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Machine Man by Max Barry

June 1, 2015 19 comments

Machine Man by Max Barry (2011) Not available in French.

Barry_machine_manOur Book club decided to read Machine Man by Max Barry for this month of May. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we had five public holidays in May which was good for escapades on long weekends but terrible for work since things kept piling up in our absence. I’m under the impression I jumped from April to June in one breath. Anyway.

Machine Man is a science-fiction / dystopian novel, put it in the box you prefer. Scientist Charles Neumann works for an innovative company, Better Future. He’s a pure scientist who believes in science as long as it’s not psychology, anthropology, etc. His specialty is mechanical engineering. He manages a lab in charge of finding new inventions that managers and marketing people sell or not. He’s not much of a manager and his social skills are almost inexistent. He’s never had a girlfriend; he’s not interested in socializing and he’s not really open to anything but science.

One day, he has an accident at work and his leg must be amputated. He wakes up in the hospital to face his new him. He has a rather detached attitude to the problem.

Presumably if I disconnected the saline drip, I would deflate to a husk. I was a junior high physics problem. If Charles Neumann is a human being with volume 80 liters, oozing bodily fluid at the rate of 0.5 liters per minute, how often must we replace his 400-milliliter saline bags? I felt I should have been more sophisticated than that.

That’s Charlie Neumann in a nutshell. Descartes would have been his kindred spirit: he thinks of the body as a machine. And Charlie loves machines. He loves the idea of improving machines. When he meets Lola, who works at the hospital as a prosthetist, he’s underwhelmed by the prosthesis she can show him. He’s entitled to the best as Better Future is so afraid to have a trial that they are willing to pay for everything. Charlie resumes work and decides to improve his prosthesis. He creates new legs, ones designed for performance and not to look normal. His leg is ugly but functional and in his opinion, much better than his former biological leg. And then he thinks that it’s a disadvantage to have a poor biological leg and a great mechanical leg. Since same causes produce the same effects, he reproduces the circumstances of his first accident to have his other leg removed.

That’s when Better Future steps up their game. They realise the potential of money in these improved body parts. They give Charlie and his team carte blanche to create products to enhance the human body.

Follows a high-paced story with lots of twists and turns about inventing new parts, testing them before selling them and opening a brand new market of scientifically enhanced body parts. Charlie and his team are like children in a candy store. They have access to all the spare parts and materials they want. They’re free to invent whatever they want without being bothered by ethics at all since their boss’s opinion is:

Don’t pass moral judgment because cause produced effect. We’re biological machines. We have chemically driven urges. You inject a nun with a particular chemical cocktail, she’s going to start swinging punches. It’s a fact.

With that kind of attitude, you can excuse everything. Just as I was reading Machine Man, I listened to a radio program about Transhumanism and the ethical questions raised by new technological possibilities for our bodies. It’s not a theory I’m familiar with but it was interesting to hear about it right when I was reading Barry.

And this is where Machine Man is flawed. It’s a novel with a fantastic potential. It could be to Descartes’s vision of the body as a machine what Candide is to Leibnitz. A philosophical tale, funny but deep. Machine Man raises fascinating questions. Do we develop these technologies enhancing the human body? Do we provide them only to disabled people to improve their everyday life or do we consider that anybody should decide what to do with their body and if they want to cut their leg to have a mechanical one, who are we to intervene? Who’s in charge of the related ethical challenges? Rabelais said Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme. (Science without conscience will ruin the soul)

Where does Machine Man stand in that respect? The answer is Nowhere, unfortunately.

I have already read three books by Max Barry: Company, a hilarious and yet spot-on novel about corporate crap, Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel where brands have taken all the power in the world and Syrup, a fast-paced novel about a marketing genius who invented a new soda. All three managed to combine a high speed, page-turning plot with deep thoughts about the corporate and marketing worlds. I loved the three so I was looking forward to reading Machine Man.

I was so frustrated by it. It lacked depth, stayed on the surface of things. It’s still a fun read but I wanted more. I expected more from Max Barry. I wanted some thoughts about how Better Future captures science for its own profit. I wanted more thoughts about the ethical debate related to what Charlie was doing. I also thought he was too much of a caricature. Nerdy, low social skills, wary of psychology…scientists are more than that.

For another take on Machine Man, read Guy’s post here.

PS: If you work in the corporate world, have a good laugh and read Company.

Marketing’s first golden rule: Perception is reality

August 7, 2011 15 comments

Syrup by Maxx Barry. 1999. French title: Soda & Cie

Marketing (or mktg, which is what you write when you’re taking lectures notes at two hundred words per minute) is the biggest industry in the world, and it’s invisible. It’s the planet’s largest religion, but the billions who worship it don’t know it. It’s vast, insidious and completely corrupt.

Marketing is like LA. It’s like a gorgeous, brainless model in LA. A gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in LA. That’s the best way I know to describe it.

 Michael George Holloway a young marketing graduate from Iowa wants to get rich and famous. First actions to reach the goal: move in LA and market your name. That’s how he ends up sharing an apartment with Sneaky Pete in LA and change his name into Scat.

Scat wakes up with a great idea: a new cola named FUKK. He doesn’t know what to do with his great idea, so he shares about it with Sneaky Pete who happens to know the New Products Manager of Coke, 6. Sneaky Pete has him an appointment with 6, who loves the idea. The board of Coke wants to buy the trademark and just then, Scat realises he doesn’t have a pattern on the name. When he wants to register it, he learns that Sneaky Pete has done it before. From then on, he will team up with 6 and it will be a deathly business war with Sneaky Pete. I won’t tell more, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s pleasure.

Syrup is a perfect read for commuters unless you’re too self-conscious to laugh out loud in a train carriage. Because you will laugh. It’s made of short scenes of a page or half a page. Each chapter is illustrated with a bar code and there are soda bubbles between sub-chapters. Original. Upbeat. Refreshing. Marketing case studies are inserted in the text, to recall the reader where he is:

mktg case study #6: mktg cigarettes

For a product that kills its customers, this is pretty easy. For one thing, you only need to convince people to start buying. But the best part is that you get to defend the act of selling a product your customers can’t stop buying by claiming they have freedom of choice. Before each marketing campaign, practice the line: “It is not the policy of our company to dictate the lifestyle of our customers”

As a business school graduate, I’ve had my fair share of marketing classes even if I majored in business law. I remember those case studies – about cheese and champagne, yes, that’s French business schools… So Maxx Bary’s novel certainly rang a bell.

 Syrup is a satire of course but it points out real ways of working in nowadays companies. The SMT, the senior team management is a “dozen colleagues in pants and ties (no jackets, no women)” How true. In France they think about imposing quotas for women in boards to try to break the glass ceiling. He also talks about “dick-measuring contests” among the SMT, and I usually entertain my colleagues by pointing out the “concours de quéquette” when I see one. Really frequent. Ends up with decisions not made through a logical decision making process but through a perception of who won the dick-measuring contest. Passages about women in companies are rather accurate. Being a woman executive can be a pain when you get pregnant. As Scat points out, A pregnant woman has about as much chance of being given control of a top project as a drunk; they’re viewed as equally reliable. How true (bis) That’s the paradox. Companies want you most between 25 and 40, just when you have babies. But they’re also very happy to have new customers to consume their products. Who’s going to make them if we can’t get pregnant, uh?

All in all, I thought his description of companies’ politics exaggerated but with a real hint of truth.

 Scat’s choice of a name is a good one. Like scat in jazz, he’s always improvising in marketing. He’s the creative part of the team while 6 is the managing, strategy one. He’s always flabbergasted by how far the internal competition of a company can go. He’s naïve but not that bad at negotiating. He can’t really lie, he has no insight of political forces among the SMT or the manoeuvres Sneaky Pete puts into place to make them lose. There are no holds barred. 6 is the caricature of the steely woman executive who has built defensive walls to survive in her macho environment. She first declares she’s a lesbian to cut off men’s temptation to seduce her. She’s skilled in politics and organizing but has no creativity. She can’t survive without Scat and Scat can’t survive without her.

Like in Company, Syrup is an evidence of globalization. Company is the globalization of management methods. Syrup is the globalization of marketing methods. And just like Coke is an international symbol of marketing, McDonald’s is an international symbol of low quality job: It’s so great to know that after you’ve sucked me dry, you still think I can pick up a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s. In France too, to end up at McDonald’s for a regular job – not as a student job – is seen as a failure. Globalization of methods, globalization of outcome.

I have to say I like the voice of this writer, I think he’s a decent guy – or does he market himself as such? We are from the same generation. He’s obviously a feminist, he has a non-sexist way of describing relationships, and his male characters are the opposite of the testosterone man obsessed by tits and bottoms. Have a look at his website and particularly at his blog entry entitled Dogs and Smurfs if you want to know more. Syrup is currently being filmed. Max Barry wrote posts about the first days of shooting and he sounded very much as enthralled as Scat when he first goes to Coke or visit film locations.

After the 2008 financial crisis, I’d moderate my opening quote. Yes, marketing has a huge power on our lives. It will make you prefer one brand of cereal over another. But let Finance guys unleash their creativity and you get creative accounting, window-dressing, junk bonds, hedge funds, Fannie Mae and a major financial crisis that shatters the entire planet when markets and bankers realise that in that world, Perception CANNOT BE reality.

Who took the donut from the donut jar?

May 12, 2011 25 comments

Company by Max Barry. 2006.

MONDAY MORNING and there’s one less donut than there should be. Keen observers note the reduced mass straightaway but stay silent, because saying, “Hey, is that only seven donuts?” would betray their donut experience. It’s not great for your career to be known as the person who can spot the difference between seven and eight donuts at a glance. Everyone studiously avoids mentioning the missing donut until Roger turns up and sees the empty plate.

These are the opening lines of Company by Max Barry. I was already laughing. Four lines that catch the essence of office life, made of implicit social rules and of time wasted on details that have nothing to do with actual work. And that donut is important for our story. After the donut scene, Barry takes us to the reception area where Jones is waiting for Roger to pick him up at the reception desk.

Sitting there with his hands in his lap is young, fresh-faced Stephen Jones. His eyes are bright. His suit glows. His sandy-brown hair contains so much styling mousse it’s a fire risk, and his shoes are black mirrors. This is his first day.

I so imagined  Jones, the young business-school graduate who’s learnt management guide books by heart and is eager to jump into the real world at last. He’s killing time reading the company’s marketing brochures. He’s been hired to the Sales Training Department of Zephyr Holdings as Roger’s assistant. The Sales Training Department is composed of a manager, Sydney, her PA Megan, three sales representatives (Roger, Elizabeth and Wendell) and three sales assistants (Jones, Holly and Freddy). He’s already pining for Eve Jantiss the gorgeous receptionist.

After a few days, Jones realizes that the Sales Training Department is only selling to internal customers. When he asks, nobody is able to tell him what Zephyr Holdings really does and who are its real clients. Jones doesn’t accept this and is determined to find out the real purpose of Zephyr Holdings. He wouldn’t want to work for an arm maker or a porn company, he needs to ensure the company he works for is ethically acceptable. With the boldness of youth, he forces the doors of the CEO to understand what Zephyr Holdings is actually doing. He thus becomes a team member of the secret Senior Management of Zephyr Holdings and learns the real aim of the company. How will Jones cope with the news and work into that team?

The first third of the book relates Jones’s time at Zephyr before he discovers its aim and become a part of the secret management. In that part, we discover Zephyr, its social codes, its written or non-written rules. I really laughed a lot, seeing how close to real life it was. Cost control is pushed so far that it becomes inefficient and creates absurd behaviours. Employees work in open floors supposedly enforcing productivity (called “cubicle farm” by Max Barry, a good image, I thought). Comments are spot on, such as for sales representative who have “six-figure salaries, seven-figure quotas, and single-digit golf handicaps.” or when he calls outsourcing ” the nuclear bomb of Human Resources’ arsenal”. Many anecdotes felt real: the network falls, promotions come from political skills and not actual competence, managers give work at the last minute, creating stress.

At that time, I started to think of Company as a dystopian novel, like Fahrenheit 451. Zephyr Holdings is another world, with a physical presence and a designated area through its building:

The Zephyr Holdings building sits nestled among the skyscrapers of Seattle’s Madison Street like a big, gray brick. It is bereft of distinguishing features. You could argue that it has a certain neutral, understated charm, but only if you are willing to apply the same logic to prisons and 1970s Volvos. It is a building designed by committee: all they have been able to agree on is that it should be rectangular, have windows, and not fall over.

Zephyr is the new working world. The old world is the company before flexible jobs, a time older employees remember and young employees think of as real as a lost paradise. Zephyr is a country with its own logic and its way to standardize people and take away their freedom and their free will. The Company is named after a wind. Is it innocent? I don’t think so. Every Zephyr’s employee should be able to see which way the wind blows or feel the wind change. In French, “faire beaucoup de vent” (literally “to make a lot of wind”) means “to make a lot of noise” in the sense of speaking a lot but not acting. “C’est du vent” (Literally, “it’s wind”) also means “it’s hot air”, in the sense of an empty posturing. All these expression apply to Zephyr Holdings whose name is also really ironic when you think that a zephyr is a warm, agreeable and gentle wind. North Wind would have been better.

The Sales Training Department is a sample of common people met at work. The manager Sydney is petty and driven by ambition.

How she became manager remains a mystery. But there are only two possibilities. One is that Senior Management mistook her tirades for drive and a commitment to excellence. The other is that they knew Sydney was a paranoid psychopath, and that’s exactly the kind of person they want in management.

Freddy, Holly, Megan represent the silent majority who follow through, tries to adapt and cope with the environment but however tries not to hurt anyone. They have a sheep-ish and thus sheepish behaviour. Elizabeth is a promoter and a believer, she “falls in love with her clients”. Roger is a promoter but he’s an opportunist and slightly unbalanced. “Roger is a powerful, confident, good-looking man kept awake at nights by the heart-gripping fear that other people don’t think he is powerful, confident, and good-looking.” He’s dangerous as he thinks he deserves to be promoted and as the end justifies the means in his eyes. Roger takes the missing donut affair seriously.

Jones is the rebel who questions the system. He’s human and needs to understand what he does. He sees his co-workers as persons and not as positions. He’s brave enough to fight. He’s the hero who won’t accept the situation and lead changes. He has strong values and doesn’t want to compromise. Ethics at work is important to him. When Jones’s ethics is shattered, he’d like to leave but stays, rationalizing his decision. As we all do when we don’t exactly agree with a task, we think that if we don’t do it, someone else will. And that someone could have less moral concern than us. So we conclude we’d better stay.

At Zephyr Holdings, Senior Management is nowhere to be seen but is always to be heard via voicemails, like robots or a disembodied power who anonymously controls their employees’ lives. They govern the company as dictators. They can decide to fire anyone at any time: they have the power to kill someone professionally. They spread fear and employees comply to any rule, accept any rationalization. On paper, Zephyr is cautious not to do anything illegal. But work regulations are twisted in such a way that what should have been a protection for employees becomes a weapon for management. For example, they use drug test to discover pregnant women. The code to prevent sexual harassment is such that innocent office romances are impossible. HR are the armed arm of Senior Management. They apply mechanically the decisions without blinking.

All this made me think of a parallel world and of dystopian novels’ codes. Hardboiled also came to my mind when I thought of the relationship between Jones and Eve Jantiss. He has everything of the PI with his own moral code, who won’t change but doesn’t mind bending the rules to a certain point if need be. He’s ready to have dirty hands for his cause. Eve Jantiss is the typical femme fatale of noir crime fiction. She’s tempting Jones, has no conscience and is venal. A lethal combination for our hero.

The conclusion of the novel could be a plea for better working conditions and more ethics in the treatment of workers.

We spend half our waking lives here. We know it better than anyone. We care about it more than anyone. That’s what people do, Blake, when you put them in a workplace: they get emotionally involved. We’re not inputs. We’re not machines.

We’re not headcounts, we’re human beings. The “it’s not personal, it’s business” slogan is a way to wipe away the guilt born from inhuman decisions.

I loved this book. I think it is masterly crafted. Max Barry manages to play with the codes of SF (not that I’m an expert in that field) and with the codes of hardboiled. However his Company felt awfully real. It’s funny and thought-provoking. Brilliant. Guy recommended Company to me when I read Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan. You can find his review here. I’m glad I read the two books almost at the same time. If Underground Time shows how a multi-national firm can destroy a strong person, Company shows how the destruction machine works. The two books are complementary as they describe the same reality but from a different perspective. I really recommend to read them together, 1 + 1 = 3 in that case.

PS: I’m so sorry that an Australian writer can describe office life in France in a book that is set in America. That’s called the “globalization of management techniques and financial doctrines”

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