Historical Novel, Circa 1994

Day’s Verse:
When you’re kind to others, you help yourself; when you’re cruel to others, you hurt yourself.
Proverbs 11:17

Back in college I took a history class called US History through the Novel. In it, we read such cheerful novels as McTeague, House of Mirth, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and (if I recall correctly) Frankenstein; we read with an eye towards what the books told us about the culture and history of the time, rather than for literary analysis. This way of approaching history by looking at what novelists capture in their verbal snapshots of a time continues to interest me.

Recently I started reading Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland. You can read the first chapter or so at the Wired archive, where it was originally published as a short story. The interesting thing about this book is that it, like McTeague or House of Mirth, captures a historical moment. Written in 1994, this epistolary story follows a group of Microsoft programmers as they try to start up their own company in Silicon Valley. Because technology permeates the book completely, it has become historical in well under a generation. Technology has advanced so far since this book was written in 1994 that it’s hard to wrap my head around it.

Remember 1994? (Read the link. It’s Dave Barry’s year in review for 1994*. So worth it. I’d totally forgotten Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding/the Norway Winter Olympics, OJ Simpson, and the Shumacher-Levy asteroid, but it’s all coming back to me.) That’s 17 years ago, although when I hear the date I don’t think of it as that long ago. It was before the prevalent Internet, before the .com bubble, before most people even had computers. The “information superhighway” was going to be really cool. “Multimedia” was the bandwagon to jump on. Use of the terms “nerd” and “geek” began expanding dramatically. The average age of tech people hardly ever exceeded 32 years. It was before even this phenomenon.

So I’m enjoying the in-depth reminder of what the tech world used to be. Despite its historicality (?), Microserfs covers some pretty thought-provoking territory. For example, at one point he says:

“I wonder if I’ve missed the boat on CD-ROM interactive — if I’m too old. The big companies are zeroing in on the 10-year-olds**. I think you only ever truly feel comfortable with the level of digitization that was normal for you from the age of five to fifteen. I mean sure, I can make new games workable, but it won’t be a kick the way Tetris was. Or will it?” (143)

Thought-provoking for me. Am I already 10 years past my technology-assimilation prime?

Check back in 17 more years. The future is never what we expect.

Edited @ 6:35 pm, 01Mar2011, to add a few more thought-provoking quotes. Microserfs, far from being about technology, is really a philosophy book thinly disguised as a nerd book. Part of its appeal as a historical novel is its predictive nature, too. The characters are future-focused and constantly speculate about the future — which is happening now. They never got close to iPhones. Quotes:

1. Theory that one of the characters suggests and I find interesting: We store memories in our bodies, not just our brains. The character says it’s actual memories; I’d say we seem to store something in our physical bodies. Why else do we need a massage after a long, stressful day?

2. “I’m coming to the conclusion about the human subconscious… that, no matter how you look at it, machines really are our subconscious. I mean, people from outer space didn’t come down to earth and make machines for us… we made them ourselves. So machines can only be products of our being, and as such, windows into our souls… by monitoring the machines we build, and the sorts of things we put into them, we have this amazingly direct litmus as to how we are evolving.” (228)

3. “Identity. I go by the Tootsie theory: that if you concoct a convincing on-line meta-personality on the Net, then that personality really IS you. With so few things around nowadays to loan a person identity, the palette of identities you create for yourself in the vacuum of the Net — your menu of alternative ‘you’s’ — actually IS you. Or an isotope of you. Or a photocopy of you.” (327) About this: I heard a fascinating segment on KUOW about Second Life addicts, and another segment a while ago about peoples’ behavior online (this may’ve been it and I just internalized it inaccurately, or it could be that amalgamated with this spot). What I took away was that people often tend to let out the worst of themselves online, or tend to be more unrestrained. In-person interactions you have the expectations and responses of actual people to gauge your behavior, and you tend to behave according to some kind of group norm. Online, those restrictions tend to be stripped away, even in places like Facebook where the real you is connected to other people you know in real life. The Second Life people took this to an extreme: They had affairs with other people in Second Life, or played characters who were the opposite gender and child-aged.

4. “‘…what does all this stuff tell us about ourselves as humans? What have we gained by externalizing our essence through these consumable electronic units of luxury, comfort, and freedom?'” (356)

* They should make a Dave Barry history book that’s a compilation of his year-in-review articles.
** That was ME!

Talking Like It’s 1844

Day’s Verse:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:34

One thing I haven’t mentioned about reading The Count of Monte Cristo: The language. After reading it, I kept finding my language use tending toward the archaic and elaborate. This happened mewhen I read Tale of Two Cities, too, but to a lesser extent due to that book’s length. I spent a couple days with Tale of Two Cities; I spent a couple weeks with The Count of Monte Cristo. Language use I keep finding myself tending towards:

  • Lots of semicolons used in bizarre ways. Here’s a fabricated example of what semicolon use as you might see it. “‘I have so long desired to make your acquaintance;’ she said, inclining her head toward him; her lustrous eyes veiled and downcast, unable to meet his penetrating gaze.”
  • Very long, elaborate sentence construction. Real example from page 193 of the book: “Had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of Dantès, or hell opened its yawning gulf before him, he could not have been more completely transfixed with horror than at the sound of words so wholly unexpected, revealing as they did the fiendish perfidy which had consigned him to wear out his days in the dark cell of a prison, that was to him as a living grave.” Or take this example, from page 848: “I am fond of these jars, upon which, perhaps, misshapen, frightful monsters have fixed their cold, dull eyes, and in which myriads of small fish have slept, seeking a refuge from the pursuit of their enemies.”
  • Use of vocabulary words and phrases. The previous quote included a couple in a row: fiendish perfidy. Then there’s “calumny,” or derivatives like “caluminator,” which appeared a number of times, and innumerable uses of words like “sojourn,” “peristyle,” “extricate,” not to mention impressive phrases such as “invisible, impalpable agent of celestial rewards and punishments,” “stimulated by an invincible curiosity,” and so on.

In short (too late!), my perusal of The Count of Monte Cristo has imbued me with the unquenchable desire for prose both convoluted and lengthy, unknown and unrivaled by writers for the previous century but much-beloved by those of earlier, long-passed eras.

…which is why I’m now reading a book written in 2008, This is Not a Game, in the hopes that I’ll quickly recover my propensity for 21st Century language.

PS – Today’s looking gorgeous for a bike ride: Clear skies and dry ground, which means I can ride Lucy. On the schedule: 55 miles, 4800 feet of climbing. I’ll probably end up doing a few more miles than that but since last week kicked my butt, I’m not planning on pushing the hills.