Birth of a World: A Question of Ambiguity

There were a lot of things that got me thinking about ambiguity this week, but one of the big ones had to do with the design process for my created world. It began with a character (yes, another one, most of these things do) who’d been kicking around in my head for a while. A best friend to my apprentice calligrapher, possibly connected in some way to Lady Natara… and, she told me a couple days ago, herself an astrologer in training.

Of course, the problem with someone in this story working in one of the sciences (as far as that world is concerned) is that now I have to make sure I understand that science. I know the astronomical portions of the astrologer’s work in this world are going to be pretty accurate (plus or minus error for measurement equipment and scientific theory nobody’s gotten to yet). She’ll be able to get her location whenever she’s under the night sky, clock time, find directions, and figure out the days for the phases of the moon. But on the other hand, astrology also carries with it good old astrological divination, and that’s more a gray area.

I don’t want it to definitely not work. My source material told me that astrology was a heavy contributor to the creation of trigonometry, and I think I’m going to keep that aspect. And I think it would be nifty if it did work to some degree, or at least look like it worked often enough to ensure that to be selected as a political figure’s chief astrologer would be a great honor, and more importantly that it wasn’t the kind of position someone could just get with toadying, connections, incomprehensible jargon and clever guesswork.

But on the other hand, in a world like this, completely infallible astrology is just asking for trouble. Even if it is mostly accurate as long as one’s measurements are correct and one is sure to take into account all variables, there needs to be some doubt, or I’m likely to spoil my own plots every time the character I still need to name pulls out her calipers. So I want it to be somewhere in the middle—something where it’s generally believed that astrology is the real deal, but my audience could still probably justify the idea that it’s as much belief as anything.

Complicating this is the one idea for a scene I’d had, something of a sendup of the usual “ah, the fortune-teller’s full of it” scene. Someone from another land, with another divinatory practice—I’ve got a couple good ones, I’ll have something—comes in and makes a prediction. My little astrologer, though she “knows” perfectly well that the stars will tell her what she needs to know if she can just do the math right, has her doubts about this other system, so when the newcomer presents the results of one of her divinations, the astrologer does her own calculations and refutes it…. until she realizes she slipped a digit (or something) and that they actually do get pretty similar results. I’m leery of using this scene, though, because I could see it making both brands of divination seem too accurate.

Whatever I choose to do, it’ll be interesting to figure out how all this works.


  1. Brickwall says:

    Real world astrology is actually pretty damn unfalsifiable with small population sizes and minimal understanding of causality. The statement “You will do well in finances today; avoid cats,” is pretty typical of the field, both ancient and modern. Astrology rarely says specific things, and even when it does, like with any manner of prophecy, it doesn’t do so in a very straightforward manner. If you want its validity to be ambiguous, make astrology ambiguous in the first place. And try to be non-overt when you fulfill its predictions very precisely, and certainly don’t predict everything or feature the fulfillment of every prediction. That’s pretty much the formula that keeps divination alive even in the modern era.

  2. Michael says:

    Indeed…. and for me, the crowning confirmation of this was when I ran a topic on the ZBB asking for people’s details so I could write their birth charts according to Arêndron astrology. The results were very similar to those of real astrology, with people finding my “predictions” eerily accurate, even though we all knew I’d made up the whole system.

  3. UZ says:

    It might be cute to introduce two kinds of astrology:

    1) Academic astrology, based on long and complicated calculations, observations and inductive reasoning

    2) “Vulgar” astrology, based (as in the real world) on the Forer Effect.

    And have comparisons on their relative benefits and which social ills they supposedly address, and who likes them. Vulgar astrology is cheap and easy, but disliked by snooty upper-middle-class types. Academic astrology is accurate but necessarily cryptic.

    Cute stories could be made illustrating how they one or other was superior, or how they only worked in concert, or how they were both equally useless. Fun all around!

  4. Ravyn says:

    Brick: Yeah, I was planning something of the sort, the issue is just as much the level of accuracy as far as I know.

    Michael: I remember that! It’s quite fun when a completely made-up astrological system seems to work anyway; I remember being rather surprised to discover that my Arthchwyl’s astrological compatibility charts almost perfectly modeled what I could see of the social dynamic between the PCs in my game.

    UZ: Hm, that could be interesting. Seems almost too predictable, but things are predictable because they work, so I wouldn’t be able to fault the verisimilitude.

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