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Engineers in Novels: A Series Preview

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.

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.

Dostoyevsky as an Engineer

For the past few years, I have wanted to create a course on “engineering and novels,” for I believe engineering students might be able to gain unique insights about themselves and their profession from stories told very differently from the objectivist perspective they are familiar with. I envision this course to be a reading seminar, in which students will engage closely with the text of a few novels that focus on engineers. My hope is that careful reading and discussions of these novels will provide a medium for students to come into contact with the multiple--realistic and imaginary, grand and subtle--facets of the engineering enterprise and the community of engineers. Of course, the first step for this project is to compile a list of readings. This is not an easy job: Although the theme of science and technology has inspired numerous novels, few take a careful look at engineers. I ended up solving this problem by using the combination of “Subject terms: engineer” and “Genre: fiction” to search in the PSU Libraries. After a quick look at the results yielded by the search, about a dozen books seem to fit my purpose.

In the following few months, I plan to write a series of blog posts reviewing the novels about engineers I found from the PSU Libraries. The idea of writing a series book review was inspired by Robert McCrum’s The 100 Best Novels and Chris Power’s A Brief Survey of the Short Story. I’ve enjoyed reading both series and learning about good writers and novels from the lists. Following McCrum, I am providing a preliminary list of “engineer novels.”

Pure by Andrew Miller

The Saints Innocents Cemetery
 

This beautifully written novel won the Costa Book Award in 2011 for the "Best Novel" and "Book of the Year." It unfolds the transformation of a young engineer in pre-revolutionary France. Born in a provincial hometown and armed with the dreams of redesigning society according to technical rationality, the young genius was tasked by the French court to remove a cemetery in Paris. The task involved dismantling a church and excavating the graves and transporting the remains of the passed. Neither the young engineer nor his employers realized that the engineer, in the course of digging the cemetery, also dug the grave for the French monarchy and the engineer’s old self.

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

I found this 1962 copy on the shelf. It was torn and sadly held together by black duct tape. I could not bear to bring this fragile copy home. Fortunately, this book is already available to the public domain. Bartley Alexander, the hero of this novel, is a construction engineer. The novel deals with Engineer Alexander’s mid-life crisis. It is also suggested that this novel might have been prompted by the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907.

A Single Pebble by John Hersey

The story of a hydraulic engineer who was sent to study a river in China along the shore of which I grew up: the Yangtze River. The author Hersey was born in China and learned to speak Chinese before he spoke English (So did I!). Enough connections to make it into the list.

The Mise-en-Scène by Claude Ollier, Translated by Dominic Di Bernardi

Similar to A Single Pebble, this novel tells another adventure of a Western engineer in a foreign land. A French engineer wonders into the mountains of Morocco and finds himself surrounded by life-threatening crises. The author Claude Ollier wrote this novel as one indication of the New Novel movement, a movement that announced the arrival of postmodernist literature in France.

Kinsman and Foreman by T. M. Aluko

Aluko is another one of the rare breed--a civil engineer and town planner who also writes stories about social changes in modern Africa. Kinsman and Foreman weaves Aluko’s own professional experience into the story of a young engineer’s fight against corruption.

The Coffer Dams by Kamala Markandaya

Written by prominent Indian writer Markandaya, this novel tells the story of a British construction engineer who brought his family and team to build a dam in India. The engineer turns out to be consumed and alienated by the tremendous clashes between technology and nature.

An exception: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Obviously not an engineer novel, but I think it is a great reading for every professional. At least in my mind, Doctor Yuri Zhivago personifies an ideal professional: compassionate, competent and dutiful at his work, pragmatic, able to grasp the big picture of history; he also reads and writes poetry.

As I embark on the journey of reading or re-reading these novels, I will write an individual review for each novel listed here. The reviews will be published on this blog in the coming months. I also welcome suggestions of more "engineer novels" for me to enrich the list.