XYZ by William Knight: A Grouchy Computer Programmer Struggles to Find his Place

XYZ

XYZ: One Man, Two Kids, Ten Devices and an Internet-Sized Generation Gap

by William Knight

Kindle Edition, 216pg.
2019

Read: October 11, 2019

I’m one of the original computer geeks…

I was in the first intake for Computer Science O Level at my local college, and I signed up for a computer programming degree when the rest of the world was still using slide rules and copying documents in purple ink…

I was part of a small wave of silicon-brained cool kids that was destined to become a tsunami. My generation was going to make the world a better place and in record time. We had ideas of perfect information, total transparency, evidence-based-government and university for all. We were the builders of Utopia and the founders of global prosperity…

I hadn’t then realised the destiny for which I was headed. It was nothing more than fun. Fun to spend 10p on a video game and bash the console into submission. Fun to program pretty patterns on a screen and load games from a floppy disk, and fun to be part of the BBC’s Micro Live phenomenon, when the broadcaster sponsored its own computer as part of its remit to educate the masses.

And it remained fun until it became a trap, when computers ceased to be the promise of progress and instead became the terrorists of truth. Somewhere along the way, I turned from God of Silicon to an anorak-wearing dweeb, and from dweeb to a lonely fifty-five-year-old bastard. One at the end of his career, hopelessly out of touch, and unable to operate his own phone.

WTF happened?

What becomes of someone who saw himself as one of those who’d bring in a technological utopia and finds themselves trying to survive in the era of smart phone-ubiquity and social media dumpster fire? Well, judging by our protagonist, Jack Cooper—you get (at best) a curmudgeon who feels alienated in the industry he helped establish, estranged from your family, and hoping to remain relevant and productive (and employed!) long enough to retire.

We meet Jack on his first day at a new employer—a personal finance app corporation. He’s had a number of first days at various corporations lately, and his daughter is concerned that if he’s not careful this could be the last one. Despite his wide-ranging experience lately, he’s still in for a giant dose of culture shock and unclear expectations when he gets to work. Even after a period of acclimation, he’s still feeling like a fish out of water amidst these young people more focused on the internal chat program, employee fulfillment/empowerment, and lack of accountability than they are on actually producing something useful and on-time.

In other words, things aren’t going well for him. But at least he can go home and drink to excess at the pub across the street, right?

Meanwhile, he and his wife are separated (he’s still paying the mortgage on their home, in addition to the rent on his flat), he’s not speaking to his son (Jack can’t accept his life as a furry), and his relationship with his daughter is on the precipice of disaster. Which makes that drinking to excess a lot more tantalizing.

Then, while in a meeting with his superior about his job performance, he finds himself telling her how attracted to her he is. Jack’s last chance is looking pretty slim indeed.

This is a novel clearly in the vein of Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss/A Man Called Ove, where a grumpy older man clashes with a world that’s changing faster than he’s ready for it. Yes, that’s right, Gen Xers are now old enough to get our own books like this, which is depressing enough to suck the fun out of this book. Typically, these books are written from a Third-Person POV, but XYZ is a First-Person Narrator. This puts the reader firmly in his cantankerous, drunken, obstinate, and angry head. Honestly, it’s a little easier to have any sympathy for these types of characters when you’re not drowning in their anger (or at least steeping in it), but seeing it from the outside.

Still, there is plenty of fun to be had in this book. A lot of it is fun at Jack’s expense—laughter is the best way to react to his cringe-worthy behavior, otherwise, you’d end up being pretty censorious. Although you won’t be able to avoid judging Jack a little bit. There are times (the Prologue is a great example) when Jack’s loathing of the cultural moment (particularly in tech corporations) comes through stronger than the humor and it’s hard to take (and I agree with Jack in almost every bit of his counter-cultural thinking).

But, as with Ove/Chandra and the rest of the type, Jack manages to find a measure of acceptance for those around him, and is even able to do some work on repairing familial relationships (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say either of those things, that’s sort of how this kind of book works). As this happens, the book is at it’s strongest and easiest to enjoy/relate to. I do wonder if that portion of the novel is a bit rushed—we get plenty of time to watch Jack make a train-wreck of his professional and personal lives (which weren’t in great shape before he makes it worse), it’d be nice if we could see him get his feet back under him a bit more clearly.

On the whole, it’s a fun book—a great combination of humor, heart, and growth. Sure, some of the edges could be a bit smoother, but on the whole, this is an entertaining read. It can be easily read by a wide-range of readers—those of us who played Space Invaders when it was near the cutting-edge of technology, as well as those who can’t get over its primitive design and game-play. It’s charming, it’ll make you smile, it’ll give you a feel or two (to use a phrase Jack would hate). Recommended.


3 Stars


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Love Books Group

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