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Numbers

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Insolent Lad, May 4, 2020.

  1. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

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    In my WIP, both the folk of Tesra and my two visiting wizards from the lost (in another world) city of Hirstel are accustomed to using a Base Twelve system of numbers. The wizardess Na found the Base Ten system of the Ildin, with whom she had spent the previous months, terribly cumbersome and couldn't imagine why they used it. Both Tesra and Hirstel were founded by refugees from the valley of the Tez (aka the Valley of Visions), which explains their shared numbers (as well as culture and ethnicity).

    I suppose none of that really matters any to the story, aside from having somewhat subtle influences on cultural practices, such as the calendar used, the currency, the size of army units (with troops, naturally, of 144 men—or '100' in their system). All this is buried in the world building and rarely mentioned in the narrative of the story itself. I'm never quite sure how much of that sort of thing to pass on to the reader, to help flesh out the world I have created, and how much just gets in the way. Of course, I could go on endlessly about such things were I to permit myself!

    Incidentally, the ancient Sharshites (who were still wandering tribes known as Charcha at the time of this book), employ a Base Five system of numbers, allowing an abacus-like use of their fingers, counting to five on one hand and then by fives up to 25 on the other. I haven't put that into a story yet and maybe never will, but I am aware of it. I've even invented the numerals, which may show up as a relic of olden days in some tale or another.

    I've not seen much of this in stories, though alternative number systems abound around the world. Five, ten, twelve, twenty, etc. Some of the choices are bewildering—just how did a culture choose such a number as their base? I'm wondering whether to bother incorporating more of this sort of thing, if only behind the scenes, i.e. mostly for my own information. What of creatures with a different number of digits? Would cartoon characters use Base Eight, counting on their fingers? :) No real question in all of this, I guess, just wondering whether and how others incorporate (or ignore) such things. Perhaps just dealing with different languages and manners is enough!
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I remember one of Larry Niven's books (Footfall?) had the invading aliens use a base-8 and this was reflected in various ways, including the size of an attack squad. That worked because we saw events from the human point of view, so there was a reason to say their eight is our ten.

    In a story set entirely in another culture--say, those aliens' home planet--I'm not sure it would come up at all.

    One place to look for context is older literature. There might be a behavior or a turn of phrase that the contemporary reader would take in stride but which would puzzle or exasperate the modern reader. Writers of historical fiction have to deal with that often. One who did it very well is Patrick O'Brian, who managed to weave early 19thc idioms and world views into his novels without leaving his reader lost for more than a moment.

    I think now of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and the thumb biting. He actually has Gregory and Samson set the scene up by saying biting the thumb is a disgrace to them--the classic having one character explain a point to another character. At least he doesn't say "as you know, Gregory, ...". <g>
     
  3. enoch driscoll

    enoch driscoll Scribe

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    if their methods of counting are as widespread as the arabic system(1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9), then they would be used for everything from buying coffee to architecture, leaving plenty of room for explanation. if you want to see how the different number systems in the world work, the ancient incan(or possibly it was Mayan or aztec) system reminds me of the sharshites system, except it operates on 20, not 25. its close enough and so unknown that you could simply copy it exactly and no-one would know

    As for a good way to explain it without rambling on for pages, i see two options(even though i am sure there are many more). if you read harry potter, in the first book J.K Rowling does an excellent job of explaining the entire wizard money system in a singular sentence. the other option i saw is to make a reference table in the front or back of the book for easy accessibility. if you find an older bible they often have the measurements used in ancient Israel on the back page, with the equivalents in modern measurements side by side, so you could use that as reference.

    As for whether its necessary or not, its not. But, it does add another layer to building a believable world and your readers will find you to be a genius if you could make up an entire new system of numbers. its up to you, and great brainstorming.
     
  4. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

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    I would have to acknowledge my original choice to use Base 12 for a civilization was inspired by the Indus Valley Culture, where it was apparently used. As well as, it seems, by some early civilizations in the Mesopotamian region, who were probably in contact with them, and are responsible for the measuring systems (12 inches to the foot, dozens, 360 degrees, etc) that persist today.
     
  5. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    Numbers are very important to the resolution of my sci-fi book coming out next year. Doing idle calculations in my head one night (to try and fall asIeep) I accidentally stumbled upon a very odd quirk of number theory. In great excitement I explained it to a close friend, who teaches maths at uni. He listened gravely as I explained my genius breakthrough and said: well, if you discovered that all by yourself through your own reasoning - that's very impressive. However, it's a principle discovered by the ancient Greeks and we've been teaching it in primary school since the year dot. You've obviously forgotten your 4th grade maths.

    That was a tad deflating, but it's still a pretty cool thing and if I've forgotten it, chances are nearly everyone's forgotten it and the resolution to my story will still come as a big surprise.
     
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