Sunday, 19 March 2017

Books Read in March 2017

March 2017 Books

Here's the book I read in March 2017 and what I thought of it.

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford

Sometimes you read a book to learn stuff. This is one of those. As the front cover says, this is a novel about IT, DevOps and helping your business win. DevOps is a technique of delivering software with as much automation as possible, to make the building, testing and releasing of software easier and more reliable.

This is a book with virtually no artistic merit. I didn't expect a great work of literature, but come on. It is a technical manual wrapped inside a novel. The main character, Bill, works in the IT department of a large company with dysfunctional working practices. An eccentric individual called Erik guides him through the Three Ways of transforming the IT department into a successful one, thereby making the company as a whole successful. Bit by bit, the Three Ways are revealed and the company gets more and more efficient.

I read this because other people in my own IT department were reading it. I knew it wouldn't be a great read, and I was right. It was very plainly written, with a lot of content about how to think about work and organise IT. It had a villain, of sorts, called Sarah, who had the ear of the boss and led him astray. It referenced lots of films, like The Karate Kid, Apollo 13, Star Trek, Weekend at Bernie's, etc, in an unsubtle attempt to appeal to IT people, I guess.

I skim-read it. If you're going to package up a set of IT principles in a novel, it's probably because you want to make it more accessible and bring it to life. The authors of this needn't have bothered because the story was not very engaging. They may as well have written it as a proper technical manual. Maybe they should have got Michel Faber or Bret Easton Ellis or Kim Stanley Robinson to ghost-write it.

Aside from all this, I have a suspicion of novels that are written just to divulge a particular set of ideas. Two previous novels that I've seen do this are two of the worst piles of garbage I've ever read.

One is The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield and the other is Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, a book with possibly the cheesiest title ever. Both these books were recommended to me by friends. I think they thought they were profound, and that I might too.

I did not think they were profound.

The Celestine Prophecy is about some secret Peruvian manuscript which details nine insights into life. The main character experiences these insights at roughly the same time as he reads about them. The insights are often 'backed up' with sciencey-sounding theories - maybe even proper science - which the author then twists to support his New Age Spirituality bollocks. It's complete tripe. Even if you only have a modicum of scientific knowledge, you can see how the author is trying to manipulate you into believing him.

It turns out at the end of the manuscript that the Mayan civilisation that came up with these insights achieved some kind of 'energy vibration level' which made them cross a barrier into a purely spiritual realm. Now here's a little tip. If you ever see the phrase 'energy vibration level' and it's not in a proper scientific document, the next fucking thing you will read is some absolute witlessness about spirituality or disappearing into a higher plain or some other pseudoscientific astrological homeopathy horseshit.

Way of the Peaceful Warrior also purports to divulge great wisdom about how to live your life. Some guy meets a mysterious wise old man in a petrol station who he calls Socrates. Socrates can do things like jump onto the roof of the petrol station from a standing start. The main character is impressed by this and gets Socrates to teach him. There's stuff about being trapped in your mind by illusions, about eliminating any attachments in your life, being celibate, being teetotal, practicing tai chi, meditation, and akido. These are all concepts that have a grain of truth or usefulness (except for being celibate, because how is denying normal human impulses like sex a healthy thing?). In the end the main character achieves happiness.

The thing is, this is a set of ideas for improving your life, packaged up in a novel. Socrates can do impossible things like jump onto petrol station roofs, and accelerate healing, and disappear when he dies, which is all obvious crap, but you might say, yes, but it's a work of fiction so Socrates can do what he wants, it's all made up. That'd be fine if that's all it was claiming to be. But it also presents itself as a kind of philosophical guidebook - that the advice it presents is true and will really transform your life. So which is it, fiction or truth? In effect, it's saying, here are some things I, as the author, am presenting as truths, and if you believe them and practice what they say, you'll be able to do these other impossible things I mentioned. It's a dirty trick. People who are a bit credulous might come across this, looking for some enlightenment, read the life advice, and be led to believe that the magic stuff actually happened as well, because they can't separate the fact from the fiction, which is deliberately mixed together to usher them to this spurious conclusion. Or they might not believe the nonsense literally, but they might be seduced into believing the spiritual advice more readily.

This kind of book has been called 'magical autobiography'. The author has some spiritual beliefs they want to convey, so they write it into a novel where they relate a journey of discovery and the dividing line between fact and fiction is blurred. Some things are presented as fact, sitting alongside nonsense like Mayans vanishing into a new realm, the sad truth being that some people will believe this as well. As well as this tactic, Millman's Socrates is a tough cookie, a harsh teacher, who sometimes reacts with scorn or outrage towards his pupil, because the pupil is so unenlightened and stupid. This also happens in The Phoenix Project - as if to say, until you are inducted into my enlightened ways, you are an idiot, and when you are eventually 'in the know', you will treat the uninitiated as idiots too.

I'm not saying The Phoenix Project is as bad as those other books - I just noticed the tropes of the mysterious, wise, eccentric teacher, and the worldview of the authors being divulged in a cack-handed, unsubtle way via a novel. Plus, The Three Ways sound like mystical bullshit, though in fact they aren't. They just sound a lot like they are. The views of the Phoenix Project authors are about how to get the best out of IT, and it's all perfectly sensible. The views of Redfield and Millman are drivel.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Books Read in February 2017

February  2017 Books

Here's the book I read in February 2017 and what I thought of it.

Horror: A Literary History edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Turns out horror wasn't even a distinct genre until the twentieth century. This collection of seven essays charts the history of stories that provoke a feeling of fear or repulsion, starting in the eighteenth century with the 'horrible romances' of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, graveyard poetry (hadn't heard of that before), Matthew Lewis's fantastic The Monk, and the Big Daddy, Frankenstein.

It goes on to talk about the origins of American horror, like seventeenth and eighteenth century captivity narratives, where white women were kidnapped, incarcerated and abused by Native Americans. The Salem witch trials of the 1690s and the dark, extreme beliefs of the Puritans also had a profound impact on the American horror to come - dangerous religious zeal and murderous irrationalism cropped up in nineteenth century witch trials stories, and Arthur Miller's 1953 The Crucible, for example. There's a section on Edgar Allan Poe, because he really was the father of American horror, a gigantic influence on everyone who followed.

Next is a look at nineteenth-century Britain, and the fact that there were horrific bits in Eliot, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, etc but still no proper horror genre. There were grisly medical casebook tales, and penny dreadfuls depicting bloody murders. It's not until the 1880s we start getting 'proper horror', or at least a Victorian Gothic revival, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), Arthur Machen's The Three Imposters (1895), and Dracula (1897).

The twentieth century sees H.P. Lovecraft write his cosmic horror, continuing a trend where horror stops having religious dimensions, as in the eighteenth century Gothic stuff, and becomes more about psychology and biology - the degenerate Morlocks in The Time Machine, the monstrous transformation of Dr Jekyll, the madness that afflicts puny humans confronted by the Cthulhu Mythos, the virus-infected zombies of the brilliant I Am Legend, leading right up to Norman Bates in Psycho.

The 1980s horror boom is discussed, with leading writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell, and Peter Straub, who came by way of Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Dennis Wheatley, via the odd 1950s EC horror comic and pulp magazine Weird Tales. Then on to the nihilistic turn-of-the-century books of American Psycho and Fight Club, both bringing out the darkness of modern, humdrum Western life. And ending with horror video games, and the 'new weird' fiction of the twenty-first century, the extra-gloomy Thomas Ligotti, and Laird Barron, both reimagining Lovecraftian terror in new, interesting ways.

It's a good read for weirdos like me who are into this kind of thing. I wasn't really aware of the distinction between 'terror' and 'horror' before reading this, apart from the dictionary definitions being a bit different, but apparently it's of great importance. Some authors try to horrify, some to terrify (which is considered the higher literary ambition), some to do both. As long as we keep getting interesting, creepy, atmospheric tales, I'm satisfied.