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December 6, 2012 / benrovik

On metrics and mysteries

MetricConversions

I live in the US.  There are cases where Americans would prefer things to be very, very simple.  But when it comes to our units of measurement, we like things to be very, very complicated.

We are enthusiastic and unwavering in this, and we don’t much care what anyone else thinks.  So much so that it’s very easy to find the American system described, with audacious blandness,  as “Standard.”  As in, the agreed-upon foundation, the basis, the starting place.

metricmap

Red ones are the countries using Standard.  The US only accepted Alaska and Hawaii as states because it makes it look like more than three countries can’t get enough of dividing by 1,760 to find out how many miles a football field is.

(And yes, I know football is also a different thing everywhere else.  Leave us alone.)

It’s the system I grew up learning, so it’s the system I used in my writing.  I knew my height in feet and inches.  I knew the weight of my hamburgers in fractions of a pound.  It only seemed natural that my characters would discuss their world using the same units I did.

But then I recently took a gander at the map of who’s been downloading the free audiobook of The Wizard That Wasn’t, and it looked like this:

podiobooks downloads 12-3-12

There are people in other parts of the world!  A lot of them!   And they’re reading my books!

That image got me thinking.  I wasn’t trying to make some grand point by using inches and miles and pounds; it was just the system I’d chosen to use.  But was that the clearest choice to make?  The most inclusive to a whole world of readers?  Did it make sense that the characters in my fantastical books would use the same measurement system that only ~5% of our world’s population uses?

As of the latest edition of the MechWiz books, my answer is no.

From here on out, unless I come across some really compelling reason to do otherwise, all the Mechanized Wizardry books and Petronaut Tales will use metric units.  I found it surprisingly easy to make the switch in the manuscripts.  A meter’s about a yard; a mile’s two kilometers; a kilogram’s about two pounds; an inch is two and a half cm; a liter and a quart are the same.  It’s very rare that my characters or narrator measured things precisely, so the switches didn’t require me to get out my conversion tables in a serious way.

There are some isolated cases that have given me trouble; colloquial terms for objects that have Standard measurements embedded in them, like 32-pounder cannons and two-by-fours. But I’ve dealt with them on a case-by-case basis.

My hope is that this makes my books easier to read for the vast majority of the world, as Amazon and Smashwords continue to expand into new markets and take Ben Rovik Books along with them.  And I hope just as sincerely that this shift doesn’t alienate or confuse readers in the US, who are a clear majority of my readers so far.

Most American sci-fi authors write in metric, so it’s not a totally foreign idea; and, as I said, things almost never get so precise in the books that you can’t figure out by context if something is heavy or light, close or far away.

Other authors who might be passing by: what are your thoughts on units, in your books and your lives?

Image credits here and here

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