Off the Bookshelf: The Unicorn Project, Bone Silence, Arcana of the Ancients

Nuketown’s summer reading list for 2020 is in full effect. In May and June, I finished two books – The Unicorn Project and Bone Silence – and picked up Arcana of the Ancients, a hefty new science fantasy RPG  sourcebook for my new lunchtime campaign.

The Unicorn Project

The Unicorn Project (Amazon), Gene Kim’s follow-up to The Phoenix Project (Amazon) takes place alongside the earlier book. It’s like the Ender’s Shadow (Amazon) of the IT workflow/productivity fiction genre (which is so niche it may only contain these two books). It follows Maxine, an experienced application developer, as she’s forced to take the fall for the payroll outage that kicked off The Phoenix Project novel and is transferred to that novel’s namesake clusterfrak. She serves as an avatar of modern IT practices who finds herself in the very traditional, pre-DevOps world where IT Development and IT Operations don’t talk to each other, version control is non-existent and/or poorly managed, no one regularly tests their code, and pushing to production is a Herculean task.

The setup makes Maxine feel like something of a Mary Sue – she’s the self-confident, do-anything developer who always has the right answer. At the same time though, she is coming from a higher-functioning unit. I’ve had similar experiences in my professional life, and I have to say, radically shifting work cultures caused me to have similar intellectual whiplash.

The purpose of The Phoenix Project was to illustrate and teach the Three Ways of DevOps, as outlined in Using The DevOps Three Ways To Do Laundry:

  • The First Way – Work always flows in one direction – downstream.
  • The Second Way – Create, shorten and amplify feedback loops.
  • The Third Way: Continued experimentation, in order to learn from mistakes, and achieve mastery.

For The Unicorn Project, Kim offers the Five Ideals that build on the ideas in the earlier book:

  • The First Ideal – Locality and Simplicity
  • The Second Ideal – Focus, Flow, and Joy
  • The Third Ideal – Improvement of Daily Work
  • The Fourth Ideal – Psychological Safety
  • The Fifth Ideal – Customer Focus

In The Phoenix Project, the authors echoed the structure of Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s The Goal, which was a novel from the 1980s that fictionalized introducing Lean principles into a manufacturing plant. It followed a mentor/mentoree model in which the mentor periodically showed up to dole out advice and pose tough questions before disappearing for a few chapters. Kim tries the same structure here, but it’s not as successful (partially because we already saw that trick in the Phoenix Project, and partially because this time around, the mentor simply gives them the answers.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable read and it gave me some ideas for my own day job, but The Phoenix Project is the better book.

Bone Silence

Bone Silence (Amazon), the third novel in Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger series, returns us to the universe of the Congregation and solar system in which the major planets have been dismantled and replaced by thousands of orbital habitats. Civilization has risen and fallen multiple times, leaving behind valuable detritus to those willing to risk dangers terrible and strange. In the last book, the local economy was inadvertently smashed by the “we’re not pirates … but we’re totally pirates” crew of the black-sailed Revenger.

I loved the first book in this series because it was full of exploration of baubles; worlds with ancient secrets and fantastic technology that had been locked away from the regular universe. These baubles, protected by esoteric shields and other wards, only opened to outsiders for narrow bands of time. Delvers such as the crew of the Revenger would explore these worlds, trying to claim their secrets and the precious, coin-like quoins. The second and third books drifted further and further from such worlds, focusing instead on the setting’s larger meta mystery of the rise and fall of civilizations. I was disappointed that the third book didn’t return to the babbles, but its faster pace and satisfying conclusion mostly made up for that. That said, I’d happily buy a collection of short stories about bauble exploration and if I ever run another Numenera campaign, I’m stealing that idea.

Arcana of the Ancients

The Gamer Working Group, my lunchtime gaming group, is playing a homegrown science fantasy game powered by Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a hexcrawl-style campaign inspired by Gamma WorldMad Maxand a host of other post-apocalyptic sources, but hewing closer to the fantasy aspects of The Dying Earth or Thundarr the Barbarian. It’s also got a little Spelljammer and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks thrown in.

Coming along in perfect time for the campaign is Monte Cook Games’ Arcana of the Ancients. Drawing heavily from Numenera, but with Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules, the sourcebook introduces science-powered artifacts, mutations, and other strangeness to D&D. It’s exactly the sort of book I was looking for. I just started paging through it, but I’ve already found a few monsters to add to hexes as well as a random mutations table that is definitely coming into play at some point.

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Cover art from Arcana of the Ancients. Credit: Monte Cooke Games.

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