World Creation: Doing My Homework

In working on the world for my potential story, I noticed that one of the biggest challenges to the creation of a world at a technology level different from my own is understanding just what it is that people know, particularly when I know I’m going to take the time to actually demonstrate that people do know and use what they know. And while this is difficult enough in Standard Vaguely European Fantasyland, in my pseudo-Classical Arabic culture, it was going to be even more of a challenge. For this, I would have to do research. After all, if my people are studying something, particularly if most of my characters are the kinds of scholars I would expect an apprentice text illuminator to be hanging around, I want them to sound like it, and for people who actually have studied this stuff to be able to tell that I know what I’m talking about, and I’m not just stringing together science buzzwords that don’t actually work that way. (I’m obsessive like that; I once spent a week trying to understand numerology because it happened to be listed as a major theme in the subculture of the fictional world I was working in that one of my players was stepping right into. It didn’t work too well, mainly because I wasn’t applying myself all that hard and the materials were somewhat minimal.)

I started with a single book I’d seen on the new book display table before (once it came back in, anyway). The book in question was The House of Wisdom, by Jonathan Lyons, an exploration of the Classical Arabic contribution to modern society—and I’d known there was going to be a lot in it, but I didn’t realize just how many archaic fields of study I was going to need to brush up on and why it mattered. The object of the game here wasn’t so much to learn about my specific fields as to learn which fields of knowledge I was likely to need that would not necessarily have occurred to me.

Now, chemistry (or rather, the then-current alchemy—guess which language the latter term comes from), I had expected to some degree. Likewise, I’d known that algebra was going to pop up, but not how it had come to be (did you know that a major impetus for the invention of algebra was Islamic inheritance law?). And of course, I knew I would want to look into how medicine was handled there and then.

What I wasn’t expecting, but what made itself quickly clear that I would need to learn long and hard about, was astrology. And no, I don’t just mean those generic horoscopes that show up in the daily paper. I mean that thing where they figure out exactly where this planet is, and which constellation the sun’s hanging out in, and where the position of the moon and/or the planets at any given time actually matters. Yeah, it seems hokey in this day and age, but not only did it matter, it also had a strong effect on other studies. Did you know that astrology was an impetus behind the creation of trigonometry? (Granted, so was geography, but still.)

My final list of future research topics (along with text illumination, but I’d known that for longer), as gleaned from the index and my memory after my first readthrough, was as follows:

Timekeeping, alchemy, papermaking, astrology (with emphasis on understanding how a zij was formatted and read and the workings of an astrolabe), and the histories of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry (with particular emphasis on how these things were derived and what other uses they were originally put to).

From here on in, the homework is only going to get more difficult. But that’s when we get to the discovering part, and that should be fun. In details like this do worlds truly come alive.

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