“You” by Austin Grossman (2013)

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“So what’s your ultimate game?”

Video games are a good way to spend some down time in between books, I find. I’m not an avid gamer by any means, but I play occasionally, usually something like the Portal series, or The Sims, which is an excellent game to binge on now and then. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Civilization IV lately. I like a big, sprawling world where you don’t necessarily have to follow a prescribed path. Some people like simply shooting everything in sight. Games are big business, and in Grossman’s novel, You, we see just how much.

Russell has dropped out of his life path of becoming a lawyer and has applied for work at Black Arts, a video game company run by his old high school friends. With limited knowledge of how it all works, and relying on their loyalty to give him the job, he finds himself soon embroiled in creating the newest game in Black Arts portfolio, a fantasy epic where “anything is possible”.

However, it soon finds that there’s a bug in the system – one that seems to crop up now and then in all of Black Arts’ games, from their fantasy stories to the science fiction games. There’s a sword, the Mournblade, that is programmed to drive the user’s character into a killing frenzy until they themselves are killed too. Unsure as to where the code for this game-destroying sword is, Russell must go through the last twenty years of games, as well as recalling the real events surrounding the birth of the franchise. The deeper he gets, the more he realises that this glitch may have ramifications for far more than just the next installment of the game.

I think I’d misjudged what this book was going to be about, and had in my head something along the lines of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Much of it is Russell playing through the various games that Black Arts have created. They all have the same heroes, just in different guises, regardless of genre, and each new one allows you to import the data from the previous one, meaning the same character can be played through for years. The fantasy games are basically Skyrim, but perhaps even more detailed, but most video game genres are present here, with the series spreading across the Commodore 64, through first person shooters, empire-builders, puzzle games and sandbox. In actuality, the games generally sound like they’d be quite fun to play.

On the other hand, the novel is mostly set in the second half of the 1990s, and we all know that computer graphics actually looked like then, so it’s quite sweet to have them getting excited over the quality, when not even Tomb Raider has arrived yet. As the story progresses, though, it becomes hugely entangled in itself, jumping around in time and in and out of the games too. Sometimes the real world is being narrated, other times it’s the in-game events. To confuse things further, Russell begins hallucinating the characters in his real life as they come to him in his dreams. Trying to keep up can be a bit of a mission.

I didn’t much feel there was a particularly good pay off either. By the time we got to the conclusion, I’d rather run out of interest, so the big reveal was lost on me. The mystery isn’t adequately solved, and with the character responsible for the glitch having been dead since the start of the novel, there’s no real explanation of what he was doing. I’ve read Grossman before, and you can’t argue the fact that he’s an interesting and unique writer, but there’s something just a tiny bit lacking from his stories. I think he overreaches himself, personally.

As for my ideal game? It combines aspects of Pokemon, The Sims, Theme Hospital, Portal and Civilization, but what you actually have to do in it is beyond me. I suppose one day I’ll find something…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

“jPod” by Douglas Coupland (2006)

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Microserfs 2.0

Microserfs 2.0

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

This is the book that is responsible for me reviewing all the Coupland books this year. I first read this perhaps six or seven years ago and was instantly taken with Coupland’s style, which is weird because this one seems to suggest some knowledge of his previous books is needed. For a start, Coupland himself, as you can tell from the quote above, is a character within. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s get on with the story.

jPod is usually billed as Microserfs 2.0, an updated version of his earlier novel. Both feature groups of young adults working in the computer industry, first in the 1990s and this time in the 2000s, highlighting just how quickly things have changed in just a decade. The story follows Ethan, Bree, Cowboy, John Doe, Evil Mark and Kaitlin, six employees of a video game making company who have been shoved into the same office simply due to an error in the computer system that has shoved together all the employees with surnames beginning with J. The first five explain to Kaitlin, the newest recruit, that there is no escape from jPod, although she’s not against trying.

The story is told from the point of view of Ethan, a fairly average programmer with very complex and strange parents (his mother grows marijuana and has just killed a man, and his father is obsessed with ballroom dancing) and a strong urge to avoid any actual work. He and his colleagues fill their days writing love letters to Ronald McDonald, auctioning themselves on eBay and torturing one another in a myriad of interesting ways.

Things take a turn for the strange, however, when their boss Steve (notable for turning Toblerone around in just two years) disappears and leaves them to their own devices with a game he’s been trying to ruin, under the impression that kids love turtles in their skateboarding games. Is his disappearance fairly run of the mill, or is Chinese gangster Kam Fong somehow involved?

Comparasions to Microserfs are impossible to avoid, given that there are so many similarities between the two. Both have similar protagonists, (both of whom begin dating a new colleague), contain nonsensical non-sequiters (sixty or so pages are filled with digits of pi and random numbers, another twenty are dedicated to a list of prime numbers), and both novels touch on autism and a character’s belief that most people in the tech industry are somewhat autistic. However, there are differences, certainly. This is for the “Google generation”; for the slice of people in this world to whom technology is not new and exciting, but now completely normal and simply part of our lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a third novel along a similar line in a few years that details the rise of the iPhone and technology in the early 2010s.

It’s fast, slick and while the characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, they’re nonetheless pretty strong and seem like a good, if slightly nutty, bunch. My favourite is probably John Doe, who was born on a hippie commune and raised by his staunchly feminist lesbian mother and so now lives his life to be as average as is possible.

The introduction of Coupland as a character is probably the most interesting thing about the book. Coupland himself claims it’s a reference to how intertwined the world has become thanks to the Internet. His character isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s curious to see his own characters discuss him and the tropes within his novels. By this point, his style is strongly recognisable. Some claim that his self-insertion is vanity of the highest order, but I disagree. I think it’s rather funny and he doesn’t appear to be painting himself in any favourable lights.

It’s full of the things we expect from Coupland – people searching for meaning in a corporate, commercialised world – but there’s something else here that’s completely intangible but makes the book stand out as one of his strongest. Were I to have my time again, I wouldn’t read this one first, but I am pleased that I decided to go back and check out the rest of his oeuvre. His finger is on the pulse of the moment and it’s incredible to see that he hasn’t lost any of his talent for dealing with the here and now that started in Generation X.

“Microserfs” by Douglas Coupland (1995)

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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.