Microslaves Amerika Online

Review of Douglas Coupland's Microserfs

Mark Amerika
(orginally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer)

In the early 1990's, three unexpected cultural events occured that helped define the emerging generation of twentysomethings who were trying to create their own brand of counterculture activity. Not quite as idealistic as their Sixties-styled parents, the most prominent feature of this new generation of culture-consumers was their outright cynicism toward the dim future they saw on the economic horizon.

One of these important events was the release of a movie out of Austin by an unknown film director named Richard Linklater. The movie, SLACKER, became an immediate underground sensation with its portrayal of restless, philosophically-inclined youth whose emotional disenfranchisement was predicated upon bad job opportunities and post-yuppie angst. There was also the explosion of the sub-pop music scene out of Seattle and the rapid absorption of alternative rock music from bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden into the mainstream. MTV's rock-around-the-clock rotation was now featuring high school cheerleaders at mock pep rallies jumping up and down in leather jackets with big anarchy signs emblazoned on them.

Perhaps the most overused and marketed slogan to come out of this new cultural phenomenon was the term Generation-X, which was borrowed from the title of a novel by Douglas Coupland, whose characterization of North America as a McJob-saturated, shallow landscape full of wayward youth, helped depict the sense of uneasiness and malaise brewing within in the hearts and minds of young adults emerging from the streets of suburbia.

Coupland, whose _Generation X_ went on to become a mass-market best-seller and who recently wrote a eulogy to the whole concept of Generation X in _Details_ magazine, has just released his fourth novel, _Microserfs_, a contemporary look at the other side of economic disenfranchisement, that is, those lucky few Gen-Xers who have the necessary computer skills and workaholic inclination to get and keep good jobs in the high-tech industry.

The book opens inside the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where a small group of programmers are locked in their offices trying to finish up a software project whose shipping deadline is rapidly approaching. Meanwhile, the omniscient presence of Bill (as in Bill Gates, the richest man in America and owner of Microsoft), pervades their mental working space and keeps them glued to their screens, sometimes for days on end. The characters refer to these nonstop work sessions as "taking a trip" to Australia or Europe, as if their total lack of sleep set their biological clocks in foreign time zones. Their jobs are their lives and even though they all live together in a rented house, finding quality down-time is a rarity as work becomes the end-all be-all of their twentysomething existence.

All throughout the pages of Coupland's tragicomic tale, one gets the sense that these new Gen-X nerds are really just rehashed yuppies from the 80's and that just like their yuppified forebears, they really have no meaning in their lives and are lost in an Age of Insignificance. Whereas money may not be the chief motivator, the so-called "cool" projects they work on come across as nothing but substitutes for a life that begs for excitement. At one point in the story, our narrator, the sensitive and witty Dan, explains what this all means:

Many geeks don't really have a sexuality--they just have work. I think the sequence is that they get jobs at Microsoft or wherever right out of school, and they're so excited to have this "real" job and money that they just figure that the relationships will naturally happen, but then they wake up and they're thirty and they haven't had sex in eight years.

He then goes on to explain that the primary relationship for these yuppie wannabes is very basic: it's Geek and Machine. As Marlon Brando says at the end of Apocalypse Now, "the horror, the horror."

The story takes on an interesting spin as the Micro-slaves decide to leave the comfort and stability provided by the Microsoft corporate headquarters and move to Silicon Valley and start their own company. Their project is to develop a new game called Oop! Oop! , it ends up, is just an excuse for these lost-and-lonely characters to stay together and support each other through the strange times they're growing up in.

Much of _Microserfs_ reads like a 70's situation comedy with 90's themes. There's all kinds of puns and wisecracks about the newly abused phrase of the year, The Information Superhighway. And there are plenty of references to TV shows, fast-food commercials, pop music and Silicon Valley mythology.

People in the high-tech industry will buy this book in batches. It will make a great birthday present for the Geek in your life. But despite all the humor laced throughout its pages, _Microserfs_ is a sad story about the decline of both imagination and values in a crass commercial culture.