Bugs and The Loved One are in My Head

I don’t know how old I was when I started reading, but I’ve never stopped. As a little kid I had a small number of my own books, and I read them each many times over. As a teenager I reached the point where I had to be choosy about which ones to re-read, and in college I passed the point where I would ever lack for unread books.

Now, according to LibraryThing, I have 1,218 books that I haven’t read. (Three of them I bought just today.) Keep in mind that I also have a stack of books that LibraryThing won’t acknowledge. It has a feature for adding unknown books — which some wonderful person out there seems to have done for my mini-comic “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — but I am intensely lazy and haven’t entered them.

So with everything I have read and have yet to read, my reaction to the “List 15 Books That Will Always Stay With You” game on Facebook caused me to giggle like Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin before staring uncomprehendingly at my life choices.

After a great deal of thought (I need something to do in all those work meetings) I’ve settled on two books that, while rarely in my thoughts, are always on my mind. They are works that didn’t influence me so much as they crystallized realizations I’d come to during that final transition to American adulthood — joining the workforce.

The Loved One
My first exposure to Evelyn Waugh’s critique of life and death in America came in a high school film class, where I saw the movie of it that starred Jonathon Winters and Jonathon Winters as the high and low-class mortician brothers. Then, what I got out of it was mostly just chuckles.

Reading the book as a young man, I noticed that it was about commerce — particularly it was about the subversion of art and culture through commerce. The main character, visiting from England, discovers that his uncle now dashes off paintings for use in movies. The woman he falls in love with works for a mortician for the elite, who has so aggrandized funerals that he has become the leader of a death cult. Meanwhile, the mortician’s brother makes a mockery of ritual with his bombastic pet cemetery.

For me, this book encapsulates my leeriness of motivations where money is involved. Not perhaps an earth-shattering revelation, but one that is expressed with wit and restrained chaos.

A short, satiric book by John Sladek, “Bugs” tells the story of a man who accidentally becomes hired to manage a project at a high-tech company. Knowing nothing about management, technology, or the project, he essentially keeps his head down and lets his team run wild. The result is that they produce a sentient robot, who promptly escapes.

I bought this from the clearance table (being a fan of his murderous robot novel “Tik Tok”), and while it amused me I promptly forgot about it. Years later I accidentally became a programmer and found myself expected to perform miracles for which I felt utterly unqualified. I spent ten years feeling like a fraud until I realized that in that time I had actually become a real programmer. I looked around and my skills held up fairly well against those of my colleagues.

Sladek’s absurdist tale of success through pretense came back to me, and it seemed to me to be a fairly accurate portrayal of my career, symbolically. For that reason alone I’m certain I’ll never forget it, but there’s more. As a lead developer, I’ve tried to stay out of everybody’s way as much as possible. I’ll never know if they can make an A.I. if I don’t let them direct their own work.


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