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Scientists and Engineers in SFF

Here are my notes from the Scientists and Engineers in SFF at Arisia 2023.

(Picture from here.)


  1. While science is often prevalent in SF, scientists are less so.
  2. My experience is that while you might find scientists in SF, you don’t often find engineers as such. That said, characters can be labelled scientists but act like engineers.
  3. Scientist: searches for objective truth. Engineer: uses the objective truth discovered by the scientists and, combined with engineering lore, creates systems/devices/objects for use in the real world. E.g.: discovering 2d hexagonal carbon was discovered by scientists. Use of that structure in integrated circuits or high tensile string material is engineering. Pulling the material out of the lab into industry is the product of work by both.
  4. Exceptions:
    1. When HARLIE was One, David Gerrold. David Auberson is the psychologist in charge of the project and Don Handley the system engineer. But both act like engineers.
    2. Primer: the main characters are really engineers
  5. Frankenstein vs Brave New World. Mad scientists affecting the personal and the political. In the former, you get the Baron creating miracles through obsessive intellect. In the latter, the scientists aren’t really on stage but the world they create is.
  6. Teams are useful but often not central to portrayal of scientists or engineers.
    1. g., Chain Reaction where a single individual magically finds the magic bullet for splitting water into o2 and h2 versus the Large Hadron Collider. Individual contributions supersede group contributions.
    2. Hollow Man the team aspect is much more shown. Kevin Bacon’s character is a scientist that becomes unhinged because of his circumstances—in line with the HG Wells novel.
    3. The lack of teams could be more a function of narrative and dramatic technique than failure of understanding. In When HARLIE was one, Auberson and Handley both play off one another in trying to figure out what’s going on—very much a team-like interaction even though it is just two people.
  7. Note that often knowledge is gained without effort. Chain Reaction is an example of this, where the important technique is found by a machinist. The Manhattan Project, where the material for the bomb is stolen. This is kind of Promethean in origin and individuals pay for it. However, though this can happen it rarely does in this way. As Picasso said, it is not enough to make a pretty mark. That pretty mark has to be repeatable and therefore has to be understood. That understanding is often lacking.
  8. I have tried to portray scientists and engineers truthfully. In God’s County, I did have a young genius but his full flower did not happen until he was working with a more seasoned scientist. They actually had animal models and experiments. The lack of a full-fledged team was a product of narrative.
  9. Engineer as alchemist: Scotty in Star Trek, who has the magical ability of creating exactly the right magical device (always coupled with the proper magical words) to save Kirk’s ass.
  10. Ethics are only foils as impediments to success, mad or otherwise. Indy doesn’t think twice about stealing a valuable Mesoamerican artifact from its country of origin.
  11. An odd consequence of the “scientist as hero” trope is that the stakes have to become unrealistically high for that to occur. In Interstellar, the world is dying. In The Silent Sea, the world is dying. SF is broader than this.
  12. I wonder if the problem is that many in the media do not understand science, scientists, or science fiction. Or, possibly, they don’t care.
    1. I’m reminded of an article on the Game of Thrones show describing how in the latter seasons, drama trumped logic. The idea was that creating personal drama was so important that logic would be broken to attain it. It wasn’t enough to generate drama from the circumstances of the situations. Drama had to be manufactured to the cadence of a TV show.
    2. Scientists are largely portrayed negatively in The Expanse. Partially because most of the scientists we see on the show are the sociopathic ones. Not all of them, of course. But in the first arc, the balance is clearly tipped towards evil. Later, the balance tips more towards the middle.
    3. That said, they never had to manufacture It was already there.

Source Notes:

The Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction, Lucy Snyder, Strange Horizons, 2004

  • Hirsch: Analysis of SF magazines 1926-1950, steady decline in stories featuring scientists as heroes vs their portrayal as villains.
  • Later representation (90s) are shown to be human but not negative as scientists
  • Scientists as flawed human beings that happen to be scientists, vs. mad scientists that are representative as scientists.

Of Power Maniacs and Unethical Geniuses: Science and Scientists in Fiction Film, Public Understanding of Science, 2003

  • Shelley’s Frankenstein initial icon of the mad scientist
  • Science is about objective truth. Fiction is about illusion. However, in the best media, that illusion is an attempt to pursue subjective truth. Therefore, one can say that Science is about objective truth and fiction is about subjective truth.
  • Mad scientists working in isolation: Frankenstein. Moreau.
  • Portrayal of scientists as problematic may stem from people having problems with how “science” (really, engineering) is invading society and changing norms. E.g., The Boys from Brazil, cloning Hitler. The Manhattan Project, high school student creates atomic bomb.
  • Drama trumps process. In many works, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mundane, necessary activities of the scientist or engineer is reduced in favor of engaging theatrics. Indy spends 90% of the film engaging in unlikely heroics and about 10 minutes teaching. We don’t even see him examining material in the university lab.
  • Science projects into both utopias and dystopias—regardless of the relevance of science to those institutions. (Side note, A Canticle for Leibowitz has scientists being vilified for atomic war leaving the politicians and military that actually engaged in it seemingly released from responsibility.)
  • Portrayal of scientists and engineers differ from actuality because they are representing the anxiety of the moment.

How “Don’t Look Up” plays with the portrayal of science in popular culture, University of Colorado, Boulder, 2022

  • First, it’s real science. It’s real scientists.
  • It presents the science and scientists within a cultural context where it is mishandled, misappropriated, and not understood. (What a surprise. Remember COVID?)
  • To be heard, the scientists become storytellers, celebrities, and counselors. They do not want the responsibility of fixing this. That’s not their job. But they are forced into trying to do something. And it completely messes them up, doing so. Shades of Oppenheimer.
  • DLU reflects perfectly the COVID and Climate Change issues. Too well, I think.

Scientists aren’t evil in movies anymore make sci-fi more believable, Deseret News, 2017

  • Even when they don’t get it right. E.g., Interstellar. (See above.) Though, again, the characters here are more engineers than scientists.
  • Arrival is a particularly good example since the Amy Adams character does, actually, act like a scientist and not an engineer.
  • Hidden Figures is all engineering.

Scientists as Hollywood Heroes, The Conversation, 2014

  • Interstellar. See above.
  • Real science consultants—though, I would have thought if they were real scientists they would have been able to figure out the time dilation problem without ever landing. Hm. Go down onto the planet for seven years or take six months to go to the next system. Gee. That’s hard.
  • Contact is another one where the team is important. Scientists are much better portrayed.



3 thoughts on “Scientists and Engineers in SFF”

  1. In terms of engineers, was there any mention of The Martian or Apollo 13? In both, the sense of a very large team of engineers behind the scenes is lovely. (Tho’ the botanist-protagonist in The Martian behaves, perforce, more like an engineer.)

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