Learning to grow up and go to work with kids of Generation X


From Rocky Mountain News (July 9, 1995)

by Michael Saunders

Stagnant is a kind description of the disaffected young adults of Douglas Coupland's first book, 1991's Generation X. His aimless college graduates seemed stunned by onrushing reality, unprepared to face a life said to hold less promise for them than it did for their parents.

Some became stuck in soul-sapping entry-level jobs; others, such as the driven drones of Coupland's latest novel, Microserfs, burrowed inside mega- companies where they remained nonentities until they blossomed into the "Microserfs" of Microsoft, the giant software company.

Their creative minds laboriously assemble the Byzantine lines of instructions that tell our computers how to do what we want. It's the '90s version of an auto-plant assembly line. Coupland broadens his characters into things resembling whole people, more than just witty layabouts who shop at the Gap between recitations of '70s sitcom trivia. This novel is an accurate look at a thriving subculture.

The story is told by Daniel Underwood, a 26-year-old bug checker who lives in a rented split-level ranchhouse with five other Microsoft employees. They form a sort of revolutionary cell when one of them develops the kernel of a brilliant program. This idea forces each person into a tough decision: Do what you hate and live comfortably, or do what you love and scrape by. Daniel leads the group as they remanufacture a childhood plaything into visionary software.

Even that four-letter word, love, so rarely discussed in Generation X, is here. There's a resonance to Karla's revelation that her parents always treated her as if she were dumber than her average-IQ brother. Todd wants to transform his body into the perfect machine. At 26, Underwood must deal with the approaching dependence of his parents, who are undergoing transformations of their own.

Pa Underwood is a victim of the Big Blue Boot - the downsizing at IBM that set adrift thousands of middle managers into a hostile job market. Ma Underwood is a librarian on the verge of obsolescence, attempting to rewire both mind and body.

Still, they are nontechies living in Silicon Valley, the central California breeding ground for computer hardware and software. Coupland writes: "here amid the ghosts of apricot orchards, spinach farms, and horse ranches - here inside the science parks, industrial areas, and cool, leafy suburbs. Here, where sexy new technologies are being blueprinted, engineered, imagineered, and modeled - post-machines making countless millions of people obsolete overnight."

It's left to the reader to decide whether this chip-made society is heaven or hell. Coupland's budding infolords just keep moving, keep growing.