Another Word: Invisible and Visible Engineering in Science Fiction
In science fiction and fantasy, scientific heroics sometimes occur in concentric rings—in the lab, in the field, on the ship. They come in career rings also—from astronomer and physicist to theoretical chemist and astrophysicist (there are a lot of flavors of physicists in hard SF), to linguists, xenobiologists, and more.
Out of all of these, it’s the engineers who fascinate me right now. While engineers often seem to be the first in, last out (or never out, because they stay on the ships) of SFF, they also seem somewhat less represented in fiction than their more theoretical counterparts. The former is in part because their field is so broad, and in part because, while they specialize, engineers are also skilled generalists. They build the vehicles and the bridges, they make sure that the door irises open and shut when they’re supposed to, that the wings stay on, and that the matter compiler actually compiles.
Then engineers come around and fix it all again when the shiny new captain accidentally hits something coming out of drydock for the first time or someone decides to see what happens when you put Mentos in the matter compiler.
Engineering has a long history in science fiction, and a complicated one. B’elanna Torres & Kaywinnet Lee Frye are the technical masters of Voyager and Serenity and help keep both ships running under difficult circumstances. Systems analyst and science fiction writer Nicole Duson mused recently within my hearing that Mark Watney, in Andy Weir’s The Martian, turns out to be excellent at engineering a variety of solutions to help with his own survival in Macgyver-style fashion. An engineer’s general understanding of how everyday things work, plus a tendency to try to make them work better and an ability to see everything as potential parts of something different, gives a lot of fictional engineers believable Macguyver skills.
But is Macguyvering things as exciting as inventing or discovering? Does engineering’s series of incremental changes read as vividly as an “a-ha!” moment? Perhaps this is why on-screen and in print, physicists sometimes outnumber engineers, and why engineers sometimes get little respect. Case in point: Howard, the aerospace engineer among theoretical physicists on the TV show Big Bang Theory, takes a lot of flack, even though (as he often points out) his work has more immediate, real-world applications. Moreover, often in engineering-heavy genres like steampunk, dieselpunk, and even cyberpunk, the focus is on the tech or the end product and not the schematics, iterations, and hacks it took to get there—or the characters who did the work. It may be that invention is cooler than maintenance, or sense of wonder is harder to maintain when you’re down to schematics and napkin sketches—but I believe that the a-ha!/sense of wonder moment is there in engineering too.
Last year, when Ken Liu and I moderated our first engineering in science fiction and fantasy panel at Readercon, we had a discussion that ranged from Vauban fortifications and projectile weaponry to why there was no engineering program at Hogwarts. (And without engineers, who the heck built that time turner anyway, and all the locks at Gringotts?)
Among the most interesting topics in the panel? How immediate engineering work is, how highly technical and rules-based, and how innovative, all at the same time. The other interesting point that was made repeatedly is that engineering allows authors to explore fail states as well as successes. But the biggest point to come out of the panel was that (with the exception of Hogwarts), engineering is everywhere, and that’s what makes it so hard to see. Hugo winner and microprocessor engineer, John Chu summed it up like so: “If something is everywhere, it looks as though it’s nowhere. And anything that it is built is a matter of engineering.”
Engineers are so busy trying to make things work in the real world, our panel argued, that they are a bit invisible, especially when it comes to future heroic discoveries that might land them more starring roles in science fiction and fantasy.
However, from Kij Johnson’s short story “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and N.K. Jemisin’s innovators in The Broken Earth Series, to Steven Gould’s Impulse, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, and Ken Liu’s Dandelion Empire, they are there and doing their jobs.
For me, when I decided to focus on engineering elements in The Bone Universe, and—especially in Cloudbound and the upcoming series finale, Horizon, I knew I was working in a world where engineering was about as close to magic as one could get. Wings and bridges, machines and nets. Almost everything else in the Bone Universe is gravity and monsters, but there’s a lot of engineering in the infrastructure—how things are carried, lifted, and dropped. How the towers rise. I dove into the research, and when I wrote about engineering flights of fancy, I checked it with my own engineering advisors, including my sister, who designs keels for America’s Cup racing boats.
Working with real-world engineers on fictional projects was sometimes harder than I thought it might be.
For instance, once, I tried to check my work on a wingset by asking my consultant simple questions like “Does this seem reasonable?” I got back a ream of caveats, ifs and buts, “hard to says” and “depends on the situation.” I specified a use situation, wind direction, and more . . . and my sister returned a napkin sketch. When I asked for clarification on that, I got back another napkin sketch, entirely different.
Before I published my first stories, I was a science writer for an engineering school and several engineering companies, so I knew my sister wasn’t having fun at my expense (probably). But I also realized quickly another thing that makes engineering a challenge to work into fiction: situations change, and those can change the project parameters. For proper results with my research, I needed to give my real-world engineers as much technical data as possible as early as possible. In a world made out of living bone with giant, invisible, carnivorous cephalopods plying the skies. We eventually arrived at a detente, in part because I took to heart everything they said. Their notes made my world stronger and more stable, which is a lot of what engineering does.
So perhaps it’s not that engineers don’t appear as much in science fiction as often as physicists and the more experimental scientists. Perhaps it’s more that engineering is everywhere, at all layers of discovery, from the lab, to the field, to the ship—and as vital to the inner workings of science fiction as star charts and interstellar wormhole theory. And perhaps it is because they’re everywhere, that we don’t always see them. Meantime, they’re still in there, keeping things running, shifting to accommodate each new parameter. (Don’t put Mentos in the microwave, please!)
That’s what fascinates me. That’s what calls my interest, as well as the interest of many other writers. Like both worldbuilding and real-world infrastructure, engineering provides science fiction with the hidden gears that make the watch go and the warp drive too—even when it’s unseen. Engineering offers the parameters and napkin sketches and the research that go into every detail, every cam and clamp. Which, for me, makes writing about engineering incredibly worthwhile: it’s writing about science in motion—both real and in fiction. Even if doing so requires a few back and forths to get the numbers right.