A true story of innovation, centered on a scrappy team of engineers—far from the Silicon Valley limelight—and their quest to achieve a surprisingly difficult technological feat: building a robot that can lay bricks.
Waldman is clearly exhilarated by the story he’s telling, and his zest comes through in the book’s best turns of phrase ...
That said, SAM poses some stumbling blocks for the lay reader. An index and glossary would have come in handy to help keep track of all the acronyms and specialized vocabulary Waldman uses ... to fully understand the book’s details requires constant Googling. Elsewhere, Waldman’s word choice can seem off ... The book’s incidental pleasures include Waldman’s visit to the annual 'World of Concrete' trade show where Construction Robotics introduced SAM. Details on the U.S. Brick Olympics and International Brick Collectors Association offer quirky surprises, too.
All in all, SAM reveals a world that surrounds us but mostly eludes our notice – and that’s quite a feat.
When grand vision meets repeated humiliation we usually get tragedy or comedy. But SAM is not sad, or funny ha-ha. It is peculiar, though ... some major tonal weirdness. Waldman seems determined to write an epic entrepreneurship tale — and it blinds him to the reality of poor SAM, while rendering Scott Peters nearly mute ... the monotony of chapters devoted to each gig exposes the book’s most inexplicable flaw — the chasm between what Waldman reveals and what he withholds ... What’s missing is Peters’s voice ... The scarcity of the protagonist’s voice is so bizarre that it becomes a distraction. Did author and subject have an arrangement restricting quotes? Was Waldman not present for many of the events he recounts? Is Scott Peters … a robot? ... If Peters’s absence is mystifying, the lack of key financial facts in a book about entrepreneurship is unforgivable.
Mr. Waldman follows all the drama like a fly on a brick wall, richly reporting scenes and conversations, many on job sites where both circuitry and civility break down. The book is reminiscent of a reality-TV show about a scrappy startup, complete with backstory segments as we learn the pasts and personalities of each new hire. There are also a lot of digressions—the history of the bricklayers union, how much pinboys at bowling alleys were tipped, how literal sausages are made, Mr. Peters’s 16th-century ancestors, his high-school swim coach’s career as a famous-in-Japan professional wrestler. None of it is boring, exactly, but the book is not in a hurry to get anywhere ... Despite its themes of technological advancement, the book is above all a human-interest tale. Sure, automation could reduce injury and speed construction, but there’s much to celebrate in quirk and inefficiency. That goes even for bricks.