Dating Science Fiction
Before you jump too far into this, let explain right off the bat that the title above is not referencing the relationship type of dating between a man and a woman—or, since I am discussing science fiction—relationships between human and alien. No, what follows is a discussion concerning the measuring of time in your science fiction stories. I apologize to all those mistakenly drawn into this because you thought you were going to get to read about relationships in science fiction—that’ll be a discussion for another time.
I’ve seen the lines. In fact, I’ve been in a majority of them myself. We arrive an hour early, hoping to be the first one in the door, to get that first ticket, to park our bodies in that perfect seat in the theater—only to find that we should have arrived two hours earlier. The line of people (many of them dressed like characters from the movie we’re all dying to see) already stretches outside the front entrance and wraps around the corner of the building. By the time we reach the ticket booth (stupid me, I should have either bought my tickets in advance or online) we are deathly afraid that the person ahead of us is going to get the last remaining ticket and the sales clerk is going to tell us, “Sorry, that showing is currently sold out.”
This doesn’t just happen at the movie theater either. Major cities around the globe host comic book and science fiction conventions where fans of the genre flock in droves—again, many of them dress up as their favorite characters. Then come the uber-fans. Those individuals that go beyond just the visual pleasure of the subject—the ones that study the starships, the planets, and every other aspect. They know every hallway, they know where each character usually sits on the flight deck, they know each Starfighter’s call sign, and they can tell you the title of every episode.
The Concept of Time
Of all the genres of fiction, however, followers of science fiction seem to pay the most attention to detail. If you are a writer or science fiction— or even thinking about writing science fiction—the attention to detail is paramount. One of those details is the use of dates and the passage of time. As writers, when our characters visit an alien world, we have to remember that time on that planet is measured differently than on Earth. Instead of 365 days, it might take that planet only 210 days to make a complete orbit—or even 500 days.
So what does this mean? Why would it be so important to focus on such details? Let’s focus on that planet’s seasons: If our protagonist were stranded on an alien world by his or her archenemy, why would we only focus on the antagonist for conflict? Why not bring in another factor—seasons. A long orbit would mean the planet’s (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it Planet X) seasons are unusually long. Can you imagine a winter that lasts twice as long as winter on Earth? What about summer—when consecutive days of 100-plus degree temperatures nearly destroys the planets vegetation and where surface water evaporates so quickly our protagonist can’t maintain his or her strength before a rare thunderstorm brings just enough water to help the hero survive a few more days.
Now, let’s add the planet’s rotation into the mix. Does your planet have a faster rotation than Earth? Or is it slower? Now you have to figure out how long a day is. On Planet X, I’ve determined that it has an unusually long orbit, thereby making its seasons longer. Let’s lengthen the days now. The Earth makes a complete revolution in 24 hours, Planet X takes 42 hours, making its days and night almost twice as long as that on Earth. This is really looking grim for our protagonist: trapped on an alien planet in the middle or summer (or winter) where the nights take almost twice as long to reach him or her and offer any relief from the blazing sun (or suns). Just think about the difficulties our hero could encounter now by simply adding the presence of another star in the sky. There could be days where the planet never sees a cool night. The hole we’re digging for our character just keeps getting deeper.
Fiction Most Difficult
At the writer, we’ve now created a world completely different from Earth—where the days and years are almost twice as long. Are there indigenous intelligent life forms on this planet? How do they measure time? They certainly wouldn’t call the days of the week the same thing we call them on Earth—neither would the months of the year. These are details we have to know before the writing process begins—even if we don’t use or explain it within the story, they have to be understood by the author. The reader (those science fiction fans) will know the minute we slip up and associate an Earth related measure of time to our alien world. The only way we might get away with this is if our character is from Earth and still associates time in those terms. Otherwise, it’s time for the creative writer in us to develop a completely new concept for measuring time.
I use the same measure of time in all my science fiction stories: time for my characters switched from Earth measurements to space measurements the moment they first blasted off for the deepest reaches of the galaxy. On Earth, that date is April 12, 1961 A.D. Using that date, I started my own measurement for my characters to use in space: 1961.102.0000 B.E. Of course, the first four numbers are obvious—the year of the first manned space flight. The next three numbers are the days of the year. April 12 is the 102nd day of the year. The final four numbers would be the hour of the day in military time. The B.E. is short for Beyond Earth. This method works well with my Earth-based characters because it keeps them grounded to some semblance of dates they are familiar with—and it’s easy for me to remember while at the same time different enough to appear legitimate to my readers.
No matter what we do within the story, we have to be sure to maintain the same theme throughout the entire story. Once a precedence is begun, it must maintain itself from beginning to end. Just remember, those science fiction fans are not only looking for a good story, they are picking every detail of your story apart. It’s for this reason that science fiction can be one of the most difficult genres to write.