Units of time and measurement in Sci-Fi/Fantasy stories

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Thread: Units of time and measurement in Sci-Fi/Fantasy stories

  1. #1

    Units of time and measurement in Sci-Fi/Fantasy stories

    OK, so you have an alien humanoid race living on their home-world that has nothing to do with Earth or our race.

    How would you refer to units of time and units of measurement?

    Would you use years, months, days, hours, miles, kilometers, feet, etc or invent your own?

    If you invent your own, how would you calibrate this for the reader?

  2. #2
    WF Veteran Gavrushka's Avatar
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    I'd have one approximate to the other in a benign fashion so the reader can do simple maths, and leave an appendix explaining conversions.

    Make it more cumbersome only if you are intending to educate the reader as well as entertain!
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  3. #3
    "... years, months, days, hours, miles, kilometers, feet ..."
    They are all based on earthly things, 'years, months, days, hours' based on planetary revolutions, 'miles' on the human pace, 'kilometers' on fractions of a great circle, 'feet' on the human body. You could base on a universal constant, like an energy wavelength if they are an interplanetary culture, or on things to do with their home world. The concept of 'constant' usually starts out back to front in human culture, six feet is the height of a man, the same man's foot will be a sixth of that, or the smallest measure is the weight of a seed, or the width of a mote of dust that will float in sunlight, the unit is measured against the thing rather than the thing against the unit. I would use aspects of the alien world and familiarise the reader with them rather than making a conversion, after all how many people are really accurate? They guesstimate measures.
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  4. #4
    It depends. Are you trying to write hard science fiction, and create a semi-plausible or at least actually alien species of of aliens? Make your own. If not - if you're writing fantasy or science fiction that isn't purely xenobiological speculation - use measurements closer to our own. It's nothing but annoying to have your race of Orchs measure time in Xaabulates and distance in Gob-gobs.

    Yes, making up your own units is more realistic, but you have to think of your readers. If realism isn't the goal, take the path of least resistance. In science fiction, you can still use 'days' and 'years', but based on those of another planet. Or in fantasy, if that's what you want. But I wouldn't go throwing made-up words at your readers.


    You can still be inventive, though. Scavengers living on a spaceship who barely ever land on planets will think in hours and sleep cycles, not days and years. Fantasy beings from a world of eternal night might have some strange way to keep track of time. Small rock-beings that live deep in the earth might have trouble understanding what a day is.

    All right, thinking about it some more does change my viewpoint. It would be interesting to see otherworldly ways of timekeeping, but only if those are inherently different from hours, days and years, and not just made-up synonyms for those. Rock-beings that use the steady, hour-long cycle in the pulse of the glow of fungal roots, night-beings that use the coming and going of swarms of migratory fireflies as 'years', and so on.

    In science fiction, days and years are very logical units of time on any planet, seeing as they both have drastic effects on the lives of those who live there - light and dark, hot and cold - and are precisely temporal events.

    As to actually answering your question: no, I do not give them different words for our units or different methods of timekeeping. That was mostly because of the nature of the stories: either they were science fiction not too far in our future, without any aliens involved, or 'grounded' fantasy without a whole lot of magic or deviation from our own late medieval/renaissance periods.

    Now that I think about it, I did once give a character a different unit for distance - that was I a science-fiction story not based on Earth or anywhere near it. The character used 'cubits' and 'kilocubits'. It was just an experiment, and a way to make him sound more alien, which fitted with the general tone and setting.
    Last edited by Outiboros; March 1st, 2014 at 11:09 AM.

  5. #5
    Creative Area Specialist (Fiction) Folcro's Avatar
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    As Olly seemed to imply, you can very easily get away with using "feet" as it is such a practical unit of measurement and not far-fetched for any intelligent species to decide to use.

    What you might also do, as I assume your race has it's own language but you'll be writing things in English, is use the same words we do "centimeters, meters, kilometers, yards," and mention in your "appendix" that there are actually (negligible) differences between their sizes and ours.
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  6. #6
    Just use 'minutes', or 'miles', but put 'space', or 'science' in front of them. That's always good.

    I have many space miles to go before I get home, but I'm running short on science minutes! Or 'astro-kilometers'. That's a good one too. Hope I helped out
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  7. #7
    While not original to me, you can use reasonably understandable terms that are not our words for at least relative measures within the story. A "planetary turn" = a day; a "moon cycle" = a month; a "solar turn" = a year; a "humanoid distance" = a meter (or two); etc. This doesn't necessarily imply absolute measurements, but they provide a scale within your story.

  8. #8
    Months- Are based on a moon. Decide how many days it takes for the moon of your planet to revolve around your earth like planet. Moon is Moonth without the moon there is no month.

    Years is how long of course it takes that planet to rotate around the sun. Pick the name of your star and decide how long it takes to revolve around your sun. Same with days a full day is how long it takes the earth to rotate once. Pick how long it takes your planet. Decide on day and night hours and then use descriptions to break those down into minutes and hours.

    To me you could use all the same terms, but just describe how the figures differ on this planet of your own.
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  9. #9
    Make it feel like it's come from the characters you're using. The setting can be one of those characters.
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Douglas View Post
    OK, so you have an alien humanoid race living on their home-world that has nothing to do with Earth or our race.

    How would you refer to units of time and units of measurement?

    Would you use years, months, days, hours, miles, kilometers, feet, etc or invent your own?

    If you invent your own, how would you calibrate this for the reader?
    In my books, I have done some research to what planets have certain rotational speeds and orbital periods in order to get this right. If it's another race, I generally refer to them by a universal standard time that the governing bodies have established as the standard time. There's a standard time for one faction, then another. You also need to bear in mind, time in one hemisphere of the planet is a different time in another one, unless it's unified. Time measurements as we know them are set by solar cycles, and in a universe governed by intergalactic life, solar periods are irrelevant.

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