Five Books About…

Gears are Magic: Five Books that Rock Engineering

When author Max Gladstone first read Updraft, he contacted me, saying “You know, there’s no magic in your book, only engineering.”

He had no idea how much I was going to use that phrase. I think I owe him lunch or something.

But he was exactly right, except that he was also wrong. There IS magic in the Bone Universe series—all the way through from Updraft to Horizon. And—from the bridges to the wings and more, to the understanding of the wind around the towers—the magic is all engineering.

I’ve written elsewhere about how engineering is the invisible science in science fiction. this summer hosted a roundtable on engineering and SF that was a lot of fun and filled with gears and magic.

And here are five books—fiction and non—that bring engineering’s magic to life on the page:


The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The clock. The city maps. The bridges. The planning meetings. The looming trainwreck of bureaucracy versus schematics. Oh THIS BOOK, I want to build it all. Winner of the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, The Goblin Emperor chronicles half-elf, half-goblin Maia’s entrance into a long standing Byzantine power structure, and all the diplomatic and social tensions that entails. Meantime, the very structure of the city, and the works therein capture Maia’s attention, and mine, every time.


The Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin

In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, the power to break as well as build the continent called the Stillness belongs to the orogenes and the Guardians who control them. The geo-engineering and seismology in the books makes this series a favorite go-to for a layer of reasons, not the least of which is that when there’s a quake on land, a boat at sea reacts exactly as it should … all details engineers will love.


The Dandelion Empire by Ken Liu

From the manned kites of Grace of Kings to the bureaucratic negotiations, the engineering states of iteration and failure, all the way to the incredible machines of Wall of Storms, Ken Liu’s care with engineering’s successes and fail states is a winning combination. Using historical research dating back to the Tang Dynasty, Liu puts engineering on the page and brings it to life.


The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

In 1980, a race against time and between competing engineering teams pit two companies against each other. At stake, the building of the next-generation microcomputer: the ancestor of the personal computer, a new commonplace item. The Soul of a New Machine documents that race, and won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize by chronicling the personal lives of the engineers—including college students who had never worked in production lines—as they took risks, cut corners, and thought beyond what they knew to beat the clock. It’s part of our technical history that reads a bit like science fiction. And it’s still a wonderful, if dated, book.


The Great Bridge by David McCullough

This story of the Brooklyn Bridge is where I first learned about the bends, about caissons, and steel cabling.(Not for lack of trying by the engineers in my family who talked about these things at dinner all the time, honest). McCullough’s history of the Bridge was also the history of the Roebling family, and Emily Roebling especially—and this trumped dinner conversation any day. The bridge walk in Updraft was inspired by the fact that Emily Roebling crossed the Brooklyn Bridge alone, first, to prove it was safe. A modern classic about bridges and engineering, a copy of this book has traveled with me for every major move since college.


… also, for those looking for shorter fiction, check out: Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” and John Chu’s “The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale” !

Fran Wilde’s trilogy, The Bone Universe Series, comes to a close this fall with Horizon joining the award-winning debut novel, Updraft (Tor 2015) and Cloudbound (2016). Her novels and short stories have been nominated for two Nebula awards and a Hugo, and appear in Asimov’s,, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She writes for publications including The Washington Post,, Clarkesworld,, and You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at


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