Build The Perfect Beast by Mark Christensen 
List Price: $26.95 
Hardcover - 381 pages (November, 2001) 
Thomas Dunne Books; ISBN: 0312268734
Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

I saw Build The Perfect Beast on a bookshelf, with its cover promise of "The quest to design the coolest car ever made" and an illustration of what was, to give designer Nick Pugh his due, a pretty cool looking roadster.

Looking at it stirred up all sorts of memories about working on sports cars and racing go-carts when I was a teenager, and suddenly I wanted to share the passion of car geekdom with all the technophiles who've dreamed of rockets and robots and all the sciffy stuff that we love. 

But it  didn't turn out to be the story I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be about how engineering talent and vision fuel the dream of a perfect high-performance car, one running on alternate fuels, with ultra low emissions, and going like a bat out of hell. A story of American ingenuity, love of technology, and team spirit.

I'm pretty sure that was the book Mark Christensen wanted to write too, since he had to live it  in real life before it could become a story. 

What Mark wound up writing is nothing less than an exposť of contemporary design and corporate structure. When a friend offered him a hundred grand to build the coolest car ever made, the author had no idea that it would embroil him in a world of financial wheeling and dealing, crackpot scientists, international socialites, car and real estate salesmen, lawyers, and above all, Nick Pugh, the hottest, and possibly least stable, car designer of the 90's.

If he could have seen a map of the terrain ahead, it would surely have been labeled; "Here there be dragons" along any road he might take.   

The autobiographical narrative spans the last decade of the twentieth century, with frequent backflips into the 50s, 'Nam, and the 60s. It's a dizzying ride along Mark's life, with no shortage of insights into himself, his relationship with his physician father, girls, and the price of dreams.

Towards the end of the book, and after a nearly endless series of debacles, Mark tells us that the whole experience taught him nothing. What he means is that he's just as willing to tilt after windmills as ever, but throughout the book what we learn is just how little the two principle characters, Mark and Nick Pugh, the genius designer, know about cars, business, engineering in general, and people.

But if living Build The Perfect Beast taught Mark nothing, it teaches us a lot.

Possibly without intending to, Christensen has written an important book not about cars, but about the high tech design process and virtual corporate structure.

Mark's real strength, he claims, is in recognizing raw talent. He once booked an unknown Alice Cooper to play at the college he was attending. He was the editor for Science Fiction writer John Shirley, who would go on to be a central voice in the cyberpunk movement, and he picked Nick Pugh, fresh out of the California Art Institute, to design the Perfect Beast.

When he sets out to fulfill his lifelong ambition, he doesn't clear out his garage and start welding struts together like some pre-WWII tinkerer. He sets out to find the people he needs to make it all work, welds them together with money, hope, enthusiasm, and a cluelessness that can only be found in California, and creates, briefly, a virtual car company out of investors, an onboard genius, contractors who actually know what they're doing, and a mad scientist or two.

That it all falls apart, visiting the author with financial ruin and more angst than he started with, isn't as much the point as that they actually built the car at all. Not only did they build it, but they literally changed the world of automotive design in the process as the impact of their work surfaced in design houses from Ford to Toyota, and in the work of generations of designers yet to come.

It doesn't take a lot of imagining to translate the whole thing laterally by industry, though not by geography, to get an idea of what the computer and software industry must have been like a decade ago. Well, except for the fact that people actually forked over money to invest in cyberbiz, and precious little gets actually handed to our heroes.

Christensen has no shortage of experience as a journalist or as a writer. He's been a  media columnist for the Rolling Stone, authored the media expose: "Sweeps: Behind The Scenes In Network TV", edited other up and coming writers, including SF/Cyberpunk legend John Shirley, and has done more glossy big name magazine articles than you can shake a stick shift at.

All that experience leaves the author full of ability, but his life on the sidelines watching, and the quest to redeem himself through the creation of this car imbues his writing with cynicism and angst.

The thing that stunned me the most was how little this hot new designer, sought out by Mazda, Ford, Ferrari, and no doubt other car companies for their design staffs, knew about cars. He appears to know nothing about engines, ergonomics, suspensions, construction techniques, aerodynamics, or stress analysis. At one point he admits that all he really wants is for his car to hang upside down in an art museum.

Engineers will only tell you the limits of what's feasible, and the closer to a limit they come, the more uncomfortable they get. In order for cars to be interesting, they have to be outrageous, and to get outrageous, you can't listen to engineers. At least not rational ones.

We've been looking down the barrel of this future for over half a century actually, especially when it comes to cars. Little of American car design has had any utility since WWII, when style supplanted engineering and cars grew fins and taillights that looked like rocket thrusters. Frank Lloyd Wrights houses have been criticized as notoriously hard to live in, and the book makes it clear that Pugh aspires to the same brand of art. 

Of course SF has long known about this, and stories like Frederik Pohl's classic, The Space Merchants, have delved into it nicely.

Throughout the story, Mark Christensen drives home the feeling that for all their original intent, it's not about the car at all, but about the egos of the players. For the insights it delivers into California's car culture and the closest thing to a dot com on wheels, Build The Perfect Beast delivers mercilessly, but for a better look at technology as the expression of ideal form, see if you can find your old dog eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In the end, Build the Perfect Beast isn't the fairy tale I wanted it to be. Instead it's a story about the way things are, after the magic went away.

 

© 2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu