Making All Those Gears Spin: Engineering in Science Fiction and Fantasy Roundtable

A fair number of my stories feature science or technology, even when they’re fantasy. About my first novel, Updraft, my friend Max Gladstone said, “There’s no magic in this book. It’s all engineering.” He was right… and a little wrong (sorry, Max!). There is magic in Updraft, and it’s all engineering.

Because the Bone Universe series — which began with Updraft in 2015 — concludes with Horizon this September, I’m thinking a lot about engineering and how it appears in science fiction and fantasy. For Tor.com, I assembled a roundtable of SF author-engineers and analysts. I also pulled one of the engineering consultants for the Bone Universe series into the discussion. Today, Hugo-Award winner John Chu, Nebula- and Locus-award winner Aliette de Bodard, short story author A.T. Greenblatt, and short story author, editor, and 2017 debut novelist Nicky Drayden join New Zealand-based naval architect and marine engineer (aka: my sister) Susan Lake for a roundtable on engineering in science fiction and fantasy. Here we go:

Considering that without engineering, we wouldn’t have many trebuchets, forts, rocket ships, or ray guns, why do you think engineering is or isn’t featured as much in science fiction and fantasy as other scientific fields?

John Chu: It is and it isn’t. There are any number of hard SF stories that valorize engineering. The heroes are engineers. They talk tough to each other. They build the thing or they fix the thing and, so, save the day. Sometimes, it’s described as science rather than engineering but engineering does get its due. (E.g., many mad scientists are probably really mad engineers.)

Then there are also any number of worlds in genre where the infrastructure is taken for granted. Now, taking some aspects of the world for granted isn’t unusual. I mean, the DM of the Pathfinder game I play in doesn’t enforce the encumbrance rules because neither he nor anyone playing in the game find them fun. (Yes, there are people who view those rules as part of what makes role-playing fun but none of them are playing this game.) If some aspect of the world doesn’t impinge on the story in a way that’s interesting or useful to the story, it tends to be assumed. Hence, we have universal translators, food production and distribution happens somehow, and buildings are generally sound.

If something is everywhere, it looks as though it’s nowhere. And anything that it is built is a matter of engineering.

Susan Lake: I’m probably looking at this question from the opposite point of view. Engineering is and always has been the way I see the world. I love SFF where engineering is respected—even if the rules are different. Where there are rules and they are applied? That’s what separates a good engineering story for me from one where logic must be suspended to be enjoyed.

Nicky Drayden: The biggest problem is that engineering isn’t much of a spectator’s sport. It’s similar to being a visual artist. People recognize and love your work, but most would be hard-pressed to name any but the most famous artists. And virtually no one cares what brushes the artist used to get a particular effect, or how she buys her canvases in bulk from Costco. In science fiction, we want our rayguns to vaporize alien invaders, but we don’t care about the nuts and bolts that make the light show possible. Engineers get none of the glory or recognition when things go right, but the very instant our space toilets fail, you can bet their names will go down in infamy.

A.T. Greenblatt: For me, SFF gets some things right about engineering and misses the mark on other things. Things that it does well is imagination and that’s the first step in any new design—imagining what a solution would look like and how it would be used, not only by a single user but a society as a whole. SFF is really excellent at that.

But I also think engineering gets brushed over in SFF. I have a few theories for why. First, good engineering is invisible. If something is designed well, it works and no one thinks to question that. Second, we as consumers are usually more interested in the final product than understanding the design cycles needed to make it. That’s the unglamorous part of engineering. It’s sort of like writing in that way—most readers are uninterested in reading earlier drafts of a story if they have access to the final, polished version.

Who are your favorite engineering-influenced or engineering-driven SFF authors and media?

Aliette de Bodard: I think Ken Liu is pretty good at this—both in his SF stories, but more surprisingly in his fantasy ones. The Wall of Storms has a set of really delightful passages where the main characters try to make airships and weapons to resist a foreign invasion, and where they work out how huge war animals breathe fire and use that to defeat them. In the same vein, Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe has a lot of delightful passages about how cities of bone would keep growing upwards, and how people would fly and how they would design flying machines.

Susan Lake: With Doctor Who, Star Wars (love the Rogue One prequel catalysis), Neil Stephenson (Seveneves being the most recent example, as colonists use engineering to survive), engineering is the foundation that makes everything else work and the story believable.

John Chu: Hmm… I’m genuinely not sure. I do think that “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is one of the greatest stories of all time.

A.T. Greenblatt: I’m going to be cliché on this one. Isaac Asimov and Star Trek. For both of these, I love how they asked the “what if” questions and explored the answers with an eye both on the scientific possibilities as well as the social ones. Runtime by S. B. Divya also does this really well.

Nicky Drayden: Andy Weir’s The Martian does a great job of making engineering appealing to the masses. Weir throws one life-threatening obstacle after another at an engineer who has few resources and sometimes mere seconds to work out a solution. MacGyver-like ingenuity in the face of certain death is one way to create interest in fiction centered around engineers.

What’s the most SF thing you (or your characters) have ever engineered?

A.T. Greenblatt: The coolest SFF thing I’ve ever made was a robotic fish feeder in high school. The coolest thing a character of mine ever made (to date) is her own home in the middle of a void.

John Chu: A branch predictor for a microprocessor in a technology where instead of electrons, they use nanoscale dots and all the interactions are physical. (E.g., logical gates are literal gates.) I did this in my story, “The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale”, which was published in Clarkesworld in July 2016 (where the design is explicated in the form of a quest-oriented fairy tale).

Nicky Drayden: Once upon a time, I briefly considered studying to become an architectural engineer, and one great thing about writing fiction is that you can easily play around with these could-have-been career paths. Last year I took a free online course from Monash University, called “How to Survive on Mars.” We assessed available resources and cutting-edge technology that could make living on Mars possible within our lifetimes.

A lot of my classmates were heavy proponents for nuclear power as an energy source, but I felt that if we did away with our bigger-is-better mindsets and tried to build environmentally friendly architecture with Martian sensibilities, we could harness all the energy we need through solar, wind, and kinetic power provided by people with these cool floor tiles. Buildings could be 3-D printed from Martian soil, opening so many possibilities for unique architecture, which could also incorporate plant material into the designs to supplement the food and oxygen supplies. And that’s just Mars! Imagine building ice palaces on Titan, or undersea stations on Ganymede. The sky is literally the limit.

Susan Lake: Well, at my firm, we’ve built foiling catamarans, and energy kites (makani). We’ve created build plans for hydro turbines and flying cars.

I’ve had long conversations with inventors who were sure they had perpetual motion machines—usually magnet based. I also get a lot of late-Friday-afternoon phone calls—the ones where you’re pretty sure that the person on the other end has maybe been down to the pub, had a brilliant idea, and then somehow googled a number for a composite engineer to ask them to build things.

Lately, clients have included architects realising that the composites (carbon fiber, mostly) I work with can make their wacky concepts/ideas/visions a reality. So I’m making a lot of structures that appear to “float” or free-span while remaining extremely thin.

What’s coming next? I have no idea, and I wouldn’t count free-form creativity among my strengths. But once someone does have that idea, I’ll figure out how to build it.

Aliette de Bodard: I don’t get around to engineering much (except embedded software which can get pretty cool and pretty scary), but my characters definitely do build quite a few things! I designed an intergalactic plague for two linked stories, “In Blue Lily’s Wake” and “Crossing the Midday Gate”—a virus that was transmitted from organic artificial intelligences to humans. It was a lot of work because I had to not only have an idea of how the virus worked, but also had to come up for an entire set of scientific history around the development of the vaccine—how they found it and how they ran the vaccination campaigns—and finally another entire set of problems, because the plot required the first round of vaccination campaigns to fail, and I had to come up with reasons that it did!

The second most complicated thing I did was run on something close to engineering principles: one of the characters in my novel The House of Binding Thorns was pregnant in a 19th-century alternate Paris, and I needed to work out how her pregnancy would have been followed medically—which was a bit tricky as they had medicine that wasn’t quite at the same stage as in the real world, due to the presence of magic. I also needed to write a birth scene that led to complications–and it turned out that the major difficulty of all this wasn’t so much coming up with complications, as it was making sure said complications didn’t kill either the mother or the child. I read a lot of medical and midwifery history, and it was in equal parts fascinating and horrifying to see how bad it got back then, and also how far we’d come!

What are common flaws and assumptions you see in SFF that are engineering related?

Nicky Drayden: One engineering trope that bugs me is how Howard Wolowitz, the aerospace engineer on The Big Bang Theory, is constantly degraded by his peers. I don’t know if this reflects common views in actual scientific communities, since my theoretical physicist friends are few, but the dude flew to space, and still gets flack.

Aliette de Bodard: By far the most common one is “perfect projects” that are always delivered on time and where nothing ever goes wrong. In real life you’d expect delays, and compromises made to fit existing technology into the budget and the time available: sometimes the technology just isn’t available, sometimes it’s available but it costs too much, sometimes it’s available but it just can’t meet all the requirements for operations. But in SFF a lot of people just seem to order an engineering-related thing like it’s a meal from a menu—and get exactly what they expected in record time!

The next one is maintenance, which often gets skipped on: the future is always shiny and exciting, and nothing ever seems to go wrong: the artificial intelligences never have tiny glitches (when they do have glitches generally it’s of the world-destroying, humanity-ending kind!), and you never quite seem to see people who work all day long trying to keep the spaceships going, the ambient systems live, etc.

John Chu: That engineering isn’t primarily about people. That engineers only get involved when something has gone horribly wrong. That the immutable laws of physics are somehow the engineer’s biggest obstacle. I should point out that, on the other extreme, “Oh, this would be brilliant if it were not for all the bureaucracy forcing the engineers to make it awful” is also a pitfall.

A.T. Greenblatt: One of the biggest inaccuracies I see in engineering in SFF is that the napkin sketch looks exactly like the final product. When designing things in real life the end product is often quite different from those initial concept ideas. Especially if you’re working in a team with other engineers. (And engineers usually work in teams.) Another one is that in stories, the end user uses the product exactly as intended, with no hiccups. In real life, this is a pipe dream. The end user is often a creative abuser who never bothers to read the manual before installing. So usually this results in: 1. A redesign. 2. Lots of broken products. 3. The user finding innovative and unexpected uses for that design.

What question would you most like to ask or see asked about engineering in SFF?

A.T. Greenblatt: I want to know how will design standards change when Earth and Earthlike conditions are no longer standard for all humans? Will there be engineers who specialize only in constructing things for Mars? How will that affect industry and the economy?

Aliette de Bodard: What would engineering be like if the laws of science turned out be different? (either because we’ve discovered new ones or because we’re in a universe where ours don’t apply). I think a lot of SF focuses on laws of science as they’re known now, but people tend to forget that they can and do change. 150 years ago we didn’t know about quantum mechanics, string theory or general relativity, or even imply about exoplanets and all the odd and wonderful things you can find in space, so just imagine what we could be doing in a few centuries! (I’d love to see more aliens with a different understanding of science as well—not just magical thinking but a rigorous system that just takes a completely different set of explanations to ours for the universe and makes it work!)

NIcky Drayden: What constraints are the most challenging to overcome when engineering for space travel? Do these constraints make for better design overall?

Susan Lake: I’d like to see inquiry into more details—making the structures, the vehicles, and the physics not a background but a contributing character to the story.

John Chu: Patrick Nielsen Hayden once described hard SF as “two engineers talking tough to each other.” He did this at a Boskone panel some years ago. As a working engineer, I feel I can say that “talking tough to each other” does not reasonably describe my day-to-day interactions with my workmates. So, I’d like to see SFF explore other ways engineers interact with engineers (or non-engineers, for that matter).

What engineering related fields would you like to see explored?

John Chu: Like I said, if it can be built, it involves engineering. So, for example, I find the engineering of musical instruments endlessly fascinating. We’re still trying to figure out how to build a good violin!

When I was in grad school, the choir I sang in toured Italy. One space we sang in—I think it was in Assisi—was so live at rehearsal. Everything echoed and the echo hung for what seemed like days. Our conductor actually demonstrated this to us by having us sing a chord, cutting us off, then just having us listen to the echo as it didn’t fade. Come concert time, though, the space was fine. The acoustic now worked for the music we sang. The difference, of course, was that the space was now filled with people and their clothes absorbed the sound.

There is lovely interaction between music, fashion, and architecture. (My choir sang unmiked, but, nowadays, you can throw in electronics as yet another way to create an acoustic.) What I’d like to see more of is an interdisciplinary approach where we see not only how engineering affects various areas of life but how those areas affect the engineering.

Aliette de Bodard: I would definitely like to see more transport engineering—not only because it’s my day job but because transport networks and how they integrate with the cities and space habitats is a subject that has a lot of potential, and a lot of material for stories. It’s already changing quite a lot especially in urban environments: I’d be really interested to see takes on what happens when you have an entire intergalactic empire to keep together, and you need to keep lines of supply going.

I also would like to see more materials engineering: there’s a lot of related sciences being explored but materials tend to be a little handwavy in the sense that characters get exactly what they need and generally don’t ask themselves further question on how it was designed and manufactured.

Nicky Drayden: I could totally geek out on a book about an architectural engineer. Building structures on other planets is sure to hold interesting challenges that would make for good fiction.

Susan Lake: Civil, chemical, environmental, mechanical, geotechnical… All of these. Both about what contributions engineering can make to SF stories, but also—and probably more so—about SF foretelling where engineering will take us. The last I think is the closest to how I see it—SF is that Friday afternoon phone call posing the crazy new reality that engineering will get to sort out how to make happen.

(Moderator’s note: I DO NOT PHONE UP MY SISTER ONLY ON FRIDAYS.)

A.T. Greenblatt: Lately, I’m loving stories that are using 3D printers. Also, I would love to see stories that explore greener societies and solutions. SFF is the imagination that inspires engineers and I want to see more stories imagining better futures.

***

John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator and podcast narrator by night. He has a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Most of his day job work is covered by NDA. His fiction has appeared at Boston Review, Uncanny, and Tor.com among other venues. He has narrated stories for Lightspeed and the Escape Artist podcasts. His translations can be found at Clarkesworld, The Big Book of SF and other publications. His short story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. His most recent publication is “Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me” in the May/June 2017 issue of Uncanny Magazine. His bibliography can be found at his website. His Twitter handle is @john_chu.

Aliette de Bodard works as a System Engineer, designing embedded software for automated trains. By night she writes stories of maths and magic. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories which have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her space opera books include The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a book set in the same universe as her Vietnamese science fiction On a Red Station Drifting. Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz, 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, Gollancz).

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. Her debut novel The Prey Of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks. See more of her work at her website or catch her on twitter @nickydrayden.

By day, A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer for a small telecommunications company where she’s usually juggling about five different designs at any given time. She lives in Philadelphia and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She’s a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and is part of Clarion West’s class of 2017. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, and Mothership Zeta. Her most recent work is “A Place to Grow” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at her wesite and on Twitter @AtGreenblatt.

Since 2011, Susan Lake has worked with Core Builders Composites (New Zealand) building America’s Cup 50 platforms and wings for the USA and Japanese America’s Cup teams as well as components for Artemis Racing, Groupama and ETNZ. Other recent projects include clean energy kites, hydroturbines, solar cars and bespoke architecture. With a Masters’ in Mechanical Engineering and degrees in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, she has served as President of the Composites Association New Zealand since 2014 and advocates on behalf of the industry to promote composite manufacturing for architectural and infrastructure projects around New Zealand. She likes to make things that go really, really fast. She’s not allowed to talk about the flying cars.

Fran Wilde has been a science and technology writer for clients including the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland. Her novels and short stories have been nominated for two Nebula awards and a Hugo, and include her Andre Norton-winning debut novel, Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequels, Cloudbound (2016) and Horizon (2017), and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” (Tor.com Publishing 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.

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