Microserfs: Of inhuman bondage


From The Montreal Gazette (June 17, 1995)

by Marlene Blanshay

The information revolution has fundamentally altered our society. The way we work, the way people interact, and much of what we do is mediated by technology. It has also saved an entire generation of workers from the unemployment line, but at a price. While it has provided well-paid jobs at prestigious companies to those willing to jump on to the high-tech route, it has also provided them with a corporate culture that has stressed and mechanized their lives.

Dehumanization was the focus of Generation X, Douglas Coupland's first best-seller, which addressed the plight of the young people born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, who, due to capricious demography, failed to reap the benefits of postwar prosperity. Eventually, they achieve liberation from dreary jobs only by escape - literally running away from home.

Microserfs, Coupland's latest novel, describes a similar dehumanization of six employees of Microsoft Corp., who work in what Dan Underwood, the 26- year-old narrator, describes as a "Logan's Run-like atmosphere," where the average age of the employees is 31.2.

Dan, a Microsoft bug-checker (a software engineer who examines new programs for possible flaws) lives with five other co-workers about seven miles from the Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus. All are part of a monolithic corporate culture under the benevolent dictatorship of Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, better known to his employees as "B-B-B-Bill!" Like an omnipotent cult leader or Charlie Brown's parents, Gates's influence on the lives of the characters is distant but profound. He is a major character who never actually appears, retaining a godlike distance throughout the novel.

Dan and his friends live in a state of suspended animation and serve a slavish devotion to producing code (software) and getting products shipped on time in the hope of promotion and the possibility of being offered valuable Microsoft stock options. The monotonous cycle of work and sleep is broken only by television and fast-food. The only green vegetables in the microserfs' diets are pickles and lettuce from all-dressed hamburgers. The pay is good but their "having-a-life factor" is almost nil, as Dan says, especially in the area of romantic involvement.

"I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around," he says, tapping out a stream-of-consciousness diary on his PowerBook on sleepless nights, while he worries about his father, recently fired by IBM, and nurses a deep-seated guilt over the death of his brother years earlier. Dan is eventually roused from robotic indifference when he falls under the spell of a fellow Microserf, Karla, who is not only brilliant but is also a shiatsu massage expert.

A meeting between Bill Gates and Dan's roommate Michael, the code genius, propels the group's leap out of mindless drudgery at Microsoft into a future of their own and ultimately humanization. The meeting lands Michael in California where he starts his own company to develop a computerized Lego simulator. The group heads off to California like the Beverly Hillbillies in search of wealth, down the I-5 to Silicon Valley, the Mecca of the computer industry.

Unfortunately, Coupland is more interesting than his naive and unworldly protagonist. Dan's voice is generic and inflectionless. Perhaps this is a reflection on the years of working at Microsoft, or of routine consumption of an increasingly homogenized popular culture. Once in California, the Emerald City of American pop culture, and away from the sci-fi atmosphere of Microsoft, the group spends more "face-time" with each other. The bits and pieces of their lives begin to form a whole the way pieces of code form a whole program - or Lego blocks can be used to build a toy house.

"All mammals look the same up until a certain point in their embryological development, until they start to differentiate and become what they're going to become," Dan muses. "I think we're at that point now."

The years of cerebral deprivation in Redmond have eroded the psyches of the Microserfs leaving their emotional development arrested. However, while they settle into their physical selves in California and begin to grow emotionally, most of the characters remain intellectually torpid. The humanization and emotional liberation they experience might be genuine in the context of their lives, but it resonates like a family sitcom, where everyone derives a lesson from their experiences and the family remains intact.

Microserfs is uneven, frothy and meandering in some spots, hilariously funny in others. Mercifully, it employs the hackneyed term "information superhighway" only two or three times