Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TTYU Retro: Measurement questions in sf/f and secondary worlds

Have you ever been writing along and found yourself writing, "The town was ten miles away," or "The city was thirty kilometers away," or "The gap was about ten feet wide", etc. and wondering if it was the right thing to do? You can't write without ever giving anyone a sense of the scale of things, can you? But if you're writing in a secondary world, or on an alien world where measurements are not the same as the ones we've been using, or in a far future where it seems a bit iffy for measurements to have remained the same, what do you do? And what happens if you're on a planet where days are of different lengths, or working with an interstellar empire where local time is going to vary ridiculously? What then?

I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this because I work in secondary worlds a lot. And basically, there are a number of solutions you can use - which one you pick depends on the context of your world and what kind of "feel" you're looking for.

Option #1A: Use an existing measurement system, directly
Yes, that means using miles or kilometers or feet or centimeters (but unless we're quite close to our own world, probably not both). This can work well for future science fiction contexts where you can plausibly argue that one of our existing systems has been retained. Often in science fiction, measurement and specificity can be important, and you don't just need a measurement system, you need a really precise one that people can easily grasp. Unless you really need to make a major story point about a different length of day or year, etc. you might as well be using days and years and seconds. There's no comparison in terms of ease of use for your reader.

Option #1B: Use an existing measurement system, plausibly
You see this a lot in fantasy, where a world that resembles medieval Europe will use medieval English measurements. Since here in the US we're pretty used to feet and miles, and we've at least heard people talk about leagues, it works well enough for us not to notice it. Not noticing it is, of course, the goal here. We don't want readers struggling every time they have to figure out how big something is.

Option #1C: Use an existing measurement system, in translation
This one is a bit riskier, but let's just assume you've got yourself a really fabulous secondary world or alien world that you're portraying from the insider's perspective - you really can't claim that these people are using the same measurements we would, but you use our measurements anyway, trusting readers to understand that this is just authorly shorthand for what's really going on. It's not actually that hard to do with days and minutes and seconds, or with a person's height (and this is actually what I do with in Varin), but it can require more faith when it comes to measurements of length or distance, where we're more familiar with multiple different options. Watch out for this one and check with your critique partners for plausibility.

Option #2: Use non-standard measurement/compare to objects
This is the one that I use most when I'm working with my Varin world, because it requires no leap of faith on the part of the reader, and because it works wonderfully in a context where the precise measurement of things is not critical to the success of the story. It's not necessarily a problem even when you're dealing with relatively scientific things (for example, medicine can be measured in "doses"). Distance can be measured in "paces." You can measure height relative to a character or to another object of relatively predictable size, like a chair. You can measure distance relative to objects whose parameters have already been introduced. You can also measure distance in the amount of time required to travel from one place to another via a typical mode of transport.

Option #3A: Create a new measurement system that is actually just like an existing one
This is sort of the translation approach in reverse. Give your measurements a new name that fits better with the world they're in, but make them basically function like our existing measurement systems. Again, this is authorial fudging and requires some faith on the part of the reader. However, it can work well.

Option #3B: Create a new measurement system
This one I've found compelling in many ways, but ended up avoiding like the plague. I love the idea that in a different world, or on a different planet, people would measure the things around them differently. However, it takes a lot of work for people to learn a new measurement system. Thus, I really don't recommend this one unless you have a story where the contrast between the local measurement system and the measurement system we're accustomed to is actually a major plot point. There has to be a really good reason to make a reader do this much work, and "well, so they can tell my world isn't our world" isn't a good enough one, at least for me.

It's worth taking the time as you design a world to figure out which of these approaches you're going to take, so that you can make the choice consciously and maintain consistency.


  1. One thing I've avoided is creating "alien" measurements in my SF. Since most of the aliens in my stories speak through a translator, I just assume all the measurements the aliens are giving in their own system are being translated, too.

    1. Makes sense to me. It's certainly the less distracting option. Thanks for the comment, Dave!

  2. TV series Farscape went for option #3B. Space travel played a prominent role in the show, so they often mentioned units of time and distance measurement. Units were used consistently during the show's four seasons, to the writers' credit.

    "Metras" were, if memory serves, 10-mile units. "Microts" approached seconds in terms of length (I actually bothered to make a calculation, but that was two years ago)and the Farscape analog to a minute lasted 45 "Earth" seconds. It's nice when a TV show maintains internal consistency that way.

    Gene Wolfe, whom I apparently am compelled to mention all too often, used option #1A. In "The Book of the New Sun," he mentions spans and ells for length, and watches for time. The Book of the New Sun, is purportedly a translation, however, and the translator tells the reader, in an appendix, that he used obsolete measurement units to best convey the original author's ideas.

    Personally, I find that any of the options come with pros and cons, so the real challenge is to keep the issue of time/distance measurement to break the story, i.e., take the reader out of it.

    1. Indeed. Some methods fit better with one story and some with another. Not kicking the reader out should be the primary goal in any case. Thanks for your comment!

  3. This was a great post - thank you! Lots of good advice on how to tackle a very troublesome topic. My characters are currently in a place with no day/night division so telling time has become a real challenge. Finally the character has decided to divide the time by sleep cycles - when she's awake, it's "day" and when she's asleep it's "night." :-)

    1. That's a very logical approach, Terri! I have people who live underground, but they have the advantage that they have timed lights. Otherwise they'd be in the same fix... Thanks for your comment!

  4. A very interesting post. I think a lot about this too, and this is how I partially handled the measurements question for my world. I started with units of time because they are a base for the rest of the system. http://wbjournal.info/2012/02/11/timekeeping-and-calendar-danna/

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Jelena.

  6. I side with #3B, on the grounds that it is the most _natural_ for a fantasy world. But to do it well means delving a lot deeper into the world-building than a lot of writers really have the patience for. Take time measurement. We have this system of 24 hours * 60 minutes * 60 seconds = 1 day. Why do we have those units of measure, and why do they have the values they do?

    Well, the Phoenicians or somebody way back when thought 60 was a mystic number because there are so many ways it divides evenly: by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 30, and of course, 60. Couple that with the year being pretty close to 6*60 days long, and 60 starts to look pretty magical. 12 lunar cycles per year gives us days and nights divided into 12 parts, and there you go.

    Our wacky time system has a history that is based in the parameters of the world in which that system was developed. So if you want to know how the aliens/ elves in your sf/f world mark time, you have to look at their deep history in context of the world they live in. It's part of the world-building. Ditto for measurements of lengths, weights, money, land ownership (our "acre" comes from the amount of land an ox could plow in one day), and everything else.

    But that’s only half of it, because ultimately you need to put something on the page. The system of measurements must be reflected in the language of the secondary world. Our language is full of phrases that associate to various units of measure: "he got his pound of flesh." "Give him an inch, and he'll take a mile." "A day late and a dollar short." What are the equivalent phrases in your secondary world?

    Figure all that out, and you're still left with the job of using your fancy measurement system in ways that don't leave readers scratching their heads. There, my advice is to use units of measure sparingly, vaguely, and always to present them _in a context_ through which the reader can get a general sense for what the units mean. The reader doesn’t need to know the exact English or Metric equivalents of your units. They only need an intuitive sense for the general magnitude of them.

    Maybe your militaristic society measures time through a basic unit called the "watch," reflecting how long somebody typically has to stand watch before being relieved. Fine, but a whole "watch" is probably too long of a time for many other purposes. Now, if it's an alien race that only has four fingers on each hand and a base-8 numbering system, likely break the watch into the half-watch, quarter-watch, and eighth-watch.

    Now, does it matter to readers if they know that a "quarter-watch" is actually equal to 52.7 earth minutes? No. Chances are, nobody gives a damn. But if you let people know that the captain takes a quarter-watch for his luncheon, and that somebody got "a solid two watches sleep last night," then readers get to form an intuitive sense for how the watch-system of time works.

    And what about the name "quarter-watch?" The word "quarter" only makes sense if you have French in your linguistic history, which the aliens certainly wouldn't. What would they call it? As their hands have 4 fingers, maybe the word "finger" would additionally have the meaning of "one part in four," giving you a unit of time called the "finger-watch."

    It always comes down to the world building, deployed within the narrative so as to develop a reader's intuitive sense for the measurements. Yeah, it's more work. But to me, this is the best way to create a deeply organic, believable sense of realism for sf/f measurements.

    1. Jason, thanks for taking the time for such a long and detailed comment! I agree with you in many respects, but I hesitate to recommend "finger-watches" to anyone, because of the sheer amount of work required for the reader to process the information. No matter how many steps we take to eliminate the "translation" of the unit, there's always a leap required. A solid two watches sleep will tend to access our assumptions about how much humans need to sleep. At the same time, the use of the word quarter in English doesn't make most people think of the Norman conquest. My own world of Varin measures seconds on the basis of starlight fluctuations, and derives minutes and hours in binary fashion, so they have sixty-four seconds in a minute, sixty-four minutes in an hour, and twenty-two hours in a day. But the fact is, if you read my book, you'll never see it - because the discrepancies, as you noted with your "52.7 earth minutes" example, are immaterial. They have no bearing on the story and would only distract. Attention a resource, and in the end we have to decide how much of it to use on world detail and how much on story. So while I agree with you, and my instinct pushes me in that more organic direction, it's not practical for use in all cases.

  7. Sometimes I get sick of describing things as "so many feet high" or "so many minutes long". It always strikes me as so clinical. I found an elegant way around it in one story: I describes a cave as "more than big enough for a dozen orcs and their campfire".

    That said, a custom calendar or two is not unreasonable in a fantasy story. Linking the unfamiliar terms with the seasons is a nice way of anchoring it for the reader.

  8. I agree with Jason - it worked in Star Wars, didn't it? The Millennium Falcon made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. What's the Kessel run? Who knows. No one knows how long a parsec is but it makes sense in context.