If you try to count the number of movies that have an engineer as a major character, you probably won't get off the fingers of one hand. I know of Arlington Road (the engineer, played by Tim Robbins, is a terrorist), Falling Down (the engineer, Michael Douglas, goes berserk), and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (the cover profession of the assassin, Brad Pitt, is an engineer), just to name a few. The problem with these is that the silver screen engineer hardly fits the bill as someone you'd want to invite home for dinner.
Movies are of course only one genre. In the nearly twenty years I've worked with engineering associations, the last seven at ASCE, the most repeated refrain I've heard from engineers is, "Why can't we have a TV show L.A. Engineer?" (For those of a younger generation, L.A. Law was a popular TV series in the late '80s and early '90s that featured a cast of characters from a law firm in Los Angeles.) I do recall a TV drama series from either Australia or South Africa that centered around a civil engineering firm. I got hold of an episode on video cassette, but I can't say it was the best-made show I'd ever seen. I'm sure the budget wasn't too big either.
The problem with popular entertainment (or the attraction of it, depending on your point of view) is that you often have to toss in sex, violence, intrigue, and oddball personalities to get an audience. For a civil engineering firm setting, that might imply you have to make the firm's engineers corrupt, or have bad designs kill people, or fill the office with philanderers to give the L.A Law treatment. The possibilities are of course limitless, but that might not be the image you'd want to project for CEs.
Nevertheless, that refrain of L.A. Engineer stayed with me, and given my ongoing interest in writing fiction, I got to wondering whether I could write something to address the popular entertainment void for engineers. That speculation, after a long off-and-on road, resulted in my newly released thriller The Jackhammer Elegies, which features a civil/structural engineer as the main character and hero.
The effort is not without precedent. A number of other novelists have written on engineer-related topics, and many of those authors have been engineers themselves. One example that comes to mind stems from my days as editor of NSPE's Engineering Times in the late '90s—the novel Engineered for Murder, by Aileen Schumacher, P.E. The mystery, which I read with great interest for an ET review, featured a professional engineer heroine working in an engineering setting, to whom Schumacher then gave additional starring roles in follow-up books.
I started planning my novel in the '90s, getting my initial plot hook from a story I heard about a New York City professional engineer who'd been caught in an elevator after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and his ordeal in getting out. A fictionalized version of his experience became the opening scene in The Jackhammer Elegies, where the location is transported to Rosslyn, Virginia (across the river from Washington, D.C.), and the man trapped is Scott Carter, a structural engineer who had designed the steel frame to the building. In the novel, that powerful basement blast rocks Carter from his everyday life into the media limelight—and ultimately into the crosshairs of a technically cunning terrorist. Carter's knowledge of the building's structural framework helps him alert the city about potential collapse, but that turns him into the conduit of threats from the mastermind of the attack, alias Jackhammer. Carter becomes a consultant to the FBI as it investigates the engineering angles to the case, teaming up with Special Agent Michelle Taylor, whose striking presence pulls Carter into the complications of a growing love. The partners soon find themselves matching wits with an elusive mastermind targeting the lifelines of a city's public works.
A first draft took about two and a half years, but marketing the book to literary agents got put on hold when the tragedy of 9/11 struck. The dark mood of the nation meant no one had an appetite for stories involving terrorists, and it would take years before movies and fiction ventured into the subject matter of 9/11 itself. I put my book on ice and worked on other fiction projects, taking The Jackhammer Elegies out of the drawer for some revision in 2003, and then getting serious late last year with a major revision and upgrade. In that recent push, two well-known civil engineers and two senior ASCE staff agreed to read the manuscript and provide feedback, which led to a better novel.
Besides trying to build an engaging plot, I hoped to paint the world of civil and professional engineering through Carter's character and his active participation in ASCE activities. Like so many civil engineers and PEs I've met over the years, Carter holds a keen conviction that engineers need a higher profile in society. He champions infrastructure renewal and sustainability, qualifications-based selection of engineering services, and raising the bar on the education required to get the PE license of the future. Carter also speaks out in public forums to raise the stature of engineers.
In the same way that a John Grisham novel provides insights into the legal profession, I tried to weave in aspects that show the world in which Scott Carter travels, be it engineering licensure and licensure boards, private practice firms, or National Engineers Week. The vulnerability of our nation's infrastructure becomes an overriding theme.
In these sidelights to the book, I didn't want to whitewash the profession and portray Carter as an idealized figure. He fights self-doubts about his move into management to make more money when his true passion is design, and health issues can at times undermine his confidence as he faces the stresses of his hunt for the public works terrorist. As one PE reviewer of the novel said, "The book ... portray[s] the engineering profession with all of its strengths, weaknesses, and foibles."
You may be asking yourself whether I'm an engineer. I'm not, but I did start my adult life with a physics and astronomy degree, so I've enjoyed the ability to relate to technical questions even though my work with engineers has generally been focused on professional and policy issues. While I enjoyed bringing those issues into my book, the one aspect that provides a bit of unease is that in promoting the novel I'll come across as simply wanting to make a buck through book sales. A real part of the fun is getting a story about civil engineers and PEs in front of engineers and the public. I'm guessing my experience might parallel that of civil engineers who testify before Congress on the critical need for renewing our nation's infrastructure. The engineers are pushing for something from a standpoint of the public, but there's no guarantee some congressman won't accuse them of lobbying for funding that will put money in their pockets through more demand for civil engineering design work. There's no obvious way to completely avoid that trap.
The engineers who created the new self-publishing technology that I used for my book would certainly have gotten kudos from Carter, who later in the novel tells of his forays into grade school classrooms to promote engineering careers and engineers' contributions to society. (He uses a rip-off of A Christmas Carol to show what a fearful world we would live in without the work of engineers.) Just consider: To get an e-book up for global sales (once all the text formatting is finalized) can take just an hour, with a Kindle or a Nook Book version then appearing in the online catalog, later with look-inside samples. Creating the paperback version is a technology to behold. Once you've done design for your cover and text (not necessarily a small task if you want to do it professionally), you upload those electronic files and then receive a digital proof where you turn pages on screen to check formatting and alignments. Once approved, that electronic file goes into a print-on-demand hopper, and any time someone orders the book, the press spits out an individual copy, bound and put in the mail, not only in the U.S. but in Western Europe as well. No more risky investments on inventory that might not be sold, and no cost to the author for the service. The self-publishing house simply gets a cut on the sale price of each book sold on Amazon.com. It's truly amazing how far engineers have taken us, and the progress is only accelerating, as any engineer knows when witnessing the latest tools in their own profession.
I only hope my thriller can do its part in sending more of that message and shining that spotlight a bit brighter on civil engineers and ASCE.
Stefan Jaeger, CAE, serves as Managing Director of Member & Corporate Communications at the American Society of Civil Engineers, following a 1986-2005 tenure on the National Society of Professional Engineers headquarters staff. He is author of the new thriller The Jackhammer Elegies and can be reached at . His novel is available on Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), where you can find reader reviews, and on BN.com (Nook Book). Discounted bulk purchases are available by contacting the author. © Stefan Jaeger 2012
The Jackhammer Elegies won a 2013 SET Award from the Entertainment Industries Council. The EIC honors film, television and other genres that inspire "interest in Science, Engineering, Technology and Math through media and entertainment." Additional 2013 winners include the TV shows and movies The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, Iron Man 3, and Star Trek into Darkness, among others.