Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland is one of Canada’s best selling writers both at home and internationally. That being said, I am a little surprised myself that I haven’t read any of his books before. I have a number of his works on my shelf, including his best known book, Generation X, but Microserfs really caught my eye and was just begging to be read, perhaps because of the LEGO on the cover (I was a huge LEGO geek as a child). This novel was written in 1993/94 and released the same week as Windows 95. As I was reading this, 16 years after it came out, I was amazed at how well Coupland captured the 90s and the beginning of the technological age. In certain parts it was almost as if Coupland had somehow peeked into the future before he wrote Microserfs. This novel has aged very well and I think it really is essential reading for someone looking to understand this part of the 90s.

Microserfs is written as the journal of Dan Underwood, which he keeps on his PowerBook. The narration reads like what today would be a blog; it switches smoothly between story telling and sidetracked vignettes that expand on the themes of the book. Being set in the early 90s in Silicon Valley, this novel takes place right on the precipice of monumental and world-altering change. The World Wide Web was a recent invention and not widely used yet, personal computers were only in a small percentage of households, and the number of new Information Technology start-ups that were emerging was mind-boggling. Coupland explores this world with such specific detail that you feel like you feel like you are a part of it.

The cast of the story are a group of computer geeks who are all incredibly talented at what they do and I think too smart for their own good. Their conversations range from mundane things like meals purchased late at night at the local Safeway to complex metaphysical topics like the nature of the human soul. The dialog is great and all of the characters are well developed. After the first chapter I thought that his might be a novel that is more character driven as opposed to story driven; after about 40 pages though the story really gets rolling and a lot starts to happen, creating the perfect balance of people and action.

Douglas Coupland makes a lot of predictions in his novel that eventually came to pass, including the proliferation of the personal computer and the web, the dot-com bubble and the collapse of much of the new wealth that was created in the early 90s, and the ad nauseum syndication of The Simpsons. The writing and prose of the book reads very smoothly; the author plays around a lot with the fact that novel is the journal of a super-intelligent computer geek, including a 2 page homage to the Apple computer Lisa completely in binary, use of emoticons, which were still very new in 1993, and creative use of fonts.  I think Microserfs is a more relevant book now than when it was originally written. In 1995 it was a humorous examination of current Silicon Valley culture; now, in 2011, this book is a detailed document of the beginning of this new historical epoch which we are living in.

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