Engineering in Novels
Six hardcover books lay on my desk. My hand reached the stack and pulled out one copy randomly. Hence started my series reading and review of “engineer novels.” I had no idea the first novel I opened was going to be the exact antithesis of engineering, if the latter means logic, predictability, and above all, tangibility. Reading The Mise-en-Scène turned out to be a months-long journey full of confusion, frustration, at times anger, and several attempts to give up. The reading experience, however, supplied a perfect trope for the hero in this novel: Lassalle, an engineer who finds himself constantly “engineered” by an untamed terrain of nature and society he has been commissioned to modernize.
One interesting fact about A Single Pebble is that the engineer in this novel did almost no engineering at all. Instead, he acted more like a folklore collector, who hungrily documented the legends, poems, and songs enchanted by the residents on the ship. A sentimental, somewhat daydreaming youngster, he attempted to paint a peaceful, harmonious, and romantic picture of the lives of native Chinese ship workers. Perhaps the engineer wasn’t able to recognize that the ship trackers lived in neither an eclogue from the ancient past nor a futuristic techno utopia. The reality these ship trackers lived in--early 20th century China--should be familiar to the author of this novel: John Hersey. Hersey was born in China in 1914 and spent his first ten years living there before he returned to the United States. Later he returned to the Far East to cover World War II and won most of his literary reputation writing fictions about the war. Perhaps the author’s close experience with the era of turmoil accounts for the oscillation between the serenity and violent tensions in A Single Pebble?
When I defended my thesis on the integration of engineering and liberal education, one audience member asked when I expected engineering education to truly become a liberal education, to which I answered: “When the graduates from these integrated programs go out and pursue diverse careers and become role models for young engineering students. For example, when we are not surprised by engineering graduates who go on to work as artists, philosophers, and novelists.” There are two popular views regarding the career prospect of an engineering education. One holds an engineering degree that leads to a very predictable career path: an engineering graduate gets an engineering job, and, if she or he is lucky, migrates to a managerial job in a few years. The other view is similarly optimistic about engineering graduates’ job prospect, for a different reason. In this assessment, an engineering education lays a broad foundation for the students and prepares them for a variety of career options: research and development, management, law, politics. In the common understanding, however, the breadth of career afforded by an engineering education has its limits. For example, very few people might naturally associate an engineering degree to a literary career. That is not to say that engineering is inherently antithetical to creative writing. One of the greatest novelists of all time, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, attended Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute during his youth and upon graduation took a job as a lieutenant engineer. José Echegaray y Eizaguirre, the first Spanish writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature was a civil engineer. It is however a reality that engineer-writers are relatively unknown among readers of fictions, and few literary fictions pay a close look at the lives of engineers. With this statement, I am excluding the numerous science fiction works that are inspired by genetic engineering.