Cyberspace cadets

Maclean’s, June 26, 1995 


By Douglas Coupland

(HarperCollins, 371 pages, $25)

Douglas Coupland may yet make people forget that he came up with the term “Generation X.” The title of Coupland’s first novel in 1990, it was instantly appropriated by demographers, journalists, advertisers, movie producers and trend-explainers. It was beaten to death through repetition and misapplication. Still, that novel expressed strikingly familiar situations, types and inchoate longings that many members of this atomized group had been convinced nobody else shared. That ability to detect the zeitgeist ahead of everyone else remains the core of Coupland’s fiction — including his new novel, Microserfs, a title that may well supplant Generation X as the hot new buzzword.


Microserfs began as an assignment a from Wired magazine — a glimpse into the working life at Bill Gates’ fabulously successful computer software development company, Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash. Coupland’s piece, which appeared in the January, 1994 issue, focused on the thousands of code-writers, bug-checkers, software wizards and mouse-jockeys who are changing the way humans work, one line of code at a time. In the novel. Coupland’s work as a magazine writer — with his reportorial eye for detail, nuance and telling fact — creates a vivid fictional landscape.


The story opens with narrator Daniel Underwood beginning to keep a journal as a means of understanding his explicable bouts of insomnia. At work, Daniel scans millions of lines of complex computer code seeking bugs to eliminate. But the glitches bedeviling his life are not so easily dispatched. Daniel is brilliant, but only within the confines of his vocation. “Isn’t there supposed to be more to life than this?” he wonders. So do his fellow “microserfs,” with whom Daniel shares a communal “geek house.” The answer, of course, is yes, but identifying that elusive “more” is tricky.


Soon, Daniel and his friends abandon the security of Microsoft to start their own software development firm. But this story is not some Horatio Alger-style climb via pluck and luck. Business success is seldom — if ever — in doubt. One of Coupland’s recurring themes is a “secret life” — a spiritual realm that lurks just beyond everyday perception. Slowly, the Microserfs discover chunks of that terrain and find they have, in fact, managed to “get a life.”


Much of the book’s strength lies in Coupland’s witty commentary on the mass culture flotsam and inane diversions that distract his characters from more profound concerns. The author’s take on pop trends is neither fetishistic nor mock-reverent. Nor, refreshingly, is it a cranky jeremiad. Instead, Coupland frequently mismatches pieces of popular culture in ironic collages. At one point, Daniel — after being chided by a Marxist co-worker for eating the cereal Lucky Charms, “symptomatic of a culture in decline” — writes a list of all the decadent cereals on a whiteboard at work. Under the heading Rice Krispies, he scrawls, “Snap, Krackle, and Pop thinly veiled emblems for the Trilateral Commission.”


By the conclusion of the novel. Coupland has achieved an emotional depth that, having sprung from deceptively banal ingredients, is both surprising and satisfying. As bright and detailed as a digital snapshot. Microserfs illuminates not only the particulars of life at the moment, but the larger, more troubling and constant conundrums of existence.