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Microserfs
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Author Douglas Coupland
Cover artist William Graef
Country Canada
Language English
Genre Epistolary novel
Publisher Regan Books, HarperCollins
Publication date
June, 1995
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 371 pp (Hardback)
ISBN 0-06-039148-0 (USA hardback), ISBN 0-00-224404-7 (Canada hardback)
Preceded by Life After God
Followed by Polaroids from the Dead

Microserfs, published by HarperCollins in 1995, is an epistolary novel by Douglas Coupland. It first appeared in short story form [1]as the cover article for the January, 1994 issue of Wired and was subsequently expanded to a full novel length[2]. Set in the early 1990s, it captures a moment in the historical progress of technology. It captures the state of the technology industry before Windows 95, but it also predicts the dot com boom and plunge of the late 1990’s.

The novel is presented in the form of diary entries maintained on a PowerBook by the narrator, Daniel. Because of this, as well as its formatting and usage of emoticons, this novel is similar what emerged a decade later as to the modern blog format, although the novel's setting for the most part predates the widespread usage of the web.

Coupland revisits many of the ideas in Microserfs in his 2006 novel JPod, a book that has been labeled “Microserfs for the Google generation”.


Plot Synopsis[edit]

The plot of this novel has two distinct movements: the events in Redmond, Washington and the Microsoft campus, and the movement to Silicon Valley and the Oop! Project.

The novel begins in Redmond, Washington as the characters are working on different projects at Microsoft’s main location. A large collection of the main characters are living together in a “geek house”, and their lives are dedicated to their projects. The characters in the house are Daniel, the narrator, Susan, Todd, Bug, Michael and Abe.

Life at the Microsoft campus feels like a feudalistic society, with Bill Gates as the lord, and the employees the serfs. The characters feel that their lives are genuinely dedicated to their company. Daniel’s foundations are shaken when his father, a long time employee of IBM is laid off from his job. The life span of a Microsoft coder weighs heavily on Daniel’s mind. It is interesting to note that the mid-90's marked the point where Microsoft eclipsed IBM as the dominant player in technology.

The second movement of the novel begins when the characters are offered a job in Silicon Valley working on a project for one of their friends, Michael, who has earlier in the novel moved down to the Valley. The characters, some immediately, some after some thought, decide to move down to Silicon Valley.

The characters lives change drastically from the limited sphere of the Microsoft campus. The characters enter into a new world vastly different from the world they left. They have entered the world of “One-Point -Oh”. The characters’ lives begin to transform with the relocation as they begin to work on a project called “Oop!” (a reference to object-oriented programming). Oop! is a Lego-like design program, allowing dynamic creation of many objects. Coupland actually appears on the rear cover of the novel's hardcover versions in Denmark's LegoLand holding a Lego 747.

The first movement of the book illustrates the stagnation of the characters while working at Microsoft. The second movement of the book is about the characters’ growth as people.

One of the undercurrents of the novel’s plot is Daniel and his family’s relationship to Jed, Daniel’s deceased brother who died in a boating accident while still young. The relationship between Daniel and his brother progresses throughout the entire novel and is a focal point for many of Daniel’s thoughts, both conscious and his subconscious.

Characters[edit]

Daniel 
The book's narrator and main character. Initially a software tester for Microsoft. His thoughts are funneled into the book through the epistolary format of the novel. His thoughts are also exposed through his “Computer Subconscious” files, as he records stream of consciousness lists of terms he believes exist in a computers subconscious, which are interspersed throughout the novel, a technique that echoes text strategies used by American artist, Jenny Holzer, and the cut-and-paste techniques of William Burroughs and David Bowie.
Susan 
A programmer initially working for Microsoft. Throughout the novel, Susan attempts to find and maintain a meaning to life outside of work, not always successfully. She eventually gains semi-celebrity status after founding a group called Chyx, a support group for Valley women who code.
Todd 
A tester and coworker of Daniel who is obsessed with bodybuilding and is continually searching for something to believe in. His family is a very Christian family, while Todd has rejected his parent’s faith. His obsession with body building is a replacement for this.
Bug 
A tester and coworker of Daniel — "the World's Most Bitter Man". He is older than most of the other characters, and likes to remind them of his greater experience in the software industry. Eventually he comes out of the closet. His primary reason for leaving Microsoft for Oop! was to "leave the old me behind" and start over.
Michael 
A highly gifted programmer with high-functioning Autism initially working for Microsoft. Michael's decision to leave Microsoft and found a software start-up company is the impetus that changes the lives of the characters of the novel. Michael lives on a "Flatlander" diet, meaning he eats only things that are two dimensional; this began after a period during which he barred himself in his office, eating only what his co-workers slid under the door. His screen name is "Kraft Singles". Michael is addicted to taking large doses of Robitussin cough mixture, which contains the dissociative drug dextromethorphan.
Karla 
A coder, coworker, and girlfriend of Daniel. Karla's developing relationship with Daniel forms a major component of the novel. Karla’s relationship with her family is very fragmented; she actively avoids seeing her family. She begins the story as a closed off person, but as the novel unfolds, her character begins to be more open and understanding. She also has a history of an eating disorder.
Abe 
MIT graduate coder who stays with Microsoft when the rest of the characters leave for California. His emails with Daniel are an integral part of the novel. The emails are presented with spelling mistakes and formatted differently, presenting a realism within themselves.


Anatole 
French coder who is Daniel's neighbor and used to work for Apple. Although not an Oop! employee, he visits the team often and even accompanied them to Las Vegas for the CES convention. Anatole is the only coder of the group that has been to Las Vegas more than once. His accent becomes stronger around women. Anatole creates a connection between the characters and Apple, in the same way that Abe maintains the connection between the characters and Microsoft.
Ethan 
President and co-founder of Oop!, primarily business-minded, has been a millionaire three times over with various (later failed) projects. He devotes his time to seeking venture capital for the startup company. Ethan's personality is diametrically opposed to the other characters, in part because of his relative lack of technical knowledge. He suffers from bad dandruff and his skin is pocked by scars remaining from cancer removal procedures.
Dusty 
Female bodybuilder and coder who is introduced later in the novel. She is romantically involved with Todd, and they have a baby together (Lindsay). Becomes an employee at Oop! She and Todd are obsessed with creating their bodies to be perfect "machines" by going to the gym every day and taking protein pills and drinks.
Lindsay 
Dusty and Todd's infant daughter.
Daniel's Father 
A mid-level manager at IBM who represents an older generation of technical workers. After being laid off, he begins to work closely with Michael on a secret project that evokes feelings of jealousy from Daniel.
Daniel's Mother 
A librarian with little technical knowledge who serves to give the group insight into what the laypeople understand about technology.
Jed 
Daniel's younger brother who died in a childhood drowning accident. He is referenced in the book, and is a looming presence in Daniel's mind throughout. The relationship between Daniel and his brother, as well as his family’s relationship to Jed, is a large undercurrent to the novel’s plot.
Misty 
The Underwoods' overweight dog. She was originally trained to be a seeing eye dog, but did not pass her exam because she was too affectionate.

Influences[edit]

Microsoft, Silicon Valley, And Geek Culture[edit]

Coupland lived in Redmond, Washington for six weeks and Palo Alto, Silicon Valley for four months researching the lives of workers at Microsoft’s campus. [4] [5] [6] “It was a ‘Gorillas in the Mist” kind of observation… What do they put in their glove compartments? What snack foods do they eat? What posters are on their bedroom walls?” [7] He also had input from friends within the Microsoft and Apple world who helped him with research.[8]

The novel itself was a radical departure from Coupland’s previous novel, “Life After God”. “I wrote the two book s under radically different mind-sets, and Serfs was a willful rerouting into a different realm”.[9] Coupland first noticed that his art school friends were working in computers in 1992. [10] From here, he became interested in Microsoft and started to research it.

Digital Faith[edit]

Coupland’s research however, found links to the themes of Life After God. “What surprised me about Microsoft is that no one has any conception of an afterlife. There is so little thought given to eternal issues that their very absence make them pointedly there. These people are so locked into the world, by default some sort of transcendence is located elsewhere, and obviously machines become the totem they imbue with sacred properties, wishes, hopes, goals, desires, dreams. That sounds like 1940s SF, but it's become the world.” [11].

Allusions to actual History, Geography, and Current Science[edit]

The book takes place first at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington (near Seattle) and then Silicon Valley (near San Francisco). The time period is 19931995, at a time when Microsoft has reached dominance in the software industry and emerged victorious from the lawsuit by Apple (see Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp.), a company that seemed in danger of falling apart. The Northridge earthquake takes place during the story and has a profound effect on Ethan, who eventually constructs a replica highway interchange out of Lego pieces to honor the infrastructure destroyed by the earthquake.

History of the Novel[edit]

Coupland’s interest in the world of Microsoft and technology workers hit a high point with the publication of a short story in Wired magazine in 1994. This short story would later be expanded into the novel Microserfs.

Shortly before the publication of Microserfs, Coupland began to distance himself from his Generation X spokesperson label. He declared that Generation X was dead. This movement away from Generation X helped to bridge the gap between Life After God and Microserfs, because it allowed Microserfs to be taken outside of the Generation X sphere.

Coupland has discussed the life of his novel, and its lasting impact. “When Microserfs first came out, most people thought it was a tightly focused anthropological look at a tiny group of historically transient information workers in the American Pacific Northwest. It turns out they were forming a template of the way everyone else in the world works in and around information. As time went on it became a lot broader, instead of a lot narrower, which is what happened with Generation X .” [13]

It has also been noted that Coupland’s novel predicted the outcome of the late 90’s .com boom and crash with his depiction of the Oop! Project’s search for capital. [14]

The Abridged audio book for Microserfs was read by Mathew Perry. As well, “Building Seven," the office block where Daniel and his colleagues work before they move to California, does not exist on Microsoft's Redmond campus. New hires and interns are sometimes told to go to meetings or pick up free food at this infamous building. Since Microsoft's first construction in Redmond, Building 7 has become notorious for its absence.

Coded Messages[edit]

Several coded messages are included within the text:[15]

  • On page 104–105 there is an encoded binary message that reads, when decoded:
"I heart LiSA Computers
"This is my computer. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My computer is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me, my computer is useless. Without my computer, I am useless. I must use my computer true. I true. I must compute faster than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must outcompute him before he outcomputes me. I will. Before God, I swear this creed. My computer and myself are defenders of this country. We are masters of our enemy. We are the saviours of my life. So be it until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.
"Tinned Peaches Yttrium San Fran
This message is an adapted version of the Rifleman's Creed.
  • On pages 308–309, consonants appear on one page and vowels on the other. This text is taken from a letter written by Patty Hearst to her parents when she was kidnapped.

Release details[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wired 3.07, July 1995. Microserfs: Transhumanity
  2. ^ Wired 2.01, January 1994. Microserfs
  3. ^ Johnstone, Susan. "Talking 'bout his Generation". The Times, July 24, 1998.
  4. ^ Soriano, Cesar G. "DATELINE: Cyberspace and New York" The Washington Times, June 28, 1995
  5. ^ Folmar, Kate. "Channeling the lives of Silicon Valley", The Globe & Mail, June 9, 1995.
  6. ^ Grimwood, Jon Courtenay. "Nerds of the Cyberstocracy". The Independent, November 13, 1995.
  7. ^ The New York Times Interview, September 9, 1994
  8. ^ Johnstone, Susan. "Talking 'bout his Generation". The Times, July 24, 1998.
  9. ^ Cockerill, Matt. "Books: Serfs of Silicon Age". The Guardian, November 23, 1995.
  10. ^ Mcclellan, Jim. "The Geek Factory". The Observer, Novemeber 12, 1995.
  11. ^ Mcclellan, Jim. "The Geek Factory". The Observer, Novemeber 12, 1995.
  12. ^ Johnstone, Susan. "Talking 'bout his Generation". The Times, June 24, 1998.
  13. ^ Johnstone, Susan. "Talking 'bout his Generation". The Times, June 24, 1998.
  14. ^ Coupland, Douglas. Microserfs. Harper Perrenial, 1st HarperPerrenial Canadian Edition, "About the Book" P. 6.
  15. ^ Microserfs Mystery Messages

External links[edit]

Category:1995 novels Category:Novels by Douglas Coupland Category:Epistolary novels Category:Computers in novels Category:Microsoft culture