Geeks get a life


From The Boston Herald (August 27, 1995)

by Judith Wynn

"I need God!" cries the hero of Douglas Coupland's whimsical new novel, "Microserfs," who finds "Bill" instead - Bill Gates, head of Microsoft.

As "Microserfs" begins, 26-year-old Daniel Underwood lives near Seattle with four other Microsoft "computer geeks." Sheltered behind high company walls, these overaged adolescents occupy themselves with Lego toys, pet hamsters and old Mary Tyler Moore TV reruns - not to mention the niftiest computers Bill can buy.

But corporate serfdom - even at prestigious Microsoft - isn't enough. When Daniel's computer-executive father is laid off by IBM, Daniel and his pals cash in their Microsoft stock and move to California to start their own software company - Oop! - in the rumpus room of Daniel's childhood home.

Unemployment and catastrophic illness show Daniel that it's his turn to be the adult in the Underwood family. In short, he "gets a life" and discovers love is "like this very, very nice car crash that never ends."

And that's pretty much the plot of "Microserfs." When 30-something Coupland's first novel, "Generation X," appeared in 1991, everyone expected him to become the official spokesman for angry, disaffected young America. Surprise! Subsequent novels and essays revealed a gentle, somewhat melancholy soul who loves birds and botany - and believes computers are civilization's last hope on this volatile, overcrowded planet.

"Microserfs"' charm and pathos lie in the droll socio-techno jargon Daniel and his friends use to mask their anxieties in postindustrial U.S. society. In one half-serious aside on the bland uniformity of Gap sportswear, we hear this:

"But it's maybe a li'l bit sad because this is all that democracy's rilly been reduced to: the ability to purchase the illusion of cohesive citizenry for $ 34.99 (belt included)."

Daniel still grieves for a younger brother who drowned years ago in a boating accident. He also falls into sibling rivalry with a colleague who hires Daniel's father to work at Oop! Slowly but surely, Daniel re-engineers a new family from the old one - "Oop! isn't about work. It's about all of us staying together."

"Microserfs" affectionately blends 1970s pop culture with 1990s practicalities to tell a hopeful story about a group of eccentric entrepreneurs and how they bridged the generation gap and became the cyberlords of their own quirky destinies.