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.