When The Generation-Xers Hit Silicon Valley


From Chicago Tribune (June 25, 1995)

by Carolyn Alessio

At first glance, Douglas Coupland's new novel, "Microserfs," is merely an update of previous material: Generation-Xers with e-mail addresses. The book opens with a group of young men and women working at Seattle-based Microsoft, spending their days and nights programming so feverishly that they break only to eat "flat" foods, such as Kraft Singles and grape leather, that can be slid beneath their closed doors while they work. Periodically they make appointments to spend personal "FaceTime" with each other, but even these encounters degenerate into accusations over who has more discretionary time. Soon they are besieged with the same omnipresent malaise encountered by characters in Coupland's earlier books, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," "Shampoo Planet" and "Life After God." As Dan Underwood, the narrator of "Microserfs," says, "I'm 26, and I'm just not ready to turn 31.2 yet."

The heartening news, however, is that Coupland has outgrown his preoccupation with superficial angst. This is most apparent in the character of Dan Underwood. Compared to Coupland's previous narrators - Andy ("Generation X"), Tyler ("Shampoo Planet") and Scout ("Life After God")--Dan is the least jaded and the most appealing. He brings to mind a combination of Holden Caulfield and Walker Percy's Binx Bolling - self-deprecating, weary but wittily observant. He is passť enough to believe in love and its endurance. When one of the other characters describes the group in "Star Trek" terms, Dan is the "token earthling; prey to foibles and pratfalls of all humanity."

With Dan as recorder (the book is supposedly his journal stored on a PowerBook file), "Microserfs" profiles the group's exodus from Microsoft to Silicon Valley, where they embark on a private business venture. As refugees from Microsoft and the tyranny of "Bill!" , at first the group feels as though they're in the Witness Relocation Program.

The new company, Oop!, or Object Oriented Programming, is a brainchild of Michael, the group's acknowledged genius and leader. Explained to the reader in layman's terms, Oop! is "virtual Lego - a bottomless box of 3D Lego-type bricks that runs on IBM or Mac platforms with CD-ROM platforms." Once the product is completed, Oop! users will be able to build and fly and clone, all while sitting at their PCs.

The Oop! programmers prove to be even more compelling than their product, with the women consistently proving to be more innovative and versatile than their male colleagues. Susan, one of the more prominent characters, gains national attention when she establishes "Chyx," a support group for Valley women who code. The prerequisites for joining Chyx include: "fluency in two or more computer languages, a vagina, and a belief that Mary Tyler-Moore as Mary Richards in a slinky pantsuit is the worldly embodiment of God." Boasting a membership of 3,500 on the Net, Chyx provides each member with an Official Wristband made of knotted, "liberated" Barbie hair.

Sometimes it seems that Coupland is poking fun at modern women by endowing them with a superhuman repertoire of skills. Dusty, a bodybuilder and computer coder, also boasts a thorough knowledge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Karla, Dan's girlfriend, is also an ace coder as well as resident expert in shiatsu. In a rare moment of weakness, she admits to having played with Barbies as a child, though she claims to have given them "admirable" pursuits: "I took apart my brother's Hot Wheels and made a Barbie Toyota Assembly Plant," she tells Dan, "giving Barbie white overalls, a clipboard, and I provided jobs for many otherwise unemployed Americans."

Maybe Coupland should have focused exclusively on his entourage of quirky, larger-than-life programmers because he occasionally falters when he attempts to explicate the prevalence of technology in his characters' lives. In one scene, Michael informs the group:

"Memory has replaced technology - and this is not bad news. On the contrary, it's excellent news because it means we're no longer doomed to repeat our mistakes; we can edit ourselves as we go along, like an on-screen document. . .."

Dan's theories are more immediate and intriguing. In journal entries, he postulates that computer hacking is a modern sin, and that Bill Gates' eternally poker face represents the core of the nerd dream: ". . . power and money that lies at the center of the storm of technology . . . that doesn't have to express emotion or charisma, because emotion can't be converted into lines of code."

Notably, of all Coupland's books, "Microserfs" contains the fewest references to an apocalypse. In "Generation X," "Shampoo Planet" and "Life After God," the characters frequently detail their self-conscious versions of a final conflagration. At times, they even seem to yearn for such an event. But the moment when the characters in "Microserfs" come closest to witnessing an end is much more mundane and authentic: As a house down the hill burns, the programmers sit around on the veranda watching, drinking coffee and sitting on an old pool slide turned onto its side