The Making of The Silent Count, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the how-to-write-a-novel industrial complex that a thriller in want of a good plot must be in possession of a ticking time bomb.

I learned this the hard way while trying to write a novel after inspiration struck, anvil-on-Wile E. Coyote-style. I was obsessed with an idea that suggested a thriller, but clueless about how to turn it into a cohesive story. Moreover, I loved Jane Austen, not Tom Clancy, and majored in nuclear engineering in college, the antithesis of creative writing.

Enter the plot twist: those engineering classes ultimately inspired my literary vision. The book that changed my life, shook me to the core, rocked my world, was Introduction to Nuclear Engineering by the late John R. Lamarsh.

I’ll explain. During my undergraduate years, nuclear engineering was the least popular major in America (thanks, Chernobyl!), so much so that this particular textbook, released in 1983, wasn’t updated until 2001. Unlike subsequent Lamarsh editions, the first page of my 1983 volume said the following:

“…there are a number of ways in which nuclear explosives may be used for peaceful purposes…It should even be possible to alter unfavorable weather patterns in many parts of the world by removing mountain ranges which obstruct the flow of air.” [Emphasis mine.]

I was stunned. Why weren’t my classmates or professors talking about this? Why hadn’t anyone alerted the media? And most importantly, why had no one written an epic science fiction novel premised on these bonkers facts?

This was all I could think of for a long time. Geoengineering scenarios featuring nuclear weapons would come to me in the middle of the night, at work, in conversations with people clearly on verge of faking their own deaths rather than listen to me blather on.  And when global warming stories made the news, I wondered how these ideas might intersect.

Not in real life, of course – in fiction! (I was obsessed, not insane.) Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal reminded me that through satire, an outlandish notion could point out harsh truths about the world. Those ideas and harsh truths lived rent-free like dirty squatters in my head.

Alas, ideas do not a novel make. Indeed, three hundred pages of random assertions call to mind the Unabomber.

I needed to learn the nuts and bolts of novel-writing before I lost my momentum. Here’s where the aforementioned how-to-write-a-novel guides came in handy.  On Writing by Stephen King, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, Save the Cat Writes a Novel by, I dunno, Fluffy? I bought them all. Common elements emerged for theme, plot, character arcs, conflict.  Place the inciting incident and hook at the start, they said, followed by rising action leading to the climax in the middle; resolve the story at the end.  Kill your darlings, stay away from adverbs, don’t head hop…

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

20 thoughts on “The Making of The Silent Count, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

    • Time travel and faster than light travel, the foundations of many sf stories, are considered impossible by the laws of physics.

      • Time travel and FTL are impossible by the currently proven laws of physics. There are many well-founded hypotheses that are not yet proven, but would permit such.

        Anthropogenic climate catastrophe, caused by the posited means of CO2 emissions, is a proven impossibility by empirical measurement. (By other means, of course, it is quite possible – say, by diverting a Chicxlub sized asteroid.)

    • Science fiction remains true to the known laws of physics. Science fantasy expands or breaks those laws. In the latter, “impossibilities” (to us) may be as few or as many and far-reaching as the story requires.

      • Hard SF is “mostly” such bound.
        As a result it quickly ages out of compliance with the subgenre as actual science learns better. (We learned in the 60’s thst Venus doesn’t have ocdns and this week we just learned Mars isn’t a dead planet.)

        Hard SF is not terribly enduring as such.

        The vast majority of SF is bound by *plausibility*. Plus the traditional “one improbability” and genre conventions, like Galactic Empires. Loopholes are acceptable. Properly presented time travel and superliminal speed is as acceptable as a virus outbreak. Key phrase is *properly presented*. (Try Busby’s ALL THESE EARTHS for a cleverly presented FTL system. Niven did something similar with Time Travel in FLIGHT OF THE HORSE. )

        Science Fantasy, though, is a nebulous term that straddles both genres but most offen is Fantasy. Some critics even decry it as lazy writing.

        But SF by and by is friendly enough to tolerate things like STAR WARS. 😉

        • Ah, you went a level deeper.

          According to SF pioneer Jack Williamson, within science fiction, which must abide by the laws of physics, there is “hard SF” and regular or soft SF.

          In hard SF the story is first and foremost all about the science. In hard SF you have to both obey the laws of physics and get the science precisely right, often in great detail.

          In soft or regular SF you still have to obey the laws of physics, but the science is secondary. The story is all about the characters’ reaction to the science.

          Interesting side note: SF is the one genre that eclipses all others. If you write a romance, a zombie tale, a western, action-adventure, thriller, etc. and there’s even one significant SF aspect to it, the work is automatically SF and then romance, thriller, or whatever else.

          • I did.
            Because any definition of SF that excludes the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein is incomplete.

            I always find the truly hard SF stories to be a bit self congratulatory (Look at me! I know real science!). As a consumer, my reaction is “if you’re going to write good SF, you’d better know science. As well as the conventions and expectations of the field. Too many check off the first but ignore the latter or, worse, both, and treat SF as a setting or window dressing. Annoying.

            Hard SF is a bit too early Gernsback-style for *my taste*, formed by Astounding and later, where story is coequal or superior to the required science element. My kneejerk reaction is “how does this helps the story” and I put that self-imposed straightjacket in the same category as infodumps. (c.f., Weber, David. 😉 )

            The field has matured beyond the early days.

            There’s room for all approaches and authors are free to constrained themselves as they please but most hsrd SF stories don’t age well. The long tail business side isn’t kind to them. I prefer stories that use only as much science as required to tell the story. Restraint helps in all the parts of the world building.


            Oh, I would go farther: *all fiction is Fantasy*, where self consistency is the only requirement. From there, if plausibility is required, you move into SF. If you add the need to limit the story to Mundania, then you’re into the other genres, depending on focus. 😀

            Which is why “science fantasy” is just another flavor of fantasy, akin to high fantasy, myth fantasy, fables (preferably fractured), etc.instrad of SF. Often it just doesn’t know (or care: cf, MZB) what it wants to be.

            • I wasn’t excluding Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Gernsback or anyone else. In the first comment, I was only differentiating between science fiction and science fantasy.

              Saying that stories written in the former genre must abide by the laws [, rules, speculations, whatever] regarding the physical nature of our tiny part of the universe and that stories written in the latter don’t is simply a useful way to differentiate the two types of fiction for writers and would-be writers.

              However, I personally couldn’t begin to care less how readers personally tag my stories and novels as long as they keep buying and reading them.

              As for the designation of “hard” or “soft” S. Fiction, one might say all S. Fantasy is “soft” SF because the science doesn’t have to be right, or at least it doesn’t have to be front and center.

              (You don’t have to know the workings of an internal combustion engine in order to drive a vehicle equipped with one to the store, or the workings of a magnetic drive in order to command a generation ship on its way to the other side of the galaxy).

              And in [my]final analysis, it doesn’t matter. Story is story is story.

              • In general the books I’ve seen categotized as soft SF most often are the ones where the science (which can be pretty detailed at times) is non-physics based; anthopology, sociology, psychology, biology, etc. Even medicine fits.

                Chad Oliver built his stories off the anthropology of his time. LeGuin’s better stories are examples of this subgenre. More recently Bujold has been masterful (mistressful? 😉 ) in this space exploring the ramifications of biomedical advances, all within the realm of probability, to societies, mostly in her Vorkosigan series. Developments like cryogenics (which Larry Niven also explored), human ectogenesis, sex change, cloning etc, and their impacts on cultures and mores. Usually exploring ethics.

                Any traditional SF elements like interstellar travel, empires, etc, are treated as backstory; they exist and are part of the millieu but not the focus of the story.

                I love her work in CRYOBURN, CETAGANDA, and A CIVIL AFFAIR. Some miss the point and label some of her earlier works as combat SF but she shrugs it off. She doesn’t care overmuch about labels either.

                I only care to the extent that I’ve been studying the field for a very long time. Practically since I learned to read, certainly before I heard the term SF. It’s just a class of stories that resonates with me and my ongoing interests.

          • Separately, obeying the laws of physics is a bit problematic because, technically those “laws” don’t exist. Seriously, what we call laws of physics are often just mathematical descriptions of some part of nature. Ultimate physical laws probably don’t exist:


            That’s where plausibility enters the equation.
            Science in the modern world is a rationalist system of thought that tries to make sense of the universe, impose order on chaos. Without this rationslist structure imposing order what remains is chaos, the domain of fantasy. Add plausibility and you get SF of all flavors.

            Which is why I love Zelazny’s AMBER series. I just wish he’d done the third. His model fits the multiverse theories beautifully. As in, what lies between the universes? There’s story potential is nothing else. 😀

            • I’d read that Quanta article before and my conclusion differed from yours. I remain convinced that the empirically tested laws of physics exist# and that the arguments presented are just another reason to not take string theory – and in particular the landscape – at all seriously.

              Quanta remains pretty much the best Science magazine around but even so it has to be approached with a certain degree of scepticism. Indeed, one of my favourite science journalists, Natalie Wolchover, has just got egg on her face writing this: (note: no wormholes were created).

              # “exist” is a slippery word and ideally I should say a lot more about what I actually mean by this, but I’m not going down that rabbit hole..

              • Well, empirical systems always work (within tbeir limits) since they are based on measured data. Problem isn’t the Stardard Model’s ability to describe what is known, it is its inability to explain *why*. Like why is the fine structure constant 1/137? Or any other constant just the measured value. For that matter, are the “constants” really constant? Do they vary with time? On a cosmological scale?

                You’ve already make clear your disdain for String Theories.

                SM is sort-of okay as a working model but in its time, so were epicycles. Even if SM were better than the horde of Strings that doesn’t excuse its limitations or make it real. Or, shall we say, accurate?

                SM is a good-enough map (for now) but a map is not the terrain.

                The so-called “Laws of Nsture” are just attempts to explain what we experience. We use math models where other societies used gods or spirits or divine entities. Different map, same goal.

                Math models ard useful but not the end of the line. Models aleays break and are superceded by a new model, newer laws.

                Me, I’m looking forward to the next, more accurate model.

                • Minor point: I don’t “disdain” string theory or theorists. It’s too long since my maths studies – which anyway were weighted towards the applied side (Classical Mechanics, Relativity, Navier-Stokes and the like) – for me to really understand the pure mathematics that has resulted from the ideas developed in string theory but it’s pretty clear that the application of their quantum field theory techniques has had profound results. Hell, Ed Witten got a Fields Medal for this work, and I regard this as one step higher than a Nobel.

                  However, it is getting on for five decades since string theory originated and four since the first superstring revolution and I can see no sign of the physical theory having made any connection to the real (4D de Sitter) universe in which we live. As a project aiming at unification, I think it has failed and suspect that few are now working towards this end. I would dearly love to see a new real world mathematical model combining quantum and gravitational theory, but this has proved an exceptionally hard problem and I have pretty much given up hope of this in my lifetime. I suspect the odds on a working commercial fusion reactor are higher (but I don’t really expect to live for another 30 years).

                  As for the SM failing to explain the value of its many constants, this is certainly something to hope for from a new theory, though maybe it is “just the way things are”. If the fine structure constant were exactly 1/137 it would be an interesting numerological problem – possibly with profound physical implications: why an integer, and a prime at that? But it’s not exact and likely means nothing …

                • So your beef is, paraphrasing, that it hasn’t differentiated itself from the standard model in 50 years? We’ve been working on fusion for 100 years and only now have we figured out even one configuration that produces more energy than the fuel requires to ignite. Some things take time.

                  My concerns are more fundamental; that, as elegant as the math is, nobody has articulated an insight that leads to the math (a weakness shared by SM but not by relativity) and that the math doesn’t converge on a single model. The framework is coherent but clearly incomplete. At best it spits out the same numbers that the SM does.

                  Both are incomplete, just in different ways.
                  And incomplete means “not final”, subject to being superceded. Hopefully more coherent than the menagerie of data points that is SM and more specific than the strings.

                  Not Final = not proven real.
                  Useful, but only until we find out more.

                  Which, getting back to the initial point, means an SF story need not be handcuffed by today’s status quo in science. It might be dated in a week or a year and probably will be in a decade.

                  A writer can choose to do it to themselves but it is not a requirement of the field.

                  Fair ‘nough?

  1. Representation is important. This is the FIRST time I’ve ever seen a post by a fellow woman nuclear engineer – listing many of the same books on writing – who is a novelist!

    I don’t write thrillers – I write mainstream fiction – but many other parts of life and education pop up in my novels, too.

    Thanks, PG!

    PS My copy of Lamarsh was stolen over a Christmas break (I suspect another student – have no proof). For a couple of years after that, I’d go to the U. Wisconsin-Madison store to check out all the used copies – because I lost an incredible number of detailed notes very neatly pencilled in.

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