Sexy Units

I was reading a not-great-but-interesting science fiction story today, set in the far future. There was this line: “She might have been only a bit short of a meter-and-a-half tall, but she packed every inch of her frame with massive muscles.”

I’m hoping right now that people in that distant time are a little more settled on their units of measure. But there is a fundamental issue that speculative fiction especially struggles with: metric units are not sexy. Damn near every one of them is four syllables at least.

“I would walk one thousand miles” is light-years ahead of “I would walk one thousand kilometers,” or even, “I would walk a megameter.” (Hm. That last one has a little spark.)

Inch is cooler than centimeter. Mile is WAY more poetic than kilometer. But in science fiction writing, there has been a failure to give humanity credit for the ability to take the mundane and technical, and bring it to life.

In this case, the military has already started: Kilometer is ‘klick’. “It’s ten klicks out and coming in fast!” In some contexts, that’s better than “mile”. Such a hard-sounding word. It has an urgency to it. You wander for miles, but when the threat is coming in at twenty klicks per second you don’t fuck around.

I don’t think I have ever read a story that has reduced these units the way they surely will be. “Give them a cem, they’ll take a klick.” “I missed it by half a mim.”

And let’s face it, “a meter-and-a-half tall”, while getting high marks for hyphen usage, is not casual conversation. “She wasn’t even 15 dems tall, but she packed every cem of her frame with massive muscles.” Better, don’t you think? It’s not simply that the units are consistent; it creates part of a language that gives the world its character. And it’s just tighter.

I have often decried the dry, non-poetic nature of the metric system in literature. But now I see that that dryness is my fault. There will be poets in the future, long after miles are forgotten, yet they will still speak of distance, and they will not use four syllables just for the unit designation. Maybe they will be even more versatile. “A million klicks away” might mean one thing, while “A million kloms away” would connote something else entirely.

As writers, we can imagine how people in the future will streamline these words, and make the form these shortened words take be a subtle part of the world they live in. Natural to them, instructive to us. Fun for everyone!

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