Looking for movies and books where engineers did their jobs right
January 26, 2014 3:07 PM   Subscribe

In many spy or action movies, the technical systems seem to be designed by total idiots. Especially everything concerned with nuclear weapons. While this creates an easy and straightforward plot, it destroys my suspension of disbelief more severely than if talking unicorns just walked into the scene. I'm looking for fiction with systems designed by sane people. Inexplacible things, utter idiocy and madness may exist, but should be acknowledged as such in-universe. Spoilers for "Olympus has fallen" inside.

A positive example is "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", where everything is questioned by at least the protagonist. I also enjoyed reading "The Atrocity Archives" from Charles Stross, where magic and demons exist, but people create sensible safeguards and containments to deal with them. A negative example is the movie "Olympus has fallen": The safety self-destruct mechanism for nuclear missiles not only triggers the warheads, but has a five minute countdown! This being a terrible design mistake should be obvious to anyone, especially nuclear engineers tasked with building a safety system. No one of the characters notice this. Surprisingly, the old Dr. Strangelove was more straightforward in that regard: Crazy people act crazily, terrible mistakes are pointed out as such and the characters described as sane actually act sane-ish.

Can you point me to some other media where this is the case?
posted by Triton to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You may enjoy The Peacemaker
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:17 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first movie I thought of that prominently featured engineers that I saw recently was Space Cowboys. It's sort of a goofy movie otherwise but basically there is a system on a thing in space that is broken and they need an actual engineer to go fix it (and there's a lot of back and forth about why you have to send Clint Eastwood into space rather than just teach a young guy all he knows in two months' time). While I was looking up to see if the movie was engineeringly sound, I also found this long discussion in the EE Times about movies that engineers thought highlighted engineering in a good light. Desk Set is exactly the opposite of what you are looking for.
posted by jessamyn at 3:19 PM on January 26, 2014

Thanks so far! Just to clarify: Engineers don't have to feature prominently to qualify, I'd also settle for characters recognizing bad engineering.
I haven't heard of Peacemaker or Space Cowboys, looking forward to watch them.
Jessamyn, I think both of your links go to the IMDB and I couldn't find EE World by googling.
posted by Triton at 3:49 PM on January 26, 2014

This scene from Apollo 13 was shown in one of my engineering classes.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:03 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

[Fixed my own link, sorry about that!]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:16 PM on January 26, 2014

I was going to suggest Flight of the Phoenix, too, but I see EE Times got there first.

I've always been fond of the Titanic. I think even in the remake, featuring acting and plot mods that make me sick to my engineer stomach, that the engineers on board knew they were fkd. Even though it's a 'failure' in the sense that lots of people die horrible deaths, it is quick recognition by knowledgeable people that there is no time for escape nor sufficient time to create a work around.

I happen to like scene 1 of Saving Private Ryan... demo guy in the water with explosives (mos def engineer) says to Tom Hanks "My job is to clear these obstacles.... move". Good metaphor.

Happen to be reading a lot of stuff on Chernobyl right now. While the engineering of the RMBK reactors was predicated on everyone always doing everything right (by definition bad engineering), a few of the documentaries show reactor operator Akimov resisting management pressure to do something unsafe (good engineering), then acquiescing (bad engineering). Peeps died. Many of them Akimov's friends. Including Akimov. Not exactly what you are looking for, but pay attention. There is a lot of truth there, and a lot of real world dynamics, clearly painted.

Jessaymn's dad featured in The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder. Good book about how shit got done in the old days (my era). Too much detail about too many obsolete concepts that are now not even taught any more (Karnaug maps, combinatorial logic, assemblers, board layout, wire wrapping), but for the day, this is how it was done and how it got done right.

Out of time. Good luck.... I'll check in and see if anything else good comes up! Good question.
posted by FauxScot at 5:04 PM on January 26, 2014

Along the lines of "Soul of a New Machine", folklore.org retells engineering stories as told by members of the Macintosh design team. Marvel at what they got done while swerving around the obstacles of technology, insane schedules, and Steve Jobs lurking around every corner. The story of the Japanese engineer hiding in the closet is a good one.

[And OMG I had no idea that jessamyn was related to Tom West. SOONM changed my life.]
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:26 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think there are any particularly striking examples of good engineering, but there's a humorous example of someone pointing out bad "engineering" (writing, really) in Galaxy Quest.
posted by Diagonalize at 5:35 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you read any Nevil Shute? Shute was an aeronautical engineer; his understanding of engineering in No Highway is acute. If you want a charming 1950s detail of amateur engineering which was very much like today's Maker movement, blended well with a real adventure, try Trustee from the Toolroom.
posted by jet_silver at 7:17 PM on January 26, 2014

I clicked on the question because I was going to suggest Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, but I see you already thought of that. I'd recommend The Engineer Trilogy, by KJ Parker. I know you said it didn't have to be engineers, but (without spoilers) I think you'll find it fits the bill perfectly.
posted by willbaude at 7:18 PM on January 26, 2014

Not to derail: @FauxScot, Karnaugh maps are indeed taught or at least sought out and one of the guys who works with me used them in a brilliant exposé of possible machine states. There is now at my work place quite a bit of interest in k-maps and the Quine-McCluskey method of prime implicants.
posted by jet_silver at 7:29 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Engineers feature prominently in some of Lois McMaster Bujold's books, particularly Falling Free.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:44 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

It has been a while since I read it, but I think John McPhee's Curve of Binding Energy might fill the bill. Also, at least a few of the sections in his The Control of Nature. Neither are fiction, but McPhee crafts a good story.
posted by Good Brain at 11:02 PM on January 26, 2014

"The Dish" is a great little movie about the Apollo 11 program, and has a brilliant scene for this type of thing.

Cliff Buxton: Glenn, come here.

Glenn Latham: What?

Al Burnett: Every coordinate in this book has been changed.

Glenn Latham: Yeah... I changed them.

Al Burnett: You what?

Glenn Latham: I changed them.

Al Burnett: Why?

Glenn Latham: Because they were wrong.

Al Burnett: Why were they wrong?

Glenn Latham: Dunno.

Cliff Buxton: No, what about them was wrong?

Glenn Latham: Oh! Well, the figures NASA gave us were for the northern hemisphere... and we're in the southern hemisphere? I can change them back but then you'd be pointing in the wrong d...

Cliff Buxton: Glenn, it might be a good idea for you to tell us these things.

Glenn Latham: Oh, sure, I just didn't wanna worry you... Cuppa tea, Al?
posted by alchemist at 1:10 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

The movie adaptation of Word War Z is pretty good about "systems designed by sane people" aspect, albeit in an insane situation you may find distracting.

Primer might work too, thought things get a bit of hand with the use of the device.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:25 AM on January 27, 2014

How about Destinaton: Moon?
posted by Rash at 8:41 AM on January 27, 2014

The Dambusters. Engineer Barnes Wallace had a solution, the movie is pretty faithful about his process.
posted by Gungho at 9:03 AM on January 27, 2014

The testing sequences through October Sky are some damned fine engineering.
posted by blurker at 10:57 AM on January 27, 2014

I really enjoyed the sensible approach to the zombie apocalypse in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. The infection, containment and decontamination methods all make sense. Metafilter thread: The Viable Zombie.
posted by Ness at 8:34 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Newsflesh! She's a great writer and I love that she addressed what other zombie movies/books (Walking Dead, I'm looking at you) ignore - blood spray - which is a talking-unicorn-level plot hole for me.
posted by Beti at 8:40 AM on February 15, 2014

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