New Worlds: Concepts of Time

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

To wrap up this discussion of time, let’s leap back from the micro level of seconds and minutes and hours to the extremely macro level — which is to say, how we think of time progressing in general.

In the West nowadays we tend toward a mode of thinking we inherited from the Enlightenment and the Victorians, which is a narrative of Time as Progress. Although we go through periods of pessimism and dystopian prediction (especially as seen in the commercial genre of science fiction), we still think of the arc of history as bending toward justice, improvement, and a general upward trend.

This is especially true in technological terms, where (barring outright collapse) we assume our tools will steadily become more effective and advanced. But it’s also true in social terms; we trumpet our superiority over the benighted past, and easily forget that rights which have been gained can be lost, groups that have been accepted can be cast out again.

But as that parenthetical in the last paragraph notes, the general upward trend isn’t guaranteed even on the technological level. The Antikythera mechanism is an astonishing achievement of gearing and mathematics from the first or second century B.C.; nothing like it was made again until about fifteen hundred years later. The Minoans and Harappans had a form of flush toilets in the second millennium B.C., while three thousand years later my European ancestors were crapping in pots and throwing the results out the window. It doesn’t even take full societal collapse to turn that progress upside-down.

Which wouldn’t have come as news to many of our ancestors. The second concept of time is the inverse of the first: Time as Decline. We have that in the West, too, in the form of the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, the lost golden age. For many cultures, history is the long litany of how things have not improved, but degenerated.

You see this in the Hindu concept of the four yugas or ages, starting with the idyllic Satya Yuga, then the less ideal Treta Yuga, then the even less ideal Dvapara Yuga (when the great Hindu epics take place), then the final, fallen Kali Yuga — the age we live in now. The Greco-Roman Ages of Man are essentially the same idea, though Hesiod’s version introduces a fifth, Heroic Age in between the Bronze and Iron Ages, perhaps echoing the setting of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in the later Dvapara Yuga.

Interestingly, Hesiod’s account of the Ages of Man echoes another culture — one that, unlike India, could not possibly have had any contact with ancient Greece. Hesiod doesn’t merely have humans declining in quality throughout the ages; he says there have been entirely different iterations of our species, with the previous ones going away to become spirits or residents of the underworld. And if you cross the Atlantic ocean, you find that same idea in Mesoamerica.

According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, gods tried repeatedly to create human beings. But their early attempts didn’t produce the idyllic first ages seen in Greek and Hindu myth; instead their creations were imperfect — incapable of counting time and honoring the gods as desired — and the gods kept destroying them in order to try again. (In some versions, the descendants of one of those previous attempts live on in our world as monkeys.) The Aztecs had a similar story, and spoke of those earlier periods as a series of Suns, with our world being the Fifth Sun.

This brings us to the third concept of time: Time as Cycle. The previous two concepts could be graphed as upward or downward lines, maybe with variations along the way, but generally trending in one direction or the other; cyclical time, by contrast, goes in a circle. What goes down will eventually come up again, and vice versa. Everything will eventually return to where it began.

It would be a mistake to lean too hard on the distinctions between these ways of thinking. The Victorians were perfectly capable of embracing both the narrative of the Fall (time as decline) and an overwhelming narrative of improvement (time as progress). The cyclical Suns of Aztec cosmology included improvement, with the gods iterating their creation until they got the result they wanted. People can and do hold more than one image of time in their minds simultaneously.

But it’s still useful to consider how your invented society thinks about time, because it says a lot about how they feel they fit into the world around them, and why that world is in its current state. Time as Decline is a way of explaining crime and other social breakdowns: once everything was great, but we’re the dregs of that glory, the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, the Age of Dharma Decline. Time as Progress, on the other hand, positions current humanity as an improvement over the past, and both urges people to become better . . . and justifies what they’re doing now. Time as Cycle is about patterns, seeing parallels to existing conditions in past situations, and remembering that what goes up will inevitably go down (and vice versa).

Characters steeped in these various modes will act differently. If you generally believe the past was more virtuous, you’re more likely to honor your ancestors and look to them for guidance, to justify your actions on the basis of past example, and to see tradition as a precious thing. If you believe the past was benighted, you’re not necessarily going to spit on your ancestors — but tradition is more likely to be seen as dead weight, and you’re more likely to justify your actions on the basis of future goals. If you see it as a cycle, you might become fatalistic, believing that nothing you do will affect the cycle — or you might try to leverage your understanding of that cycle to make the best use of your current position.

Not every book is going to grapple with these issues on a cosmological level, or even on the level of hundreds or thousands of years of history. (We’re not all writing the Foundation series, or a James Michener novel.) But they still color the way the tale is told, and if you don’t think about them consciously, your own built-in concept of time is likely to be the one that takes hold.

The Patreon logo and the text "This post is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon. To join their ranks, click here!"



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: Concepts of Time — 17 Comments

  1. I’ve always thought that “the wheel of time” is depressing. All of that “saving the world” in order to have to do it all over again in the next book stopped me from reading the next book. This is a fictional instance, but I want things better for the next generation.

    • eh, that’s life. You cook a meal, you have to cook another tomorrow — you do laundry, you have to do it again in a week — you shovel snow, you shovel it again next snow storm — you paint the house, you have to paint it again a decade later — you build a house, your descendants have to rebuild it —

      Too much emphasis on the ephemeral nature of all human accomplishment is a bit of a downer, to be sure.

        • I don’t know that I would buy a story which promises peace everlasting, unless it’s explicitly eschatological. (For example, C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle — leaving aside the other issues with that book.) “Peace for now, and for a good long while” is enough to be satisfying to me, even in an epic.

    • Jordan kind of made a mess of that with the first book, honestly: I stopped reading after The Eye of the World (though I later picked it up again) because I thought the story was over, and had no clue why there was a sequel. Hadn’t Rand defeated the Dark One? The answer is, no, he hadn’t; he’d only defeated an insane minion who claimed he was the Dark One. In the story overall, there’s a lot of whacking lower-level villains, but only one actual battle against the Satan figure (in the last book, natch).

      But yes, cosmologically, that story is still a cycle: defeat, imprisonment, release, war, defeat, imprisonment, release, etc. One of the main villains turns out to be on the side of evil because he believes the Dark One can break the cycle, and he just. can’t. take. going on and on forever anymore, reincarnating and doing it all over again. He wants it to end. Even if that means the destruction of everything. It’s an incredibly depressing but also plausible motivation for a bad guy, and much more interesting to me than the usual “mwah ha ha I will be king over the ruins” nonsense.

  2. Peace can be the destination.

    A book whose future I like is Pohl’s “Age of the Pussyfoot”.

  3. What about Time as Stasis? You could call it the degenerate form of Cycle, but it seems distinct. Things are as they have ever been and ever will be.

    Probably co-exists with the others at least at a psychological level of unconscious assumptions. But also seems to describe the reality of many fantasy worlds. TV Tropes even calls it Medieval Stasis.

    • Time as stasis sounds like a nightmare: nothing but ” now, now, now, now, now” and no expectation of anything different.

      • That’s why it is so hard to come up with a detailed attractive image of Heaven. Hell’s easier. (See Dante) When people try to say how all of our loved ones will be there with us we have problems in that image.

        Our nature is that we change. If we were immortal, we really wouldn’t be, as the person I am now would become someone else over time.

        And the society I live in now is also changing. And I certainly don’t want it to stay static. (Which is better than having lots of wars and suffering to end up the same – again and again Sisyphus like).

    • Fair point! I think that does actually exist in the real world — however much I rail against it as a default mode of worldbuilding, where it’s not so much a conscious artistic decision as authors forgetting that historical change is a thing.

  4. or like the Dinotopia books suggest: time is a helix: it moves forward, but events repeat.

    Reminds me of a tale I once heard…a missionary to North Carolina was shown around some ruins that nobody could remember being built, nor did anyone know how they’d been built – it was a stone mill from a century earlier.

  5. Something that intrigues me is that cultures look at the physical flow of time differently as well. Some groups look at time as linear from left to right, past to future. Others go the opposite direction, where their right is the present and left the future. Still other cultures see time behind, and the future ahead of us (we are moving toward it) or the hidden future behind us, moving through us to a place we can’t yet see.

  6. Another note – we don’t have 20-20 hindsight. And we put our cultural values in our historical novels too.

    Let’s say you do a relatively recent novel – say a Regency Romance. Remembering that you have modern readers, it helps to have a protagonist who likes to read. Side-kicks can have other values.

    You certainly don’t want protagonists who like to go to hangings at any era.

    So many fantasy worlds have royalty modeled after European royal models, even lasting for thousands of years. Or even interstellar empires.

  7. Pingback: New Worlds: Concepts of Time - Swan Tower