New Worlds: Measuring Time

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

Before we get to the post itself, a brief housekeeping note: for this Patreon, I’ve committed to four essays a month. But as you may have noticed, I post on Fridays . . . and in some months, there are five Fridays. Since the first post this month was really just the introduction to the series, I’m going to count this as number four; where future months are concerned, I’ve added a funding goal for a bonus fifth essay.

In talking about seasons, I mentioned George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where the variation in weather etc seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the yearly round.

What is the yearly round? How do we define a “year”?

That’s a much more complicated question than you might think. A year is the length of time it takes the planet to go one orbit around the sun . . . which from the perspective of people on the ground, means the length of time it takes the sun to return to the same position in the sky. Measuring that requires a fair bit of skill. When you hear about places like Newgrange, where the building is constructed such that the light of the rising sun on the winter solstice will shine into the inner chamber, that’s the kind of method ancient people used to measure a year. It comes out to 365 days, more or less — but it’s the “more or less” part that will trip you up. Really it’s closer to 365.25 days, which is why in the Gregorian calendar we get leap days every four years (unless the year is divisible by 100 (unless the year is divisible by 400)). We have to play catch-up with the planet. If you measure the year by the lunar cycle instead, as many cultures have done, you have a year that’s about 354 days long, and over time the dates of that calendar will go walkabout through the seasons — Christmas would be a winter, spring, summer, or autumn holiday depending on the year in question. If you hybridize the two into a lunisolar calendar, you add leap months every so often to prevent the schedule from wandering too far afield. You can have a vague year, a heliacal year, a draconic year (man, I missed my chance to use that in the Memoirs of Lady Trent) — there are all kinds of ways to measure time and then call it a year.

Of course — since we’re talking about speculative fiction — you don’t have to deal with this 365.2425 day nonsense. You could make it a nice round 365, or even 360, which is cleanly divisible by all kinds of numbers. Or any other figure you like. You could have the cycle of the moon(s) match perfectly to the solar year, instead of being about 11 days off. Too tidy of an answer would probably seem out of place in planetary science fiction, but in secondary-world fantasy there’s no reason it can’t be as tidy as you like — or as messy. Don’t think there’s plot potential in the question of how to measure a year? The switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar was hugely political in Renaissance Europe, to the point where Protestant Britain resisted adopting that Catholic-driven change for nearly two hundred years. The hexarchate in Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit maintains its control through manipulation of the calendar in its territory, and builds technologies based on the metaphysical effects of that calendar.

On a finer-grained level: how does the society measure months? Are they directly mapped to the lunar cycle, an approximation of it, completely unrelated? Are there months? How about weeks — do those exist? Most readers these days are going to be accustomed to a seven-day cycle, but the Roman week was eight days long, based around the timing of markets. There’s evidence for every length of week ranging from ten all the way down to one — I’m really not clear on how the Pawukon is supposed to work. Or you can step out to the macro level and consider eras. We’re used to the Common Era/anno domini approach that counts years up from a starting date, but it’s not uncommon to instead count the years of the ruler’s reign; this is how the traditional Japanese calendar handles it (2017 is Heisei 29), and historical English documents often gloss the time with the same information. In the Dragon Age multimedia franchise, every hundred-year epoch is given a name based on omens that appear at the end of the previous era — so when they talk about the Dragon Age, they literally mean the year is 9:30 Dragon, the thirtieth year of the ninth age, which is called Dragon.

Names are part of the reason why thinking about these things can be worth your time and effort. Even if you don’t want to delve into the philosophical implications of how your fictional society divides time, the names of days, weeks, months, years, eras, etc. add detail to their culture. Where do those names come from: gods, seasonal markers, ordinary numbers, historical rulers, flowers of great symbolic significance, holy virtues? Or a mix, like our own days of the week and months of the year? (As the name implies, December was originally the tenth month.) You can interweave this with the rest of your worldbuilding, so that a) you don’t have to make up the names out of nowhere and b) your reader gets a subconscious impression of what that society considers important.

And while you’re at it, take a moment to consider when things start. Want to know why many countries have taxes due in April? Because the year used to start in the spring, rather than an arbitrary date in winter. Oddly, though a number of calendars had the year begin somewhere in the vicinity of the vernal or autumnal equinox, solstices don’t seem to be popular for that purpose; our January 1st date is about as close as you get. The rest seem to be fairly disconnected from astronomical markers. Days, however, tend to be very closely linked to the sun. In the absence of mechanical clocks (which are expensive and difficult to make), many cultures have measured the day as starting either with dawn or with sunset, rather than in the middle of the night. This still crops up folklorically and in fictional magic systems, where supernatural effects often start or expire at those times. But if you go the sunset route, be careful with your dialogue: the reader is going to instinctively assume that “yesterday,” when said in the evening, means 24+ hours before, not 4. (The same is true of sunrise, but characters are rarely doing much before dawn.)

There’s enough to say about the measurement of time that I could fill another entire post with it, but I think that’s enough for now. Remember, patrons who back at the $5 level and above can request topics — so consider where you’d like me to go next!

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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: Measuring Time — 12 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Measuring Time - Swan Tower

  2. Disentangling time measure for worldbuilding is fun–and also time measure. Do they have clocks, or bells, or candles, or sandglasses, or sun dials, or dripping fountains? How do all these fit the cultures?

    • Yeah, clock-level measurement is probably going to be another post at some point — but likely not now, as I don’t want to spend too much time on a narrow topic in one go.

      • Yu could take a sidestep into narrative voices that refer to seconds, as in “A few seconds later” when the people in the world are telling time by sundials . . .

        • See also my annoyance that I couldn’t use the phrase “inching along” in the Memoirs, given that I’d made their entire measurement system metric . . .

  3. The thing I really notice (and, alas, a lot of writers don’t) is that time measurement is more lackadaisical when you have nothing more precise than the sun. Even the first watches had nothing more than an hour hand.

  4. Too, eye-visible astronomy is going to influence how time is measured. In the absence of any moon at all (and concomitant reduction in tides), the concept of “month” — linguistically or otherwise — is going to be different if it exists at all. Multiple moons will lead to real fun! So will multiple suns, in defining “year”; and trying to come up with an organic calendar system for a culture on a moon that orbits a brown dwarf along with a lot of other planetary bodies (think something like Ganymede around a slightly-larger-and-not-quite-sunlike Jupiter) will be infuriating, and possibly lead to more confusion than clarity.

    And the politics continue even more recently; the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, still clings to the Julian calendar, and just try figuring out in advance on which days one can hold a deposition in New York City between mid-September and mid-January without consulting several different religious calendars.

    • Or the almanacs published in Britain post-switch to tell people which holidays were being held on the same date, and which were being held at the same time of year (different date).

  5. One of the things that *sucked* about the hexarchate’s fixation on calendars and time measurement was that I personally hate being really precise about measurements but the culture I’d invented…was a stickler for precision and cared about numerology. So we get things (mostly in book two onwards) like “the meeting was scheduled at N time and for numerological reasons it’s considered polite to show up up to six minutes early.” Also inspired a bit by a book for businesspeople I read in high school, possibly not all that accurate, called Do’s and Taboos Around the World by Roger Axtell (I think?), discussing things like different cultural attitudes to “being on time.”

    • Honestly, tracking time in any piece of fiction is one of my least favorite tasks. Doesn’t matter whether the calendar is invented or the one I use in the real world; paying attention to how many days have gone by is a paaaaaaaain.

      The whole concept of “being on time” will probably pop up when I come back to this concept and discuss clocks etc.

      • Re: “being on time,” I had to think about this because all the main characters have cybernetic implants that include clocks, so they always know what time it is. (Which strikes me as one form of hell.) The fact that there is a “universal” calendar/clock is also a form of worldbuilding chicanery, because it directly contradicts special relativity (which tells us that there is no privileged frame of reference), but in most fantasy settings that’s not going to be an issue.