One unXceptional trip too many


From The Ottawa Citizen (July 2, 1995)

by Joy Gugeler

Douglas Coupland's Micro-serfs is another trip to the Generation X, unXceptional, high-tech, low-energy trough, and this, the fourth time milking the New Age cash cow, yields even less.

It is 1993, well past the dawn of the computer age. In fact, the worker bees at Microsoft are oblivious to time, heads buried in modules, megabytes and minipuffs. Enter Daniel, a microserf enslaved by Progress, 26 and earning less than $ 25,000 despite brilliance, begging and billions of hours of overtime. Daniel lives and works with several other misfits of equal geekiness (not to be confused with nerdiness which is infinitely worse) in Seattle for the dictator of digital, Bill Gates, on a "campus" where they mow the lawn every 10 minutes and slip junk food under office doors.

He is accompanied by a horde of other indentured servants: Michael, a mystical genius, a Rush fan, and wannabe son to Daniel's unemployed father; Karla, Daniel's brainy girlfriend/masseuse, a cynic, an optimist and a wit; Todd, a workhorse dedicated to power weightlifting, communism, megavitamins and a female clone of himself named Dusty; Susan, founder of the e-mail mega user group Chyx, a frustrated feminist/romantic and often a serious grouch; Bug, so named for his ability to de-bug any code, a closet gay and embittered about the fate of Xerox; Ethan, a cut-throat marketing guru with suave appeal and skin cancer; and Abe, a child prodigy, a millionaire before 30.

They shop at Safeway for Skittles, Pop-tarts and slushies, drive Acuras, wear Gap gear and race home to catch re-runs of Jeopardy, Mary Tyler Moore and Deep Space Nine. They live on the cheap in the burbs, sans furniture (except the IKEA throwoffs and a trampoline in the front yard) and lament their lack of a life.

They are cynical, witty and often wise but they are not fun to live with, and certainly the pop-culture lingo wears pretty thin even when interrupted by pages of garbled type, repeated words, dollar signs and flashing logos dumped into the "subconscious file" as therapy for Daniel's insomnia. His diary forms the structure (not) for the book, interspersed with condensed dialogue, lists, and a graphic-less (been there, done that) relentless printout of text. An attempt at metafiction, or laziness?

The gang does engage in interesting tˆte-…-tˆtes about the future, the nature of modern civilization, the relationship between body and mind, and the possibility of the human machine perfected. Most of these can be attributed to Karla who is the most captivating of the nerd and nerdettes. What Coupland plants here is a source of untapped talent.

But when Michael moves to Palo Alto in the Silicon Valley to launch a brainchild computerized Lego-equivalent program called Oop! there is dissension in the ranks and the seeds of mutiny and rebellion are planted. Gradually all except Abe defect and head down the coast to cast their dreams and share equity into the plastic pot.

This means Daniel and his friends move in with his parents, two hamsters, their Powerbooks and a cart full of Simpsons. They work tirelessly (very unX- ish) and attempt contact with the outside world by attending Yuppie parties, working out at the club and having the occasional off-road adventure into virtually extinct parkland. They still don't have lives.

A few emotional trials persist - Daniel's drowned brother Jed, Bug's homosexuality, Ethan's cancer and Todd's hyperbody. But they seem atypical, contrived and uncharacteristically sentimental given their usual cocky, caddy egoism. This "facetime" is as hard to take seriously as a news bulletin about Rwanda jammed next to an infomercial for Chiapets.

The remaining 350 pages are as superficial as Crystal Pepsi flavoring and about as tasty. Granted there are some memorable one-liners and flashes of brilliance, but this does not a literary legend make. Maybe Coupland would rather be read in three hours for a few laughs than again and again 10 years from now. Maybe we should just wait for the video.

Perhaps built-in obsolescence is the new publishing ideal, not CD-ROM, talking books and interactive virtual reality book-games. If so, maybe he's made it.