Words about worlds

Worldbuilding: Count the Days

by | Jan 5, 2024 | Worldbuilding | 0 comments

Perpetual calendar inscribed on a dull silver metal disk

Perpetual calendar, German, possibly 16th century; public domain image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How do beings in our setting count time?

Planets orbit stars, spinning around those glowing orbs for billions of years. Some planets leave their parent systems, sailing off into the dark. We’re having some discussion around here about the possibilities of life on these wanderers, not to mention life on planets that might be in complex orbits, something like a Spirograph pattern.

We know life can exist on planets with relatively stable orbits orbiting relatively stable stars. On such a planet, it seems reasonable to mark time in cycles. Orbit after orbit, the planet’s climate will shift in rhythms, assuming it has enough axial tilt or orbital eccentricity to affect the climate. For Earth, of course, axial tilt is the predominating factor: about twenty-three degrees of it. Sticking to the question of time, the point is on Earth, the patterns of stars in the sky repeat in a regular, predictable way. Over much of the planet, the weather shifts in a regular, predictable way that correlates with the changes in the patterns of stars, leading us to break time into ‘seasons’ – or rather, the weather was predictable until the effects of anthropogenic climate change became so obvious.

Back to time. Given regular seasonal variations, it seems reasonable that some cultures, at least, would begin to count time by repeats: Summer 1, Summer 2, Summer 3; a scheme that centers the seasonal variations, embedding a cyclical view of time. Living beings that somehow managed to grow on a planet that was wandering out in space, unattached to any stellar gravity well, could still have an externally imposed impulse to count time in cycles, if their planet rotated on its axis. The planet would move so slowly through the galaxy that the stars would be seen to rise and set predictably, shifting position only across centuries.

There are countless stories to be told that revolve around a cyclical view of time. Take the winter solstice. In our house, we have certain observances that we describe as ‘marking’ the winter solstice, such as burning a Yule log (which burned for over 24 hours this year). If we transform our setting by including magic or supernatural activity, such observances can become the ceremonies that drive the winter solstice. If our PCs fail to complete the midwinter rite, the Sun will not rise.

That’s a satisfying notion, but we’re not done yet. One alternative calendar simply counts days from some starting point, marking each sunrise but ignoring the annual changes. Still another alternative is to ignore numbering altogether. Perhaps segments of time are named, like the Century of the Fruitbat or the Year of the Notional Serpent (such names do imply an underlying numerical scheme but perhaps on the Disc, ‘century’ simply means ‘a good long stretch’). Named segments might have variable lengths, named for an on-going set of circumstances or noteworthy event. Some stretches of time might be completely unnamed.

We can imagine a fierce competition between groups, each striving to see that the next segment of time is named for them or for their deeds. Or, consider the unnamed segments. Perhaps it’s a terrible omen to have an unnamed segment of time. In that case, as one dull segment draws to a close, the PCs could be swept up in a desperate attempt to achieve some shining deed worthy of a name. Talk about a plot hook!

Where does it all begin? A quick review of several ‘New Year’ compilation pages suggests that various cultures on Earth celebrate their ‘New Year’ in January, February, March, April, June, August, September, and October. With reality as justification, we can position the new years of our fictional cultures at any point in their planets’ orbits.

What specific dates or periods of time matter to our cultures? Was there a unique event, something truly awe-inspiring or truly terrible, that might, then or later, be designated ‘day 1’? Is there a period of time that has a strong meaning for the culture, such as lambing season, or planting season, or harvest time? The people in our culture may not think much about how their calendar was set, but we should know for our own purposes.

Saying ‘we should know’ is not the same as saying, ‘we should have one and only one reason.’ We can concoct several mutually contradictory stories that explain why the calendar is the way that it is, and then we can plant various pieces of evidence that support all of them. The real world is messy: why deprive our fictional worlds of that same richness?

How far back does our culture’s calendar stretch? Is there any period of overlap between the current culture’s calendar and the calendar of a more ancient civilization? If our culture tracks periodic astronomical events or seasonal changes, how accurate are their estimates? How far forward do they predict? How long might a single system of timekeeping last? Can you imagine a culture that tracks time on an ‘inherited’ calendar? Think about a culture whose calendar’s starting date and system of counting have no deep meaning for the culture that is using it. The calendar continues essentially on the inertia of convenience: it is convenient to continue on a system that stretches back hundreds of years and encompasses millions of records. Imagine a missing year: a year that occurred but which was not counted, or a year that never happened and was dropped out of the count*. It’s a weird idea, but what a place to start a story!

Speaking of missing years, who keeps the records? In the USA, huge numbers of printed calendars are thrown out every January. Where do they go? How well will they be preserved? What might a far-future Earth culture discover about our systems of timekeeping from our discarded calendars?

What evidence do earlier calendars leave behind? Suppose a city is built by a culture that has a specific, cyclical idea of time. Within the city, several buildings are designed and oriented to produce certain effects on specific days. On the summer solstice, a shaft of sunlight shines on the top of the head of the statue in the inner courtyard at noon. On the winter solstice, the sunlight just touches the top lintel of a doorway that is never opened. Now, suppose this city is later controlled by a different culture, with a different calendar. Old ceremonies are disrupted. Gatherings are prohibited on those days. Only the new calendar can be taught in schools or used in business. But the buildings remain, a testament in stone to a different form of thought.

As always, we should ask ourselves, who is controlling the narrative, and who had control before them? Step back to the idea of a culture that names stretches of time by important events. The person or group that controls the choice of names wields tremendous power. Their decision affects how a certain stretch of time will be viewed and remembered, and who will be remembered. Events of tremendous importance may drop out of the narrative, made invisible by the namers who chose to ignore or deny them. This opens a new space for stories: the stories of those striving to be heard and to be openly acknowledged in the official narrative. For a culture that uses a numbering scheme, the same power devolves on the person or group responsible for designating days of special significance and particular observance. Whose voices are uplifted? Whose are silenced? Thinking along these lines opens a space for stories about challenging the status quo, or about preserving a vital link to the distant past.

Making thoughtful decisions about how time is marked, how it is observed, how systems of time are maintained, how the information is spread, and who controls the temporal narrative, allows us to create a richer world. It opens up doors for new stories. It lets us embed clues for our PCs to find and conflicts for them to confront. Silly or serious, a thoughtfully designed timekeeping system helps to set the tone of the world. Jump in and try one. It’s the Century of the Anchovy – any timekeeping system is possible!

*I am informed that this is a real-world conspiracy theory. Rats, someone beat me to it.


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