Eran Tromer's Book Reviews 
Tracy Kidder

The Soul of a New Machine

Atlantic Monthly Press, 1981
Winner of the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction

They Say IBM's Entry Into Minicomputers Will Legitimatize The Market.
The Bastards Say, Welcome.
The Soul of a New Machine tracks a team of engineers at Data General Corporation working on an innovative new computer. It follows the life of the project and those involved in it for over a year, from the background of the undertaking until its completion. During this time, the social and professional situations undergo different phases, some quite dramatic. Kidder does a superb work of capturing their essence, and combining them into a coherent account. The result is a gripping tale of of hope and anxiety, of will power and despair, and of immense dedication.

Along the way, various aspects of the engineers' lives are revealed. Some are characteristic of many engineering projects, while others are unique to the peculiar circumstances. At times the personal lives of various members are emphasized, while at others the team-wide social pattern gets the stage. Some sections dwell into semi-technical situations and anecdotes, while others deal with management and politics. All of these combine into a well-orchestrated hymn to the Man behind the Machine.

This is not a technical book. While some terminology and concepts are needed to fully appreciate the numerous anecdotal cases, Kidder does a good job of providing the context. On the other hand, those with the relevant technical background will find these digressions more amusing then annoying, and will get enough details to realize the immense technical challanges at hand -- defining and implementing a state-of-the-art computer while maintaining compatibility with an archaic architecture, and doing so with an impossible deadline and insufficient resources.

The bigger game was "pinball". "You win one game, you get to play another. You win with this machine, you get to build the next." Pinball was what counted.
Personally, I found this book very exciting. This heroic tale of the technological frontier is for me a long sought-for counterweight for the traditional drab image (and, at times, self-image) of those involved. I found it surprisingly easy to identify with many situations, having undergone some of the psychological torture tests and draconian management techniques whose tale is narrated, not to mention having experienced the technical situations.

The book could be criticized for being unbalanced in favor of the heroic. While the factual accounts appear reasonably balanced, the overall emotional tone is not. Also, some characters recieve a fairly shallow treatment. Indeed, Tom West, arguably the central character, still remains a mystery to the reader when the strory is over. But this does little to overshadow the brilliantly original perspective Kidder presents.

He went away from the basement and left this note on his terminal: "I'm going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season."
I'd strongly recommend this book to anyone engaged in engineering in general, and computer-related in particular -- they are most certain to enjoy it. For others, it may provide some insight into the people behind technology.

© 1997 Eran Tromer.    Feedback to