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Book Review: Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Posted in Book Reviews, Programming and Software Development, Technology by engtech on September 06, 2006

microserfsThere’s something very appropriate about reading Microserfs when you’re working at a startup and it is crunch time.

The year is 1993 and this is the story of Daniel, a software tester at Microsoft. He lives in a geek house with his co-workers, and his relationship with them and their relationship with the software industry is the backdrop for this slice of life. It is typical Coupland fashion, strong on narrative/characters/themes and weak on plot.

Microserfs started out as a short story for Wired magazine and the original texts can be found here and here.

It is an epistolary novel written in first person as Daniel types in his personal diary on his laptop. Flashbacks abound as we hearken back to a pre-Internet explosion era when Multimedia was the rage and everything had to be on CD-ROM. It is striking to look back and see how obvious it was to use computers for writing personal journals. Blogging is a natural evolution. (Or as Mil Millington likes to put it “nerds talking to themselves in public”).

After the break, more of my review of Microserfs.

One fun thing is Daniel’s subconscious file. He writes a program to take terms out of his journal entries and create snapshots of keywords. This is quite possibly the first instance of a “tag cloud“. These breaks are easy to skip over, but they also provide emphasis of things that aren’t as readily apparent from the main narrative.

Coupland does a very good job of capturing the various archetypes that are present in the tech industry. He also explores themes such as:

  • “Big Company” versus “Little Start Up”,
  • “One-dot-oh”,
  • identity,
  • falling in love,
  • families dealing with death,
  • body image and how the technologically inclined become so out of touch with their bodies

The voice of Daniel however is distinctly that of Coupland with his knack for categorizing everyone and especially the pop-culture of the era. Each new character is introduced by their dream Jeopardy categories. A lot of character interaction revolves around categorizing consumer goods and creating lists.


I am danielu@microsoft.com. If my game was a life of Jeopardy! my
seven dream categories would be:

  • Tandy Products
  • Trash TV of the late ’70s and early ’80s
  • The history of Apple
  • Career anxieties
  • Tabloids
  • Plant Life of the Pacific Northwest
  • Jell-O 1-2-3

I’m trying to feel more well adjusted than I really am, which is, I guess, the human condition.

I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around, like a suburban mother taking the kids to hockey practice.

The two of you start talking about your feelings and your feelings float outside of you like vapors, and they mix together like a fog. Before you realize it, the two of you have become the same mist and you realize you can never return to being just a lone cloud again, because the isolation would be intolerable.

I told Ethan that I speak in an unrestricted manner to animals — things like, aren’t you just the cutest little kitty… that kind of thing, which I wouldn’t dream of doing to humans. Then I realized I wish I could.

We did spoons for a while, and then she said, “I remember being young in school, being told that our bodies would yield enough carbon for 2,000 pencils and enough calcium for 30 sticks of chalk, as well as enough iron for one nail. What a weird thing to tell kids. We should be told that our bodies can transmutate into diamonds and wine goblets and teacups and balloons.”We generate stories for you because you don’t save the ones that are yours.

I used to always think I had to have a reason to record my observations of the day, or even my emotions, but now I think simply being alive is more than enough reason.

More quotes can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Gallery/5560/mserfs.html

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  1. Mike said, on September 07, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    I’ve been meaning to pick up his new one J-Pod. I’ve read a few of his books, Microserfs, Hey Nostradamus! and Generation X, and enjoyed them.

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