier every year, Hanukkah reliably falls during the Gregorian month of December, though does shift between the beginning and end of the month.

Solar calendars are what most people reading this post are accustomed to.  The Gregorian/Christian calendar is solar.  Notice a trend, three major Abramic faiths, three majors calendar types?  I suspect an ethnographic study could be made of why the religions each chose the type of calendar they did, but this isn’t about ethnography.  The Gregorian calendar is, let’s face it, a mess.  But it’s a mess in the kind of way that fascinates me for world building, because it shows how different influences shape simple things.  Some highlights:

  • A significantly shorter month, which used to be the last month and thus had its length determined by how much time was needed to catch up to the solar year.  This is why leap days are still applied to February.
  • Four months named after an older calendar order, thus September thru December, the 9th through 12th months, have names that mean “7th Month,” “8th Month,” “9th Month,” and “10th Month.”  January and February were the 11th and 12th months.
  • Four months are named after gods (January, March, May, and June), two after emperors (July and August) and one month’s etymology is lost to time (April).

Random side note observation: with both hours and weeks we saw an attempt to decimalize them during the French Republic period.  Months?  They were fine with 12 of them, though of 30 days each with 5-6 bonus days at the end of the year, similar to the Mayan Wayeb’.

I’d normally be digging more into the origins of months, but here’s the thing.  Months are potentially a very human thing.  Many cultures independently came up with them, because the cycles of the moon are very obvious to the naked eye.  It’s the only object in the night sky that changes so dramatically.  And there’s just the one of it.  So if you’re world building a fictional civilization that’s earth based, they’ll probably have some concept of months, with the question being whether the calendar is Lunar, Lunisolar, Solar, or whether they keep both a solar calendar and a ceremonial lunar or lunisolar calendar, as the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar requires of practitioners of the Islamic and Jewish faiths.

Things become more troublesome when world building for a species not based on earth.  There are more variables to consider.  Is there a single frame of reference for a longer period of time, something between a day and a year?  Does it line up evenly with a year?  Do the locals care?  If there’s no obvious astrological point of reference, is the year subdivided in some other way?  By seasons?  Arbitrarily?  Mayans had 20 day months in their calendar tied to the solar year, chosen to evenly divide the year rather than tracking lunar phases.  Are there two moons and a complex series of calendars that include a solar calendar, prime-lunar calendar and secondary-lunar calendar?  Why do I think that last one would be fun to work out?  Just what would happen to a culture that had a strong lunar tradition if something catastrophic happened to their moon?  Why am I putting so many story ideas I want to use in these questions?

Let’s do the reverse world building wrap-up.  On my planet called earth, they have a moon that dominates the night sky, and goes through 29-ish day cycles.  They’ve long used these cycles as a unit of time, and now have calendars based roughly on the cycles, though with some fudging to keep up with the length of a year.

Some of the upcoming questions (and the intended topics) for this series:  What year is it (how years are numbered and when do they start)?  What’s for lunch (eating and mealtimes)?  Which way is the restaurant (directions)?

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World Building Question: What Day Is It?

Subtitle: Is It Friday Yet?

Most of the time periods we track on earth make sense.  Years are based on how long it takes the earth to go around the sun.  Months originated with moon cycles.  Days are based on the rising and setting of the sun.  These are all observable periods of time, and showed up in isolated cultures.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t talk about years and months while reverse world building the earth, but they’re not what I’m talking about in this post.  Here I want to focus on that period that falls between months and days, and is far more arbitrary and interesting.  We’re talking about weeks.

Weeks are strange.  They’re arbitrary seven day chunks that bridge across the ends and beginnings of months and years.  A year is made up of fifty-two of them, with one or two days left over.  Most months are made up of just over four of them.  It would be more apparently logical to consider a week to be five days, after all that divides evenly into the 365 days of a year (yes yes, leap years, that’s for another day).  We saw from talking about the number of hours in a day that the ancients tended towards base twelve counting, with sixty as a significant number, so we might reasonably expect a twelve day week.  But we have seven.

Medieval Lithuanian calendar with 9-day week.

Looking at the seven day week is already getting ahead of ourselves, as it takes something for granted.  Why have a week at all?  I’ve been looking into that question, and have yet to find a satisfying answer to it.  The week appears to be entirely an invention of contrivance.  They appeared in several cultures because it was helpful to have a period of time longer than a day but shorter than a month, and because it’s nice to have a way to break a calendar into columns.  They ranged in length from three days in ancient Basque tradition to ten days in ancient Egypt.  Sometimes they evenly divided months, sometimes they didn’t.

The standardization on a seven day week world wide is tied to the same reasons why this is the year 2012 and why our calendar is named after a Pope.  It all has to do with the strength of the Christian tradition when it made sense to standardize such things.  To sum up: today we have a seven day week because the early Christians had a seven day week, because they used the same origin stories as the Jews, who likely got their idea of a seven day week from the Babylonians.  So where did the Babylonians get seven days from?  Lunar cycles.  Look at a calendar that shows moon phases, and you’ll see for the most part they line up in a single row.  This doesn’t exactly work, so the Babylonians tended to follow three seven day weeks with an eight or nine day week to keep things in phase with the moon.  Judaism standardized seven days to every week in the Genesis creation story, the earliest culture I could find that used seven days for every week.

Seven took awhile to take hold.  On the right is a calendar from medieval Lithuania with a nine day week.  During the French Revolution, at the same time they were playing with decimal time, they also briefly observed a ten day week.  As recently as the 20th Century in the Soviet Union five and six day weeks were implemented.  So it’s only been since the 1940s that all major world powers have agreed on a seven day week, and even then there’s disagreement about what day a week starts on.

So now we’ve got a week, but that doesn’t answer our opening question.  What day is it?  We’ve got handy labels at the top of the columns on our calendars, where do the names come from?  Well…it depends on where your language came from.

If you’re speaking a Romance language, then the days of the week come from the seven classical planets.  Thus they days of the week were named, in order, for the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.  Five of these seven are still prevalent in Spanish: Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, and Viernes.  The weekend has been renamed to reflect Jewish and Christian tradition, with Saturday named for the Jewish Sabbath (Sabado), and Sunday named God’s Day (Domingo).  This renaming of the weekend is common in the romance languages.

Not a recommended way to celebrate Thor's Days.

The Germanic languages, English included, largely did the opposite.  Our weekends are still given to Saturn and the Sun.  Monday is still the Moon’s day.  The rest of the names reflect the Norse influence on the Germanic tongues, with days belonging to the gods Tiw, Wodan, Thor, and Frig.  These days of the week represent the largest influence that Norse mythology still holds over modern culture, so prevalent that we might not always remember these origins.

One more question while I’m talking about weeks: Is it the weekend yet?  We have the fifth commandment to thank for that.  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, a proscription against working on the day that God rested after creating the world.  We get two days instead of one because Jewish tradition has a Saturday sabbath, Christian tradition holds to Sunday.

To think, if they agreed on this issue, we’d possibly have a six-day workweek.  So three cheers for theological disagreements.

Weekends are not uniform across cultures.  In most of the western world they fall on Saturday and Sunday, because those are the days that several major industrial powers shut down.  However in Islamic nations, where a majority of the population holds Friday as a holy day, Thursday-Friday or Friday-Saturday weekends are more common, and some observe a six-day workweek with only Friday taken off.  The oddest outlier is the tiny nation of Brunei which has a split weekend, taking Friday and Sunday off, but working Saturday.

Time to bring this all back and look at this from a world building perspective.  Here on my fictional planet called “Earth” there has long been an agreement that a subdivision of time between the day and the month is logical.  They call these “weeks.”  Different cultures have experimented with different length weeks as recently as 70 years ago, but the calendar that all societies now use is based on seven days.  This is due to the creation stories of one religion, even though the names of the days largely come from another religion.  They work for five or six of these seven days with the others meant for meditation and spiritualism, though they can’t agree on which day(s) these are, and many don’t bother with observing either.

So should your world or culture have weeks?  Does it need weeks?  It depends on how long periods of time are observed, and the nature of the society.  They’re, in large part, an artifact of keeping physical calendars.  If you have them, the questions to ask: How long are they?  Why are they that long?  It could be astronomically significant, it could evenly subdivide a longer period of time, it could be religiously significant (though religious significance is often reverse engineered), or it might be completely arbitrary.

Coming up in the future of this series: What year is it?  When is lunch?  Where am I? And who are you?  Yes, these are sounding more and more like the cliched questions of an amnesiac.  I’m enjoying this series, as it gives me an excuse to research little bits and pieces of life that are so culturally engrained that we don’t consider they had origins and that different cultures disagree.

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World Building Question: What Time Is It?

Here in the United States, except for most of Arizona and Hawaii, we’ve gone into Daylight Saving Time, when we shift our clocks forward an hour so we can take advantage of more sunlight in the evenings after work.  You know what DST is, because while the whole world doesn’t use it, probably 95% of this blog’s traffic comes from countries that do.  However, DST is not universally applied internationally.  The US and the UK shift a few weeks apart, and Australia observes DST opposite the rest of the world due to flipped seasons.  It also picks different dates.  This video explains the history of DST and how things just don’t line up all that smoothly, and even the odd DST observing and non-observing enclaves within Native territories in Arizona:

So last week we here on the east coast of the United States were 16 hours behind Sydney, Australia, now we’re 15, and in another few weeks it’ll be just 14.  And just when it looked like we were catching up to the Aussies, it’ll all reverse and go back to 16 hours in a few short months.

Alright, so what’s my vague justification for talking about DST under the auspices of World Building?  It brings up an important question when it comes to non-earth worlds:  What time is it?  How granular is time?  In a less advanced civilization there may be just four broad times: morning, midday, evening, and night.  If you’re not trying to plan specific and detailed events, that’s all you really need, and it’s more about our perception of time than actual hours.  “Morning” changes by hours a year, to when it starts, when it ends, and how long it is, thanks to lengthening and shortening of a day and by ones latitude.

A more advanced society requires more advanced time keeping.  Broad subdivisions of time independent of the rising and setting of the sun come first.  We call these hours on earth, and arbitrarily divide a day into 24 of them.  There are 24 because the Egyptians liked to use base 12, and split the equinox day into equal halves, twelve portions of daylight, twelve portions of darkness.  Why 12 when we have 10 fingers?  Because they counted knuckles, not digits.  It’s handily a mathematically significant number because there are more factors of 12 than 10, but it’s largely arbitrary due to one culture’s affinity for a number and later cultures’ affinity for that culture.

Once a society becomes more advanced, it needs more granular time.  This won’t necessarily lead straight to minutes, but could be quarters of the longer time blocks, or perhaps eighths.  Even modern society we tend to use only halves and less frequently quarters for most of our daily activities.  Sixty minutes on earth come from old methods of hand counting from cultures that lacked calculators and needed ways of tallying numbers larger than ten using the digits on their hands.  It’s the old 12 knuckles on one hand, multiplied by 2, 3, 4, or 5 on the other.  Thumbs need not apply.  We further divide things into seconds, again with 60 per minute.  After that, time becomes decimal, belying the fact that smaller units of times than seconds weren’t really necessary until after the scientific revolution.  Thus we end up with milliseconds and picoseconds.

There are some who suggest that all of time should be decimalized the way subdivisions of seconds are.  A day would be 10 hours of 100 minutes of 100 seconds, which the length of each being determined by taking the period of revolution of the earth and dividing by the correct number.  While there’s a certain logic to this decimalization, there is so much cultural momentum to overcome that decimal time will likely never be more than just a novelty.  We see this here in the United States as various movements fail to convert the country from imperial to metric measurements.

We further complicated time of day with time zones, designed so that noon in each part of the world roughly represents the midpoint between sunrise and sunset, but rarely actually does.  There is some push to eliminate those just as there is a push for the decimalization of time.  This is more successful as there are already organizations, such as major world navies, who see the benefit of referring to an exact moment of time by the same numerical representation wherever you are in the world.  Thus 0300 Zulu is 0300 Zulu whether a ship is in the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian oceans.  It’s handy for any organization attempting to synchronize around the planet, or even beyond it, something that wasn’t necessary or possible until very recently.

So let’s pretend we’re world building time on the earth.  The day was divided into 12 units (and the night an additional 12) because 12 was a culturally significant number for an early culture, in no small part because it represented the number of segments on the fingers of one hand.  Hours and seconds were divided five times farther because early cultures would use this counting-to-twelve method on one hand, then use the fingers on the other hand for the multipliers 2x through 5x.  Subdividions of seconds are the only units of time that are decimalized because they are only useful to scientists who prefer decimalization because it makes math easier.  These divisions have nothing to do with when the sun rises or sets, and even arbitrarily shift by an hour at a time.  The earth itself is divided into 24 major time zones (we won’t even start with the minor half and quarter hour zones) one per hour of the day for offset, though these are slowly going away in favor of a universal time.  And this is all before we’ve put down our first settlement on a planet that rotates at a different rate than earth, which will further complicate things.

So we’re back to the original question.  What time is it?  It’s a complex question that will deal with the history of your planet and culture, cultural norms, scientific advancement, and ultimately may cause debate and confusion on a planet shrunk by high speed communication.

And this is without even asking two far more complicated, but legitimate, world building questions: What day is today? And when is lunch?

Railway station clock picture by Wikipedian Petar Milošević, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  French decimal clock picture by Wikipedia Cormullion, and also licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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Writing Advice from Games

Quick analogy that came to mind the other day.

As computer storage and processing have advanced, the maps for open-world video games have gotten larger and larger.  I’m thinking Fallout.  I’m thinking Skyrim.  I’m thinking…maybe there are games out there made by a company other than Bethesda, but does anyone play them?  Within these Bethesda games, the maps have set points of interest on them.  The first time the player visits each one, he has to either find it accidentally or be told where it is and set out to it.  The second time, the player has a quick travel option allowing them direct access to that location.

This means the first time the player goes to a location, he has to face the challenges on the way.  And has to see all the work that went into creating the landscape.  None of the Bethesda games would be the game they are if characters just jumped from place to place and didn’t see the world in between.

I try to keep this in mind when writing.

Setting descriptions should be front loaded.  This doesn’t mean infodump.  It does mean that a lot of description is necessarily front-loaded in a story.  That first time a character travels a particular city, street, countryside, trail, or any other setting the reader needs to understand where the character is.  Otherwise it’s the “white box” problem that has plagued my first drafts for years.  After that, the character can “quick travel” from point A to point B.  Now, this is going to be a little different from games.  That first time the reader need enough broad details to set the scene.  During the quick travel, either finer details or differences can come up, but the broader details aren’t as essential.

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Babbling About a Setting

I’m aware that grocery stores must go out of business, but I’ve never seen one do so.  Now the Bloom near my house is closing down.  This is the Bloom that we anxiously waited for the first few months, that saved our sanity during a massive snow storm when we discovered it was in walking distance, even when roads were ice slicked and lined with snowplow berms.  It doesn’t surprise me that it failed.  For those not in the Bloom footprint, I heard it best described as a perfect 75% scale model of a real grocery store.  Too often I went there in a hurry, giving it a chance because it was the closest option, and not found what I wanted.  The day that I bought banana extract instead of butter (it’s an easy mistake, both words start with b, are about the same length, and include yellow things on their boxes) I discovered that the Bloom only carried vanilla and almond extract.  After a point I learned it would be faster, on average, to drive twice as far to Giant than being disappointed in the Bloom’s offerings.

Last night I went there to return a movie to the Redbox, and Bloom nearly failed me again.  It never occurred to me that a Redbox might be full, but this one was.  I needed to rent a new movie before it would let me return my old one.  The parking lot was just as full.  Even panicked pre-snowfall or last-minute Thanksgiving day shopping never filled that parking lot.  Really, the last time I saw it full was that first week when the Bloom was shiny and new, and shoppers hadn’t yet learned the disappointment of its stock.

I went in.  I’d fought for a parking space, might as well use it for a few moments longer.  Produced department shelves blocked the barren section off from customers.  I’m not sure exactly when the store got its last delivery of produce.  The closing announcement came two weeks ago, and the last day is still two weeks ahead.  The only fruit that remained were a few oranges and an odd dragon fruit, something I’d never seen stocked in the store before yesterday.  To the right, the deli stood with a similar lack of stock.  There was still an attendant there, ready to slice away fresh cold cuts, but the only two offerings were half of a massive turkey breast, and a ham.

The aisles were full of people, and more than that, carts.  These were serious shoppers, the same people who come to grocery stores with their coupons organized in massive three-ring binders, knowing just which store could get them an extra ten cents off their bag of chips, an extra quarter off their sodas, they’d be damned before they left a shopping cart only half full.  This led to aisles being impassable as customers refused to acknowledge their fellows in their fervor to get Oreos at going out of business prices.

The shelves were barren.  The top shelf on each aisle was long evacuated.  Product couldn’t fill the remaining shelves, so cereal boxes that would typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder now sat a half-inch apart, exposing the black shelves and backs, standing in sharp relief from the bright product packaging.  And still people pushed and maneuvered, picking the shelves emptier and emptier.  I don’t know how much stock remains in the back room, but I can’t imagine the store can keep this pace for long, especially as it’s only select locations completely shuttering, the rest will become Food Lions.  The store ran with that it had, eating itself alive, emptying its back rooms of non-perishables for one last orgy of consumerism.

Perhaps if the store had always done this sort of business, it wouldn’t have died.  But that would require being something else than a mimicry of a grocery store.  Especially existing less than a mile from a Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter.  Two miles from an H-Mart and a Shoppers.  Something had to give, and it should be no surprise it was the store with the least impressive stock.  I don’t know what could move in there.  The space has demonstrated that it can’t support a typical grocery store.  Perhaps a more specialized store, perhaps something more like a bodega, or perhaps a drug store.  It would even be a fine place for an independent hardware store, if such a thing was still economically feasible inside the DC Beltway.

I may take one more trip, just to see how far things get, just to look at the bones of a decaying grocery.  If nothing else, I found the scenery fascinating.  There was a frantic energy to both the customers and the staff that I’ve never seen before.  Perhaps I hit the height of the chaos, perhaps there’s still more to come.

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