MICROSERFS

Douglas Coupland; HarperCollins, 384 pages, $23.00
In spirit, Douglas Coupland is one of the least Gen-Xish writers around. Call it ironic if you want to.

Although he drenches his novels in pop-culture references that make him sound casually hip, he's genuinely concerned with young people's need to create a sense of community or family out of the resources at hand, when the traditional structures break down. And as he explicitly stated in his previous book, Life After God, he's concerned with our need for a relationship with God -- again a need that tradition can no longer satisfy, although it remains as powerful as it was for previous generations who turned instinctively to organized religion.

Through the first hundred or so pages, Microserfs doesn't seem involved with these issues; it reads like an engaging but shallow lifestyle piece on Microsoft/Silicon Valley up-and-comers. I figured Coupland needed a break after the intensity and personal commitment that obviously went into Life After God; that he needed to ground himself, do research, write about the day-to-day lives of people other than himself.

But slowly the usual Coupland concerns insinuate themselves, at first through the serene sweetness of the narrator, a 26-year-old computer geek named Daniel. Like many of Coupland's main characters, Daniel, while thoroughly attuned to the culture around him, still possesses a joyfulness and an easy sense of wonder that make him seem a little angelic and otherworldly. Soon we realize that Coupland is just adding a new twist to his usual preoccupations. This time, he explores how people relate to computers -- how computers help us in our quest for togetherness with man and God, and in so doing, what kind of bonds we'll build with them directly.

Microserfs follows the adventures of a group of young (ages range from 20-31) coders and debuggers who leave the secure but life-sapping, corporate-Japan-like confines of Seattle's Microsoft to start a company in the Bay area, developing a multimedia construction kit resembling digital Legos. As they often mention with alternating pride and regret (though never outright terror), none of them "have a life." They work 12 hours or more a day, they go to "geek parties" where conversations revolve around the history of the revered Apple Corp. and the latest consumer electronics. They don't (up until now) date, fall in love or have sex (except for Todd, a bodybuilder adept at meaningless pickups).

But Daniel falls in love -- with Karla, a Microsoft employee who also makes the move south. The shock of finding himself in a relationship leads Daniel to question his existence, but within a technological framework. Instead of just working to ship product and make money (the Microsoft paradigm), his continuing metaphysical conversations with Karla give him a new purpose: working to create something new and useful and beautiful (something "1.0"), technology that changes the world, liberating people's creativity and their ability to communicate (the Apple paradigm).

Daniel and his friends discuss computers as both powerful agents of revolution and as personified teddy bears -- Michael, the leader of the start-up company, gets angry when he hears that Japanese corporations turn out the lights in their factories, figuring robots can work just as well in the dark. Many in the group come from dysfunctional families, and their love of computers bonds them into the most caring family they've known.

But geek life is different in the Valley -- in Seattle tech workers accepted their roles as socially maladjusted geniuses and regimented their otherwise unfulfilling lives around coding, but in California nerds wear Armani and drive Porsches, flaunting the role reversal that has them hiring and firing the kind of people who beat them up in junior high. Geeks are sexy and desirable here, and the newbies at first don't know how to respond. Slowly, through the creative energies unleashed by the startup venture and their coming together as family, they learn.

One strange but key factor in their getting-a-life process involves their physical bodies. Midway through the book a second bodybuilder joins the cast, and Daniel starts going to the gym. There's also much discussion of shiatsu massage and "the body as hard drive," storing memories in muscles so that they don't clutter up the brain.

This is not ususal geek talk; bodies are supposed to be just the unfortunate meat our brains come packaged in. It's hard to figure out what Coupland's getting at -- does he mean that we can only understand the transforming power of technology when we're at peace with our own bodies? That we should resign ourselves to the superficial body-consciousness of the material world? Or that obsession with the body is a natural reaction to technology's devaluation of the body? At any rate, Michael, the group's one true computing genius, remains pasty, pudgy and ill-dressed throughout, and yet his perceptions of human nature are the most profound.

In the novel's conclusion, the human body turns on us. In Life After God Coupland implied that while education and intellect may allow us to understand the day-to-day world, only faith can help us make sense of things on the days when tragedy strikes.

When tragedy strikes in Microserfs, the characters discover that they have a faith. Their faith involves -- but goes far beyond -- computers, and in response to tragedy they make a computer do something so simple and beautiful and world-changing that you may never see your Mac the same way again. You will want to go home, right now, and hug it.

Microserfs begins with nothing but computers, then touches on everything in the universe and comes back, much wiser, to computers in the end. For those of us who talk rapturously about computers at dinner parties, it's a terribly important trip to take.

--Benjamin Cohen


A Hotel in San Felipe, the Web's only Douglas Coupland archive.

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