The Big Idea: Michael Johnston
You know how it can feel like one day is like the next, one month like the next, and each year like every other year… until it isn’t? Well, author Michael Johnston’s about to take that to the next level in his newest novel, Silence of the Soleri.
I wrote a novel inspired by the ancient Egyptian calendar. That was my big idea. I found the calendar fascinating, and I think you will too if you give me a moment to explain. I know that ancient timekeeping isn’t the usual inspiration for an epic fantasy novel. It isn’t usually the inspiration for anything. But this is different. It’s fascinating—I promise.
Let’s start with a little history.
Every year, before the annual inundation of the Nile, the star, Sirius, appeared on the horizon before sunrise. (This is called heliacal rising of Sirius, but you don’t need to remember that.) Over time, the Egyptian farmers took note of this little coincidence, and eventually, they started using the stars appearance to predict the annual event. Now, the flood was really important to the Nile Valley. The water enriched the desert soil and made the land suitable for growing crops. Without the flood to release nutrients into the soil, Egypt would starve, so they kept careful track of its appearance. They noted that Sirius rose, just prior to sunrise, every three hundred and sixty-five days. That cycle became the basis for the calendar. Simple enough, but here’s the interesting part: It didn’t work. They had twelve months with thirty days in each, which was three hundred- and sixty-days total. Are you following the math? They were five days short (six in a leap year).
I love this part.
They could have added a day here and there. We do that and it’s just confusing. They stuck with their perfect calendar of twelve perfectly equal months, and they made the extra five (or six) days a special time that existed outside of the normal calendar.
In the Amber Throne novels (Soleri and Silence of the Soleri), the Soleri calendar contains a festival that is something like the holiday they had in ancient Egypt. There are five special days that exist outside of normal calendar time. No one works or goes about their business. The world stops, and everything is put on hold. These five days exist in a place that is outside of normal time. A pause where nothing of daily importance transpires. How could it? There was no date! Think about that. Imagine having five of those days in your life. Days without names. Nothing to fill in the “date received” in your email. I love that. It’s fascinating, and I think there’s something really magical about it.
In my novel, the annual holiday isn’t timed to the rising of a star, but it is set to coincide with an annual eclipse, which is a bit more dramatic. Each year, the sky turns black as the moon eclipses the sun. The eclipse is their heliacal rising. It’s a sign that a new year has started. Now, in our world, eclipses don’t happen on a yearly schedule. This has to do with the mechanics of the earth, the moon, and the sun. But if a planet had a perfectly spherical orbit and the moon did as well and they both shared the same plane, the moon would eclipse the sun at regular intervals. Something similar happens in my book.
The years are marked by an annual eclipse, and it’s been that way throughout recorded history. In the novels, we find out what happens when the cycle deviates. In Soleri, I explore that moment when the calendar finally stops working, and the things we thought were unmovable begin to change. That’s the moment when the story takes off. When there is no eclipse, when the very rock on which society is built vanishes, a crisis emerges and the story begins. It starts with a calendar and ends with an empire torn apart, and that was my first big idea for the novel.