Friday, December 4, 2009


Like 99.99% of authors on the planet, I need to go out and work to bring in the bacon.

For me its applied process engineering, specifically looking at process integration to reduce the energy demand of a shale oil production process and assessing a range of carbon offset and renewable energy projects – call me Mr. Greenhouse. Its interesting work, and I find myself at the forefront of global research and practical application, and I have always had a keen interest in science. Its also nice to be part of something. But again, like most authors on the planet, I wish I could somehow invert my life and actually Work my writing with a capital ‘W’ instead of shoving it into the cracks and make engineering the enjoyable pastime (not that I regard writing as a hobby, and friends have learnt through harsh experience not to suggest it is one! Something about that word, ‘hobby’).

I have spent so much of my life remonstrating at the competition between ‘work’ and writing, that I have never really stopped to think about how they complement each other – or could work in some sort of synergy. Sometimes I feel like I have put myself into so many ‘compartments’ that I’ll never get myself together again, but maybe its time to start trying.

I guess there is the obvious one – that is that the science and engineering directly inform my science fiction. I guess the whole structured approach that I have been trained in also comes out in the way I approach designing a story arc and plotting my work. Mind you I am far from a typical engineer, and am definitely on the outside of the curve in terms of how they think and approach the work.

It goes the other way as well. I think my writing has made me an outstanding communicator in my career. And the effort I’ve put into learning how to network at conventions has flowed effortlessly into doing the same thing at technical conferences.

What sort of work do you do? And how has that enhanced your creativity and your writing, or inspired you?


C Kelsey said...

I'm a human factors engineer. Specifically I apply known human capabilities (both physical and cognitive) to systems engineering. I literally get to have my cake (by constantly researching human sciences and expanding my knowledge) and eat it too (by directly designing system aspects and having large influence on most others, all while learning about engineering principles and best practices).

Most notably my writing impacts my work by allowing me to be a much better word-smith than a typical engineer is. It still makes me giggle a little bit (in private) when I suggest a one or two word change to an engineering report and people are shocked at how much easier the report is to read.

Obviously, the science and the engineering impact my writing too. Especially since I'm so entangled in how a person actually *uses* whatever tool or machine or fancy spaceship is available to them.

Anonymous said...

I have a degree in geology, and worked for oil companies as a geophysicist for ten years. So, like you two I have both the science and the technical writing down solid.

I quit to raise the kids, and indulged all my hobbies. oil painting lessons, pottery.

Breeding horses. I'd call that a business except for managing one barely profitable year out of eight. Sigh. Well, I know all about building barns and fences.

When the kids hit school age and I was volunteering in the school library, cub and boy scouts, treasurer for a friend's run for the school board. Same friend dragged me into local politics up to the county level conventions. I was an appalled eye witness to the Religious Right's takeover of the Republican Party, from the bottom up.

And it all goes into the writing, sometimes obviously, as I model a planet lease sale on the Offshore Federal Lease Sales from the oil business days. Some times a bit more subtly. And the experience with horses really, really helps with medieval fantasies.

The scouting stuff was in many ways the most valuable. Seeing so many young boys growing and changing each in the their own way, yet all sometimes so similar really helps with writing characters.

Grass roots politics. Yikes! Is this any way to run a country? Can't leave politics out of either SF or fantasy. I just have to restrain my impulses to make it sensible.

And now I'm splitting my time between writing and reading slush. Only possible with an indulgent husband. Also a valuable experience.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

You are having a Pollyana moment, Chris. Good point. We are the sum of our parts.

Kelsey, that sounds like such an interesting combination, the human factor and the organisational factor.

Matapam, that grass roots politics is everywhere. I've served on local, state and national arts bodies.

C Kelsey said...


That's just it, humans are most definitely not organized. It's job security for me. :)

Truly, when an "organized" personality like an engineer designs something without an HFE's inputs... some truly mindboggling things can be designed. My entire job is to prevent the person using a piece of equipment stopping and asking themselves "who the heck made this piece of junk". :) It's fun.

Chris McMahon said...

That's really interesting, Chris. Will certainly make for some great science fiction.

Chris McMahon said...

Oops. Hit the button by accident.

Chris, I was going to say that you could make that human-technology interface your signature, the way Neal Asher is endlessly fascinated by the weird life on other planets (and parasites - loves those).

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. That's a real mix of things there! The same sort of trend is going on in Australia with the Liberal part - moving to the Right. Not that I necessarily vote that way, but its a sad thing for democratic process when a party abandons reason.

You make me feel like moving to a farm. Sounds nice. Good for the soul, but lots of hard work though, I'd imagine.

Yes, horse travel in my fiction is one of things things I have only the most basic idea of, having only been on a horse twice in my entire life. Bush walking and knowledge of dense forests is a different thing, since I've done my share of hiking around Queensland.

You forgot to mention your love of bearded geologists:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Some times I think its some weird species of split personality.

Seeing all these things - my engineering, writing, music, martial arts - as connected is a different viewpoint for me.

Kate said...

I imagine things could be said about my day job testing - and frequently breaking - software. They probably wouldn't be very nice things, either.

My built in bullshitometer (sadly now set permanently to "it's bullshit", courtesy all things political) mixed with the need to know "why?" and a compulsive reading habit means I'm the somewhat tarnished owner of a geology degree, a teaching degree (which will never be used for its intended purpose - a long and not at all pleasant story), and a computer science degree. The puzzle nut part includes a collection of jigsaws that don't get nearly enough use because the cats see all those itty bitty pieces and think "TOYS!!!!", and just TRY to get them to stay out of a room their humans are in.

Um. Maybe this is why I write weird shit?

Anonymous said...

Until the manufacturing sector tanked, I was an electronic technician. Nowadays I'm going back to school for HVAC/R and Appliance Repair (And I'm proud to say that I really grok refrigeration -- I absorbed concepts like superheat and subcooling as if they were universal truths I'd know all my life). In both cases, I not only got a really good technical understanding of how things work, but also of all the myriad ways they can go wrong. The core premise to any troubleshooting is the awareness that if it is made by Man, it can fail -- and that statement can apply to wa-a-a-ay more than mere mechanical and electronic devices, along with the question it spawns: when it does fail, how do you fix it?

Hmmm... If it is made by Man, it can fail... When it does fail, how do you fix it... Gee, you think there might be a story in there? ;-)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. If only more people tested and broke the software before it got to the poor consumer!

I guess writing is just one huge puzzle piece isn't it - except in this case agencies unknow keep changing the puzzle and removing the pieces!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, RJ. You are speaking my language there when you talk about heat.

One of the things that really annoys me about a lot of SF is how everything just works all the time. I have been a part of a lot of applied research - test pilot plants etc. And nothing EVER works first time! I think you will know where I am coming from here.

I would love to see more SF where you get the really feeling for how things would operate.

Every time I see some vast spaceship with two people wandering around it I choke. So - like where are the technicians? At any given time at least ten percent of it will be down for maintenance. And what about the f*ck ups?

Not that I am saying it should dominate the story - it should be background - but its any element of spice and background that is virtually always missing.

I guess it does simplify things. Maybe its a bit like how everyone in the Star Trek universe speaks English:)