Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Shortage of Engineers
Robert Grossbach
St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $23.95

You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll learn that the "Advanced Interrogator/Receiver operated at a frequency of 1030 MHz, 1.03 billion cycles per second" and "consisted of a twelve-by-six-inch aluminum-backed printed circuit board that included a dozen transistors, four each for the low-power pre-amps, the medium-power feeder stages, and the high-power output stages."

A Shortage of Engineers is the feel-stupid book of the year. But you don't have to have a four-digit I.Q. or an engineering degree to understand Robert Grossbach's satiric skewering of an aeronautic engineering company beleaguered with incompetence, corruption, Catch- 22s, doublespeak and bureaucracy. You can bypass the technical snarls and jargon and still get the gist (consult the Appendix 1 "Acronym Soup" from time to time); essential human dynamics emerge through the inessential thermodynamics.

Still, a world of visionaries and the virtuous? Zack Zaremba, fresh out of college and assigned to a shady Air Force weapons project at his new place of employment, International Instruments, would like to think that "most of the things in life that've made a difference were accomplished by Pollyannas and Quixotes, naifs and malcontents and obsessives, people who don't know any better, stubborn people who didn't listen, people swept up in a tornado of emotion, driven people who forced reality into the mold of their hallucinations."

But amid the water cooler and cubicle crowd, flights of fancy can turn even to sycophancy as Zack, dragged up the corporate ladder in thinks-he-doth-kick-and-scream-too-much willingness, increasingly comes under the pragmatic pull of the decidedly un-Pollyannaish and not quite quixotic "Engineering Rules, Observations, and Advisories of Shopper Jim." Zack especially succumbs to Rule Six of the company cynic's list, which stipulates that "to gain management's favor, tell them what they want to hear, which is invariably different from the truth."

Caught between integrity and career survival, the impressionable and confused Zack finds himself courting management's favor even as he gradually learns about the web of unconscionable hoodwinking and unsafe, cost-cutting compromises International Instruments is weaving in order to meet, or attempt to meet, the Air Force's stringent demands. Faced with such challenges as his prominent appearance before the crucial Critical Review, where the "engineers say very serious square-mouthed incomprehensible things and the Air Force says serious incomprehensible square-mouthed things back," Zack must make some hard choices about his role and culpability in this increasingly bumbled boondoggle.

He could rationalize and agonize all he wants that, after all, "the system might never get built, might be drastically changed, be built and never deployed, might be deployed and never used...." But what about that oddly compelling Rule Seven of Shopper Jim's dictates: "Always keep enough cardboard boxes under your desk to carry out all your stuff"?

Grossbach, a career engineer who has written three other novels, may want to paint some situations and themes with dark, surreal Kafkaesque insidiousness, but the overall effect and tone of A Shortage of Engineers is one of broad, Dilbert-drenched cartoonish silliness that undercuts a wholesale, scathing sendup of corporate America. Punctuating the pulled-punch attacks and abundant absurdities (e.g., needing the same requisition form to order out-of- stock requisition forms, parts that need to be ordered before there's a design) is an array of characters that evoke the funny papers more than social commentary. Among the "Lackies, Flunkies, and Zombies" are the whistle-blower soccer mom love interest, the neurotic pal who draws up flow charts to get him through social interactions and the supply clerks, Mee and Yu, who delight in playing "Who's on first?"- type pranks.

So you'll laugh, and maybe you'll cry, but there are few G-force yuks and blubbers despite the boisterous-sounding fury, and there's revelry without a caustic edge. "A Shortage of Engineers" may not amount to a roller coaster of emotions, but it still might be a good how-to book for building Class-C Microwave amplifiers.


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