Tag: sf

Science, engineering and large projects: SF in the 19th Century

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And now for something completely different: a few weeks ago, I complained on twitter that the science in SF seemed oddly stuck in the 19th Century, both the actual science research (which seemed composed mainly of individual mad geniuses in their garages having huge conceptual breakthroughs), but also its close siblings, the engineering projects that make up so much of SF (like building space stations, space launchers, etc.), and which seem to bear little relation to anything resembling real life.

I’ve complained about science here, but now for bonus points: engineering projects!

So, exhibit A. This is how a large-scale project looks according to most SF stories I’ve read:
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Basically, a project manager who is God, or as near to God as matters, with anything from a hundred to thousands of (mostly) nameless, faceless grunts under him doing all the work. The story then tends to be either from the point of view of the project manager as he attempts to solve a pressing technical problem, or, less often, from the point of view of a harried grunt who has to solve a problem before the all-powerful project manager descends on them like the wrath of God (I’ve been nice here and thrown in an Assistant Project Manager, who will provide the necessary dialogue for as-you-know-Bob scientific exposition or provide a sympathetic ear to our grunt’s troubles).

Exhibit B: by contrast, this is what a real large-scale engineering project looks like in the 21st Century [1] (click to zoom):

Yes, it’s rather more complicated. There’s also two significant differences worth noting: one, the bottom boxes of the chart are not people, but team leaders, ie every bottom box still unfolds into your actual grunts. Second, I’ve cut at the level of the project manager to keep both graphs at the same scale, but there’s a significant extra layer at the top, which includes our project manager’s immediate hiearchy (his boss), a committee of peers (who follow the project and determine whether to continue funding it or not according to various Go/No Go criteria), and one or several sponsors (who champion the project within the company and to whom the project manager is accountable). Let’s not forget interlocutors outside of the company as well: the actual customer (ie the person paying for the delivery of the project; for instance, in the case of missile systems, the army is paying; in the case of a space station, you can imagine a conglomerate or a government paying…); subcontractors who have to be monitored, other companies working on related segments of the project (for instance, on a space station project, one company does the infrastructure, one company the climate control…).

So, yes, you’ll notice the same thing as with scientists: no project manager exists in a vacuum. They’re always accountable to someone for something (and when I say “accountable”, I mean all important decisions made are scrutinised, not that they’ll be judged solely on whether the project finishes appropriately. Will come back to “appropriately” in a minute).

Another thing is that responsibility is shared and diluted: note that the second org scheme has divided the satellite into different subsystems like the ground portion, the comms system, etc., and assigned different responsibilities within those subsystems. There is no grunt vs project manager system, but a carefully organised hierarchy of decreasing responsibilities fanning out from the system level, which ensures that everyone knows what they’re doing, and most localised problems do NOT make it back to the project manager, who has way more important things to do than concern himself with every little problem. On that same subject, a project manager is very seldom in the field, and most of their day is spent in meetings and in discussions with people (I always feel like laughing when a project manager on a space station spends their time touring the construction site and offering advice on stuff that most workers would take care of on their own…)

Finally, one thing that bugs me in engineering projects in SF is the lack of tradeoffs. Science tends to be “all shiny”, ie when a problem is posed, there is very often a perfect solution, one that meets all the needs and provides all that is expected. In real life, science is *never* shiny, and is almost always about compromises: things can be infeasible simply for technical reasons (for instance, no radio comms will provide the necessary reliability over the necessary distance), they can be infeasible for cost reasons (radio comms can be provided, but not within the allocated budget), and they can be infeasible because of time reasons (radio comms can be provided, however they will take eighteen months to be developed and tested, and we only have twelve months to deliver the system). In my line of work, we call that a QCD triangle (quality, cost, delivery): you simply can’t have all three items at the same time!

Now, coming back to that “appropriately”: a project is of course judged on whether it finishes on time, with the appropriate features and within budget (incidentally, a lot of SF projects never really seem to worry about either delays or costs…). However… you don’t wait until the project is finished to judge this! In addition to regular progress reports, there’ll be regular “milestones” which correspond to important decisions and/or steps in the project’s life. At those points, the project will come under scrutiny more intensely (by the peers, the hierarchy etc.), and will have to provide quite a few elements of justification for said decisions (and the project manager might well be part of a collegial decision process in those stages).

So, there you go, a short Engineering Projects 101–I’ve had quite a few years working on those by now (though admittedly mainly in a European work culture), and quite a few years reading SF, and so far I’ve been very disappointed by the portrayal of these. I might, of course, be picking up the wrong books/short stories/movies… Have I forgotten any gripes people have with engineering in SF? Are there any pieces that do a decent job of getting to grips with this kind of complexity? Feel free to argue/discuss/disagree in comments!


[1] Fake example for a satellite launcher. I copied it from a blog–not saying it’s a typical org, but it’s most certainly one that could exist and apply to a bona fide project.

Thursday linkage: diversity in fiction, plus misc.

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Couple of links:
-Joyce Chng at the World SF blog on the Russ Pledge seen from outside the Western Anglophone world.
-Jonathan Dotse on why the future isn’t Western
-And two from Cheryl Morgan: one crunching data on SF anthologies, and the other on “Diversity is Hard”.

In other news, Irene Kuo is a genius. I’m down to 6 recipes picked out of her Key to Chinese Cooking (tea eggs, cha siu, white-cut chicken, two broccoli recipes, and the sweet-sour sauce), and they all worked out great. Also, the explanations are really clear on why you should do stuff, and it makes for way easier cooking.

While googling stuff on how to use cornstarch, I found this book: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Science and cooking? I’m sold… (but broke)

Recipe of the day: creative carrot cake (didn’t have raisins, so chopped up prunes after removing the stones; didn’t have orange zest, so added Orange Blossom instead; didn’t have walnuts, so put in pecans. And not entirely sure I had the right quantity of carrots. This could be fun)

Right. Back to the %%% story.

The mistressworks of SF

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There’s been a discussion on the blogosphere recently about women in SF, and their tendency to generally get ignored, whether by readers, awards or critics. In order to remedy this, a number of people have started discussions (see Torque Control for discussions of Justina Robson’s Natural History, Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, and other future classics written by women), as well as lists. I’m linking to Ian Sales, who compiled two such lists: one of “mistressworks” (the female equivalent of Gollancz’s Masterworks series in the UK, which showcase classic SF but end up with a strong male dominance); the other one of works by 21st-Century women writers. (Kev McVeigh gave me a more complete list of 150 female SF writers, but it’s not online that I can find, which is here).

So, without further ado, my bit for the first meme (will get around to the second at some point):

You know how it works: bold those you’ve read, italicise those you own but have not read. (If you’ve read the entire named series, you can even emboldenize that as well.)

1 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
2 Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
3 Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
4 Lest Ye Die, Cicely Hamilton (1928)
5 Swastika Night, Katherine Burdekin (1937)
(6 Wrong Side of the Moon, Francis Leslie Ashton (1951), removed because Francis Leslie Ashton is a man)
7 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
8 Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, Zenna Henderson (1961)
9 Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
10 Witch World, Andre Norton (1963)
11 Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)
12 Jirel of Joiry, CL Moore (1969)
13 Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter (1969)
14 Ten Thousand Light Years From Home, James Tiptree Jr (1973)
15 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
16 Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)
17 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
18 Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975)
19 Arslan, MJ Engh (1976)
20 Floating Worlds, Cecelia Holland (1976)
21 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
22 Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
23 Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
24 False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
25 Shikasta [Canopus in Argos: Archives], Doris Lessing (1979)
26 Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)
27 Benefits, Zoe Fairbairns (1979)
28 The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
29 The Silent City, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1981)
30 The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
31 The Many-Coloured Land [Saga of the Exiles], Julian May (1981)
32 Darkchild [Daughters of the Sunstone], Sydney J van Scyoc (1982)
33 The Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey (1982)
34 Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
35 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
36 Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985)
37 Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985)
38 The Dream Years, Lisa Goldstein (1985)
39 Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, Sarah Lefanu & Jen Green (1985)
40 Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
41 The Wave and the Flame [Lear’s Daughters], Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (1986)
42 The Journal of Nicholas the American, Leigh Kennedy (1986)
43 A Door into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski (1986)
44 Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
45 In Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1987)
46 Pennterra, Judith Moffett (1987)
47 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
48 Cyteen , CJ Cherryh (1988)
49 Unquenchable Fire, Rachel Pollack (1988)
50 The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy (1988)
51 The Steerswoman [Steerswoman series], Rosemary Kirstein (1989)
52 The Third Eagle, RA MacAvoy (1989)
53 Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
54 Heritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989)
55 Falcon, Emma Bull (1989)
56 The Archivist, Gill Alderman (1989)
57 Winterlong [Winterlong trilogy], Elizabeth Hand (1990)
58 A Gift Upon the Shore, MK Wren (1990)
59 Red Spider, White Web, Misha (1990)
60 Polar City Blues, Katharine Kerr (1990)
61 Body of Glass (AKA He, She and It), Marge Piercy (1991)
62 Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
63 Beggars in Spain [Sleepless trilogy], Nancy Kress (1991)
64 A Woman of the Iron People, Eleanor Arnason (1991)
65 Hermetech, Storm Constantine (1991)
66 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
67 Fools, Pat Cadigan (1992)
68 Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1992)
69 Lost Futures, Lisa Tuttle (1992)
70 Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1992)
71 Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
72 The Holder of the World, Bharati Mukherjee (1993)
73 Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1994)
74 Happy Policeman, Patricia Anthony (1994)
75 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
76 Legacies, Alison Sinclair (1995)
77 Primary Inversion [Skolian Saga], Catherine Asaro (1995)
78 Alien Influences, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (1995)
79 The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
80 Memory [Vorkosigan series], Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
81 Remnant Population, Elizabeth Moon (1996)
82 Looking for the Mahdi, N Lee Wood (1996)
83 An Exchange of Hostages [Jurisdiction series], Susan R Matthews (1997)
84 Fool’s War, Sarah Zettel (1997)
85 Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey (1997)
86 Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman (1998)
87 Vast, Linda Nagata (1998)
88 Hand of Prophecy, Severna Park (1998)
89 Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
90 Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan (1999)
91 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)

All in all, not a shining example of completeness from me (though, to be fair, I don’t read that much SF, and I suspect my showing on a meme of SF Masterworks would also be dismal). It’s dismaying (and it’s part of the point) that even though I’m a woman and a feminist, I’ve read so little. I’m making notes to improve on that score, by adding a lot of those books to my to-read list. How many can you bold on the list?