Pi in the sky

How to tell a nerd from a geek: Nicholas Wroe logs on to the latest in high-tech, new-age fiction; Microserfs by Douglas Coupland Flamingo, pounds 9.99

Half-way through this engaging techno-entertainment, Daniel Underwood, the diarist-narrator is quizzed by his perplexed mother: "What, exactly," she asks, "is the difference between a nerd and a geek?" The answer is that geeks have more saleable skills - "geek implies wealth" - but it is the fact the question has been asked that affords most pleasure to the reader. I'd already worked out what a geek was and so, flatteringly, had become an insider apparently conversant with the strange and important new world of computer technology from which Moms, and other civilians, are usually excluded.

Douglas Coupland made his name with the hugely influential Generation X in which a cast of ennui-ridden twentysomethings drifted through the confusion of modern America. He was credited with articulating the voice of this ironic slacker generation who find themselves over-educated and under-employed for the McJobs (low pay and no future in a service industry) they are obliged to take. In Microserfs he maintains his facility for cultural trendspotting at a time when the Internet and all its works have entered the mainstream.

We meet the leading characters sharing a company house on the Microsoft campus in Seattle in late 1993. They are coders, "bug checkers", on products just like the one this review is being typed on. They are all employed by, and obsessed with, the Microsoft corporation and its owner Bill ("B- B-B-B-B-B-B-I-L-L!") Gates. They are committed to their jobs but painfully aware of the conflict between their role in the exciting revolution to change the way the world operates, and what they actually do every day, which is monotonous and time-consuming work for relatively low wages.

Coupland's depiction of life within Microsoft is eerily convincing: the voluntary conformity, the slobbishness of maths students, the relentless youthfulness. "It's like the year 1311, where everyone over 35 is dead or maimed," someone says. But whereas, say, Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle brutally exposed capitalist industrial production in the Chicago stockyards, for microserfs, politics is simply not a nerdy (or a geeky) enough preoccupation. The main issue is therefore not reward or exploitation. What drives this novel is how these people can get a life, which means first working out what is a life.

Michael, who the others are in awe of because he can recite pi to thousands of decimal places, leaves to set up a new company in Silicone Valley and asks the others to join him. They do. Along with Dan comes his girlfriend Karla, Bug, the grouchy old man of 31, Todd the bodybuilder and Susan who resigned from Microsoft the day after she was given stock for long service. They set up shop in Dan's parents' house where they work even harder but grow as people, as they strive to be part of a "One-Point-Oh", an original, personal and professional project. If it sounds a little like a high-tech, new-age Famous Five book, that's a little how it reads (there's even a cute dog) but the detail of techie-life manages, just, to compensate for a formulaic narrative and fifth-form soul-searching angst.

Coupland invests the world in which these people operate with an alluring sense of sexiness and importance. In a world where nobody has a two-digit IQ even the claim that because we are, as a society, so poor our only legacy will be computer codes so, "code is the architecture of the nineties", becomes convincing. The characters' love of Lego and early Eighties British pop music is endearing and their nostalgia for the certainties their industry is helping to undermine is affecting. That the ending is vapidly sentimental simply reinforces the sense that the triumph of this tale is in the telling.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album