by Quentin Long
©2008 Quentin Long
Time, we are told, is the fourth dimension—equivalent to, and interchangeable with, any member of the length-width-height triad were all familiar with. And from a strictly mathematical point of view, Time is just one of the gang! But out here in the Real World where us humans live, far away from the formalisms of mathematics, Time is very different from any of the three spatial dimensions. For instance, just try traveling backwards along the Time dimension
Anyway, Time is different from Space, no matter what the physicists and mathematicians might say. Thus, its only to be expected that we humans perceive Time differently than we do Space. Something else which shouldnt come as a surprise is that human Time-perception is influenced by certain physical qualities of the planet on which we evolved. The Earths rotation casts us into darkness about half the time, more or less (the details varying with latitude and time of year); we tend to be active during the well-lit hours, and inert during the darker hours. That is to say, we humans are diurnal.
Other critters follow a different pattern than we do. There are plenty of beasties who run with the reverse of the human schedule, so that their period of greatest daily activity coincides with the period of least illumination; we call these guys nocturnal.
And of course, there are critters who insist on not being most active either during the day or during the night. For life-forms that prefer to be up and around during twilight-time, the word youre looking for is crepuscular.
Does any of the above make any difference? Perhaps not, for most people. But if you need to deal with non-human critters on a regular basis, it can make a great deal of difference if their daily schedule is in synch with yours! And this is likely to be true even if youre dealing with sentient non-human critters. Just imagine a nocturnal species attempting to hammer out a treaty with a diurnal species: Who gets to decide what hour of the day their diplomats meet?
Even in a non-governmental context, however, clashing day-schedules can easily lead to problems ranging from the merely embarrassing to the downright dangerous. Here in the Real World, during most of whose history most people never traveled more than ten miles from their birthplace, conflicting activity-cycles really werent ever an important problem until multi-national (if not multi-continental) corporations existed. But if youve got a world of multiple sentient species with different activity-cycles, its a pretty good bet that that worlds cultures will have developed ways of dealing with day-schedule conflicts real early on.
Note that so far, Ive made the implicit assumption that all the species of interest more-or-less share the same rate of Time-perception—that Species A and Species B will agree about how much activity they can cram into a one-hour period of time, even if they dont agree about whether that hour should begin at 2 AM or 2 PM. This uniformity of Time-perception schtick is purely an assumption of convenience; since theres only the one known example of sentience (that being us), we really dont know if other sentient species would perceive Time the same way we do. Indeed, given the fact that Earths species have life-spans anywhere from minutes to millenia—an overall range of variance of eight orders of magnitude—it seems likely that other sentient species wouldnt perceive Time the same way we do!
However, it seems to me that interspecies relations wouldnt be affected by differences in Time-perception anywhere near as much as by differences in day-schedule. If a pair of species are too different in Time-perception, those species wont have any relations in the first place, so the question is academic. Similarly, if both of our pair of species arose on the same world at more-or-less the same time, the faster species is likely to wipe out the slower species on contact—so the question is, again, academic. Even so, differences in Time-perception can make life more interesting, hence more suitable to write stories about, so it would behoove authors to consider those differences from (dare I say it?) Time to Time.
Getting back to day-schedules—nocturnal vs. diurnal, that sort of thing—I suggested that on a world of sentient species with different activity-cycles, its likely that these guys cultures would have worked out ways to deal with said differences very early on in their history. Just as in the Real World, any such cultural adaptations will probably endure far beyond whatever set of conditions they arose as a response to; also as in the Real World, most members of the culture(s) in question will probably resist any attempt to modify those cultural adaptations, regardless of when those attempts take place!
The bottom line is this: When two species differ in how they respond to Time, that difference can be the fodder on which stories feed. So why not make use of it?