|Today's geeks find what it all means|
From The San Francisco Examiner (June 15, 1995)
by Sam Hurwitt
Douglas Coupland may be on to something.
The author of the bestsellers "Generation X," "Shampoo Planet" and "Life After God" is best known as the reluctant yet prolific spokesman for the media- savvy twentysomething set. Some have suggested that the media determined the years in which this much-maligned generation was born to be 1961 through 1981 just to squeeze Coupland in on the older end of the scale.
Call him a "slacker" and he'll withdraw in disgust; tell him to get a life, and he won't blink an eye. While "get a life" may be the catch phrase for the '90s, actually having a life is, well, totally '50s. As Coupland asserted in Vogue Magazine UK last August, the old conception of a life as 2.5 kids and a company car just doesn't apply anymore. Like many in his age group, he's been trying to figure out what to do with his life if he's not going to have one, per se.
He may have found the answer with "Microserfs," his fictional account of the lives of Microsoft employees who have flown the coop, packed up the truck and moved to the Valley (Silicon, that is, Pentium chips, screen savers), to start their own company. The narrator, Daniel Underwood, leaves Microsoft for a company launched by his housemate Michael, a genius whose long spurts of software coding in hermetic seclusion have given him a passion for foodstuffs flat enough to be slipped under a locked door. Coupland sees the future of human contentment in today's geeks, people who work 26 hours a day and make jokes about decimal places.
Something seems to have come out of the clumsy metaphysical dabblings in Coupland's 1994 collection of short stories, "Life After God." The characters in that book wandered blindly in search of meaning, something beyond the "I Dream of Jeannie" irony of a generation raised by television sets. In contrast, the techies in "Microserfs" seem to find meaning without even knowing they're looking for it.
Coupland is clearly of the opinion that technology can save the world. His characters try to advance the technology not out of greed but as an exercise of faith. "If you can conceive of humans developing a consciousness more complex than their own, then BINGO, you believe in progress whether or not you even think so," Michael says.
But the obvious question remains unanswered. Progress toward what? Daniel expresses wonder at the fact that beanbag chairs still exist, pity that his mother's knowledge of video games begins and ends with Pong, and concern for his father, who has become "obsolete." Technology provides a genuine personal miracle at the end of the book, but for the most part the merit inherent in the march of science and culture is taken for granted.
For Coupland, the redemptive power of technology seems to center on the degree to which his characters tailor-make their own lives: laboring fanatically, day in, day out, to create a software equivalent of Legos; creating their own social norms by only associating with other techies; even creating new personas for themselves in the text-based world of the Internet.
Much as Coupland enjoys mocking the omnipresent hype surrounding the "information superhighway," he's clearly excited about the way the Internet is revamping people's conception of identity. He posits that the identity you create for yourself on the Net, regardless of its relation to your life in the outside world, is you in the truest sense. One of his characters falls in love through e-mail without knowing even the age or gender of his beloved.
Daniel and company strongly believe in the Net's power to change society even as they're sick to death of the way the media plays it up, mirroring Coupland's own love-hate relationship with the Generation X media blitz.
The novel is written in the form of entries in Daniel's computerized journal, and Coupland succeeds in making us believe in his narrator's cynical idealism and media-filtered sense of wonder. The terminology is unexpectedly intelligible, lapsing into technical jargon only where its context makes the meaning clear.
Coupland's love for lists comes into play, producing such gems as analyses of all the characters in terms of what powers they'd have on "Star Trek" and what their seven dream categories would be on "Jeopardy," great fast-food-related tag lines for e-mail messages and a list of breakfast cereals that have commercials containing subliminal imperialist propaganda.
His breezy humor and pop-culture-saturated world view are tempered by a simple and powerful appreciation for the good in people. There are no great Words of Wisdom to be found within these pages, but there is depth and feeling, which is perhaps more important. And, as usual, there's more product placement than you can shake a Nerf bat at.
Enjoyable as it is, I wish there were a little more of Coupland's prose. At least 101 of the novel's 371 pages are pure filler: quasi-random phrases in large typeface, empty or half-empty pages, and gobbledygook (entire pages filled with binary code, a single repeated word, or journal entries rendered illegible by computer glitches).
The novel developed from a short story that appeared in the January 1994 issue of Wired magazine, and detractors might say that it never quite became full grown. Then again, Daniel and his housemates speed-read subtitled movies on fast forward because movies take too long. Who has the time to read a full-length novel? Maybe it's true what they say about the short attention span of the average GenXer; I'd find that depressing, if I could keep my mind on it