Naren Shankar had just completed a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and applied physics at Cornell University when he announced to his parents that he was heading to Hollywood to write for television. His mother cried.
Fast forward nearly three decades, and Shankar has not only crafted an impressive career as an Emmy Award-nominated sci-fi writer and producer, but never stopped applying his educational background in both apparent and unconventional ways—from infusing real science into his scripts to the way in which he approaches writing and oversees productions.
“Physical science and engineering require the same intuitive leaps and jumps and aspiration that any art does; it’s just expressed in a different way,” says Shankar. “Where I’ve ended up is a very nice marriage of that. I get to indulge the technical side of the making of films and the classically art side of storytelling.”
Shankar, 51, is currently an executive producer of The Expanse, which premiered this month on Syfy (catch up on episodes here). His credits include the Star Trek franchise, The Outer Limits, Farscape, Almost Human, and CSI, which won back his parents. “I finally got on a show that their friends watched,” he laughs.
The Expanse follows the Hugo Award-nominated book series of the same name, chronicling a detective and spaceship crew 200 years in the future trying to unravel a solar system-wide conspiracy threatening humanity.
More than overt high-tech gadgets and technospeak, The Expanse uses second-nature interactions with technology, grounding the production design in plausible reality by extrapolating today’s science into the future.
“The books themselves are very technically oriented. So they worked out things like thrust gravity vs. spin gravity, what kind of fusion drive would get you across the solar system,” says Shankar. “But we are trying to use the reality of space, which tends not to be done in most science fiction. We don’t have hyperspace buttons, we’re not going faster than light, or jumping across the galaxy. There’s a transmission delay when you talk across the solar system. Sometimes we have people in zero gravity. So the technical elements come into play, and if we’re doing our jobs right, we can actually use them for dramatic effect.”
One engineering conceit Shankar did bring to the production design sprang from his thesis work in display technology (specifically, liquid crystal fiber-optic switching).
“We always talk about where projection technology is going, like smart fabrics and embedded displays,” he says. “One of the things we tried to do was have any surface be able to project an image, with universal interfaces, and everything being wireless. So, for example, our versions of smartphones—we call them hand terminals or palms—are able to project volumetric displays. People have fluid gestural interfaces with devices. Just nobody’s talking about them.”
Despite such visual flourishes, “it’s not a technoporn type of show,” he adds. “We’re not building a show around gadgets. It’s a blue-collar version of space; it’s just people doing a job out there. The technology is in the world, people use it, but they don’t sit around talking about it. We also talk about mining asteroids and ships going out to the asteroid belt, and that kind of stuff is very much in the news right now. We’re in the very early stirrings of a commercial, privatized space industry, so we’re projecting forward from the present day.”
Shankar took the scenic route to engineering, wandering through Medieval studies and French literature courses before his culture won out. “I’m the son of Indian immigrants, and my cultural background is that doctor, lawyer, engineer, or businessman are the only career options,” he says. “So, since I always loved science and math, I transferred into engineering—usually people go the other way.” He kept up with creative writing through a literary fraternity that ran informal workshops.
The more specialized he got, the less invested he felt. “Engineering can be a bit of a lonely profession, and I sort of felt myself becoming an expert in a smaller and smaller corner of the universe,” he says. “I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I somehow managed to gut it out and finish my dissertation.” After graduating, he came clean to his parents, who hoped this artistic folly was a phase.
Meanwhile, a couple of college friends were starting to break into the TV business. One of them was OutlanderEP Ron Moore, then a co-producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Moore helped Shankar land a Writers Guild internship on the show, which, per his background, hired him as a science consultant.
“That actually turned out to be maintaining the consistency of the fake science, just spraying jargon all over the show,” he laughs. But it gave him the opportunity to pitch story ideas, write some freelance episodes with Moore, which earned him a spot on the writing staff 18 months after arriving in Los Angeles. .
“I was very fortunate to have a bit of an inside track with people in it already,” he says. “The problem with Hollywood is it’s a small business. It takes some luck and connections to get that break. But what you do with it is on you.”
Despite Shankar’s sci-fi credits, CSI drew the most from his engineering background. “The logic and rigor you’re trained in as a scientist helps when you’re thinking about investigation and murder mysteries; what happened based on the evidence at play is classic empiricism,” he says.
A broader correlation between science and writing is peer review. “When you write a scientific paper, you sit down with your colleagues and tear it apart to see if the idea can withstand criticism and the science works,” says Shankar. “I try to approach the rewriting process same way. That’s fairly unusual, because a lot of writers get very precious about what they’ve written. What I’ve found is you have to step back and look at it from the perspective of the audience and figure out what works and what doesn’t. That really is peer review, when an idea can withstand the criticism of an entire group. There’s a kinship with the scientific process.”
Turns out, overseeing experiments is akin to managing encompassing projects. “Running a show can be a very technical business,” says Shankar. “You have to be a creative director, manager, technically-minded—it’s a very odd combination of skills. Doing original research at the doctoral level, you have to understand and not be intimidated by big complex projects. As filmmaking has gotten more technical over the years, the engineering side comes into play, especially when you talk about intense visual effects. Running television shows is both a left brain/right brain thing, so I may have found the perfect job for myself.”