1993. Gameboys, Pentiums, Nerf guns, The Simpsons.
…and of course very many other things too. Encountering these things, which have only relatively recently lost their battle with contemporaneity but which are simultaneously as dated as sepia photographs, is a large part of the charm of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs — a delightful snapshot of culture, especially geek culture, in the early 90s.
The novel, which consists of the protagonist’s computer-written diary entries, centres around a group of programmer friends who are working at Microsoft in Seattle, idolising Bill Gates, and living in a shared house. After a bout of existential angst, they head south to Silicon Valley to work for a start-up that one of their number has devised and set up (basically Minecraft). No longer content to suck the corporate teat, they’ve grabbed at a chance to be “one point oh”.
There isn’t really too much plot beyond that. Things happen, people date, capital is sought, and, eventually, their start up is a success, but, really, it’s all just an excuse for Coupland to make generally witty and usually insightful observations about this time, these places, and the increasing ubiquity and importance of computers. Luckily, the characters are all highly intelligent nerdy types so these observations and musings emerge pretty naturally through conversation (rather than feeling like infodumps). Amongst many other things, we hear about the singularity (though there’s no mention of Roko’s basilisk), the mediation of personality and identity through on-line communication, and the place of human memory in a world of increasingly vast digital storage. We learn that “In Los Angeles everyone’s writing a screenplay. In New York everyone’s writing a novel”, and that “In San Francisco, everyone’s developing a multimedia product”. Clearly, multimedia was the industry buzzword of the day — it crops up a lot in the book. There’s also a lot of scoffing at the term “Information Superhighway”, which is now so redundant that it seems odd to scoff at it. To a large extent (cultural inertia?), the internet and related concepts are still almost science-fictional and “of the future”. Because of this, it’s surprisingly jarring to encounter terms and concepts that are very definitely internet related, but which are even more definitely dated. I found it hilarious when confusion over what exactly the word “bollocks” means necessitated emailing someone in England. Yes, email may be the new hotness, but the web is still in its infancy and Wikipedia isn’t even a glint in Jimmy Wales’ eye.
I usually like a little more plot, drama, and characterisation in my novels, but I still found Microserfs very enjoyable. It’s funny. It’s…interesting. And it’s aimed directly at your nostalgia pressure points. Recommended.
P.S. One more gag I enjoyed: The potential existence of a subset of diseases solely contracted by Type A people, the vector for which is the door close buttons on elevators that are only pushed by the chronically impatient.