Time-Words in Fiction

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How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

Spear vs. Grindstone

The grindstone: approved usage

Another post in the series on The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. (You don’t really need to see another image of the book cover, do you?)

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the role of hunting in the Old Stone Age … Hunting has been given an inordinate status both by archaeologists and by hunting peoples themselves. In the latter case this is largely due to the fact that it is the men who do most of the hunting and they therefore pride themselves on their own achievements and tend to play down the considerable contribution of women. Prehistorians are presented with an archaeological record that contains far more information on hunting than on gathering activities … owing to the poor survival of botanical specimens.

Rudgley, p. 158

Of course, hunting is also more glamorous, riskier, and it generates better stories than “that time we found all those berries.”

According to Rudgley, in the case of modern hunter-gatherers, up to 80% of a community’s diet can consist of “gathered foods,” which includes edible plants but also such things as eggs and shellfish. We can’t assume that ancient people’s diets were exactly the same. The world has changed quite a bit (there is less big game, for example). Still, this is suggestive that people were processing and eating plants long before the supposed advent of agriculture.

The Noble Savage Myth and the Wild Yam Question

Speaking of modern hunter-gatherers, there is actually some question as to whether it is possible for people to survive on pure hunting and gathering. It is extremely difficult to find a modern hunter-gatherer group that does not get some of their calories from trade with nearby agricultural peoples, and/or “paracultivation.” Paracultivation is practiced by the Central African Pygmies, who re-plant the tops of rain forest yams (a main source of starch for them) after they harvest them, and by people in Central Borneo who depend on the sago palm for starch, who will cultivate patches of palms that they can return to and “gather” later. The so-called Wild Yam Question, first raised by Thomas Headland, postulates that in tropical rain forests there is not enough naturally occurring food for people ever to have survived there without at least paracultivation. This has been hotly debated among anthropologists. You can read an overview of the debate here: “Could ‘Pure’ Hunter-Gatherers Live in a Rainforest? : A 1999 review of the current status of The Wild Yam Question”

Was Agriculture Really a Revolution?

Implements normally associated with agriculture – mortar and pestles, sickles, grain storage – are found in the Natufian culture of the Levant (c. 10,500 to 8000 BC). I can’t resist pointing out that this is the exact time period which, in my books, comes right after the Tower of Babel and only a few hundred years after the Flood. In that, possibly true, alternate universe, these “first farmers” could have been people to whom the knowledge of agriculture was not new, but who were having to resettle the earth after a series of society-shattering disasters.

Could there have been farming before the Flood and before the Neolithic “agricultural revolution”? Mortars and pestles have been found that are at least (with the usual caveats about dates) 80,000 years old (California); 43,000 to 49,000 years old (South Africa); 30,000 years old (Australia); 44,000 years old (Ukraine); and 40,000 years old (Spain). Various stone artifacts from even farther back (Lower Palaeolithic sites, including Olduvai Gorge) have been speculated to be pounding stones, also used to process seeds or grains. (Rudgley p. 159 – 160)

The Oft-Under-Appreciated Grindstone

The grindstone may not be as glamorous as the spear and spear-thrower, but it can be used as a weapon in a pinch:

Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?'”

The citizens of Shechem were inclined to follow Abimelech. They gave him seventy shekels of silver, and Abimelech used it to hire reckless adventurers, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers. Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king.

[Things go bad between Abimelech and the people of Shechem, and he ends up razing their city.]

Next Abimelelch went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women – all the people of the city – fled. They locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.

Hurriedly he called to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.'” So his servant ran him through, and he died.

Judges 9:1 – 6 and 50 – 55

But we all know she did.

The grindstone: alternate usage.