Bill, Be My Friend ... Please!

Bill, Be My Friend … Please!

“This morning, just after 11:00, Michael locked himself in his office and he won’t come out.”

Every decade has its fads, foibles and figureheads, and in the nineties, it was all about the rise of computing and the sudden surge in the abilities of technology. One of the frontrunners at the time was, of course, Microsoft and its wise, kind, unreadable boss, Bill Gates. However, he couldn’t run the company alone and there were (and still are) thousands of people beneath him, earning a miniscule fraction of what he brings home, and it is towards them that Douglas Coupland’s microscope turns in his fourth novel.

Dan Underwood is a bug checker for Microsoft, and his life revolves around his tireless, thankless job. He has a good team around him – desperate-for-a-date Susan, multimillionaire Abe, all-impulse-and–no-consideration Todd, slighty-older-and-slightly-bitter Bug, intelligent-but-undervalued Karla and natural-coder Michael – with whom he also lives. The novel is Dan’s journal, which he’s keeping to help him remember the things that are happening to him in his life, if only maybe to find some meaning.

Struggling to have lives alongside their jobs, Dan and friends are having issues, made worse by the fact that Dan’s father has just been laid off from his job, and Michael has been personally contacted by Bill. Before any of them know it, Michael has been shipped off and out, leaving everyone else to soldier on.

But  then they all get messages from their absconded friend – he has started a new company in California and he wants them all to come and work for him. Realising that things are never going to get any better at Microsoft, they all (with the exception of Abe) pack their bags and head off to work on Michael’s new project with his business partner Ethan. And then there’s a whole new world of issues to deal with.

The characters are all really quite lovely people, harmless and all seeking for some meaning in their lives, much like every Coupland character. They are perhaps not the people you would first want to speak to at a party, but they’re good fun and clearly enjoy one another’s company, saying that the money is just a nice bonus, as long as they can all work together and continue having a laugh. Each character has hardship – Todd, Karla and Susan are estranged from their parents, Bug has been in the closet for years, Ethan is seriously ill – but they, for the most part, remain upbeat.

They are an intelligent lot and within their conversations we find the sort of philosophy that is so familiar to a Coupland novel. There are a lot of discussions about the future of humanity, the future of technology, and what will happen to both as they become more and more entwined. Many pages contain random words, which are Dan’s attempts at bringing out the subconcious of his computer, seeing if there is something more than machinery hidden in there. It’s interesting and weird. The story is also about the generation gap, showing Dan’s parents finding their places in this new world where people have started worshipping their bodies, and technology rules all.

The project that the team are working on, Oop!, actually sounds like a really fun one. I’ve read this book before but this time around there is the idea that their project has actually happened, as it is very similar to an advanced Minecraft. With Oop!, players can build anything from castles and space stations, to ostriches and humans using Lego-like bricks. Lego is prelevant throughout the novel and it makes me want to get a big box and build something.

Microserfs is definitely one of my favourite Coupland novels, fully illustrating the early nineties when everything seemed possible and computers were getting ready to save the world. It may exist in a world before text messaging, Facebook, Flappy Bird and iPods, but it’s still so far ahead of its time. Coupland once again succeeds in capturing a piece of the world and locking it away with perfect clarity.