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Beyond Engineering by Robert Pool

01/04/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Beyond Engineering in the USA - or Buy Beyond Engineering in the UK

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pub: Oxford University Press, 1997. 358 page indexed hardback. Price: 2.00 (UK) if you know where to look. ISBN: 0-19-510772-1.

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Between everything else, I'm reading the odd book on technology for my SF Nomenclature book project chapter. If I learn anything from such books the information gets used in the chapter and noted in the bibliography. You also benefit by keeping up with me.

I came across 'Beyond Engineering' by Robert Pool that actually fits the bill very well. Not only is it an informative read but it is actually easy to read as he puts the subject over in a way that even the layman should find it easy to grasp.

The sub-title for this book is 'How Society Shapes Technology'. This is something that is often missed in Science Fiction writing. It's all very well to throw in flying cars and exotic gadgetry that says this is a future but very rarely is any thought given to the effect it would have on society. Often or not, mankind is shown not to have changed very much at all. In some respects that can be understood as an author needs to have something in common with modern readers so they can relate to them. Thing is, though, if you read 50s SF, you can still find something in common despite the fact that technology-wise, we've come a long way since then. It's very much like futuristic SF films and TV series in that where there is futuristic costumes that it stands outside of regular time in a similar way that period drama does.

Considering how mobile phones and the Internet has changed how people communicate not only on local but even world-wide levels, we're already living in a society that should be meaningful of what change means. Oddly, when there is modern day Science Fiction, there is rarely any acknowledgement to this. When I wrote 'Libertine Rush - Domino Dynamo' a couple years back, I realised someone could be lost and rather than use a map, a sat-nav would work just as well and have the same problems. Considering the directions people have gone and got lost using sat-navs, an advance in technology doesn't mean people are any wiser or better for the change. There's a good argument that people don't change out of that or just lousy at following map directions but that's a different argument.

Robert Pool's book was released in 1997 and sat-navs hadn't gotten into mainstream at that time. However, problems with nuclear reactors and chemical plants were big news at the time and a focus on the later chapters uses these as examples where things could have been done better but not simply because safety concerns were not factored in from the start. If anything, there's a testimony to this book in some of this being sorted out so the right information is provided to plant supervisors.

This book explores the development of technology from electricity to nuclear but also at how public popularity can rule decisions and how getting them to accept something early on can lock out something that might actually be better. Likewise, things like expense tends to be factored in which also shows economic decisions will get involved in the choice as well. If anything, too much choice can confuse the consumer.

There is a lot of emphasis on the nuclear power industry although I suspect it's because it's a volatile (sic) industry and that a lot of the problems associated with it are things everyone has heard. It's also a good choice because there was so many choices of nuclear reactor, that in the USA they tried out most of them rather than lock down into any one choice. Although it isn't stated in the book, I have a suspicion that the manner of supervisor dial watching was common to all and that in some ways, things are slotted in because it looked easier to do.

What Robert Pool does do is give an exceedingly good arguments, both pro and con, for its use and the problems, at least for the USA, in disposing of its nuclear waste. Considering so many of the individual states use nuclear power, you would have thought it a good political manoeuvre for any politician in power to say that they would take care of their own nuclear waste instead of the contrary. That hasn't change much today, in the USA or anywhere else in the world that uses nuclear reactors.

There is a lot of information from this book that will make you think and not just because you write Science Fiction. If you're just interested in the application and pitfalls of technology then you will come away from this book well-informed. Considering its age, you should be able to get a cheap copy on any of the regular book-selling sites you use.

If you want to write an SF story that depends on technology failure then the knowledge gleaned here will certainly make you look more informed.

GF Willmetts

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