The Metric System

I’ll blame Thomas Jefferson.

At one point, this nation’s foremost Francophile politician found the Metric system too French to be thought of as a universal standard, even though many of his contemporaries would have happily moved to that system of weights and measures. Instead, we stayed with the Imperial system, which is a functionally irrational way to do things.

This is on my mind because I have always expected that the Unites States would eventually succumb and stop doing things in pounds, cups, and feet. When I write science fiction in the distant future, I have to use some measuring system for things. As an American from the boring parts of the Midwest, I would be expected to use that system, but there are only a handful of countries still doing it the old way.

Indeed, my expectation has always been that the metric system would become the standard. Certainly, it is more coherent. But making conversions in my head is not always fun. (Thank God for the internet and people way more nerdy than me.)

David Drake always talks about measuring systems in the future with an eye towards history. What we use today bears little resemblance to what the Greeks or Romans used (and he reads Latin for fun). But the modern reader (e.g. Early Twenty-First Century CE and the next few centuries) will need a system they are familiar with.

Ergo, metric. Americans and Brits can figure it out. Everyone else is already there.

This is all on my mind because of Brexit. Used to be, one could expect that Great Britain would slowly lose the battle for cultural weirdness and migrate over a couple more generations into using the same system as the rest of Europe. (Certainly, the idiots in Brussels required that bananas be sold by kilogram weight, and not as individual, pre-packaged units.)

Brexit means that the UK will go their own way. Defiantly, as well, when you get right down to it. Two fingers in the air in a general south-east direction, if you will.

I expect one of the first things they will do is stomp back to the Imperial system for everything. They may even pass a law that metric measurements be removed from packages good in the grocery. (It is a deeply held thing with them.)

But it also colors my view of the distant future.

I am a student of international political economics. (Did my advanced work at Claremont Graduate School in exactly that topic.) And a nerd for currency arbitrage. Plus, my first published paper of a political nature was an analysis of changes in standards of living using US Census data for Kansas over several decades. (Back in the days when you had to program a computer to handle least squares linear regressions and load the data from a flat file. Think days to get results for analysis.)

So I watch the world grow and change.

In my youth, the Soviet Union was an up and coming power. (I was in Petrograd the day Yeltsin was first elected President in 1991, and expected the country to collapse that summer, which it did. Black market currency rates don’t lie.)

Europe was slowly coming together, but the Great Experiment hadn’t gelled yet and it was going to be a small collection of Western European states. (This was before they decided to bring everyone in before they were ready.)

China under Deng had started down the long path to power, but was only starting out.

I look around today (2017), and Russia is failing hard and fast. They are facing a population crash almost as hard as Japan among working ages. Russians are drinking themselves to death, while Japanese tend to not have many kids. Both nations are a century from becoming theme parks ready for some new thing.

China got old before it got rich, and is facing a huge demographic problem where there are too many young, single men who will never find wives, because there are so many more men. Plus, the government is riding a tiger. It has to keep delivering growth, or a number of angry people will start listening to demagogues.

India is an interesting case study. A gigantic democracy, slowly industrializing, slowly becoming a place called India. They aren’t really. Each of the three dozen states is largely organized around a distinct language, where English tends to be the one that everyone speaks as a second or third language. India reminds me of where the United States was in the early eighteenth century: each colony its own country slowly joining with the others in a prickly relationship to become a greater thing.

Their problems (in my jaded opinion) are that the best and the brightest frequently migrate permanently to the United States after they get educated. Yay for me, living in a place where so many smart people want to invent the future, but India has a brain drain going on. Those are the people that would transform the nation away from being caste-conscious and into a place where Dalits aren’t Dalits anymore.

And the growth the Indians do have, while impressive to westerners, is focused on a small fraction of the total population, while the vast underclasses are ignored and getting further and further behind.

Why does all this matter?

We’re going to space soon.

In science fiction, we’re going to the stars. Either Earth will be a mono-culture, or several Terran cultures will individually colonize the galaxy.

Who will those cultures be?

It is a lovely thought experiment I like to play. How would the future turn out if the men and women who set the template for the galaxy were Jordanian? Moroccan? Mexican?

The world of Alexandria Station assumes seven major trade languages, plus all the hundreds of smaller dialects largely limited to a single planet or cultural group: English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Mandarin, Kiswahili, and Bulgarian (don’t ask).

Languages as they exist today will largely standardize, and remain in place, only slowly evolving, because people can record their voice. That means that people will learn a new language from a “standard” template, rather than picking it up in their travels, absorbing words, and adding accents that eventually turn into a different spoken language. (See Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukinese, etc. that all use the same written words, but they speak their own dialect/language incomprehensible to others.)

So then I get back to the metric system.

The United States and United Kingdom use standard. Everyone else uses metric.

What will the future use?

Javier Aritza is currently operating in the year 7550CE. I’m close to done with Volume Six: The Last Flagship. You are about to be able to read Volume Four: The Pleasure Dome in a couple of weeks. (Volume Five: The Doomsday Vault comes out this summer.)

The metric system itself was a radical outgrowth of the French Revolution (and the Rise of Science from the ages of barbarity preceding).

I presume some radical social/political revolution someday will introduce some new system for doing things, but why, exactly, would you move away from a decimalized system? And if you don’t de-decimalize, why bother introducing a different decimalized system from the one you have?

But what if they future (and the galaxy) belongs entirely to a derivative/child culture of the US/UK alignment and everything is in stones, quid, and tablespoons? What does that do to all the science fiction out there?

I can’t be wrong, because I’m writing science fiction on a scale so grand that nobody will probably ever get there. (And if you do, please toast my memory and my ghost at this point at having gotten something even remotely close to accurate.)

You, the reader, needs to be able to understand distances, temperatures, and weights. I have chosen metrics. And, now that I think about it, I’m going to have to write an entire new epic space opera series (already planned, it comes after Jessica) where EVERYTHING is as convolutedly-English as I can make it. And they can get really weird: rods, hogsheads, and such.

I’m going to blame all of you, for not stopping me.


shade and sweet water,


West of the Mountains, WA


One thought on “The Metric System

  1. Barb

    Whoo-hoo! 🙂 Go for the metric systen – lots of happy readers in the rest of the world! 🙂 And yay for a non-American-centric future! 🙂
    European Barb

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