December 17, 2014

Silicon Valley Novels

I live in Silicon Valley, so I always like finding a book that uses this area as a setting. I've even written one myself. (Incidentally, a real conversation I once had with a San Franciscan: "It's set in San Jose." "Why???") This fall, I read (and reread) a few Silicon Valley novels:

THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING by Shelly King: After years at Silicon Valley startups, Maggie has been laid off (again), and she's spending her days at a Mountain View used bookstore instead of looking for a new job. At the store, she finds a tattered copy of LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER containing a series of romantic notes that two strangers once left for each other. Maggie's fascination with the mysterious lovers sets off a string of events, and soon she has both a job and a romance of her own. Neither of these are quite what she expected, or what she wanted, and they turn out to be not quite what they seem.

This is a sweet, funny story about books and love and love of books. I was charmed by Maggie's first person narration and the entertaining cast of characters. I enjoyed the gentle satire of Silicon Valley culture, and it was fun to imagine the fictional businesses along Mountain View's real Castro Street. While the story dragged for me a bit in the middle, I got caught up in the story again once the plot started delivering its many surprises.

MICROSERFS by Douglas Coupland, written and set in the mid 1990s, is about a group of Microsoft employees who quit, move to Silicon Valley, and start a company of their own. I first read (and loved) it in 1997, shortly after moving to Silicon Valley myself, so rereading it was strongly nostalgic of both the era and my younger self. This time around, I wondered how many of the now-familiar technical and cultural references were meaningless to me back then.

MICROSERFS is great as a depiction of 90s geek culture and as a portrait of an engaging group of friends. The story is presented as a series of journal entries, a format that is somewhat limiting and leads to the inclusion of various boring details during the lulls when nothing's happening in the narrator's life. In general, it's not a plot-heavy book -- that synopsis I gave in the first sentence is pretty much the story -- but I was happy just spending time with the characters. So despite the weaknesses in the narrative, I enjoyed the reread, and I remain a fan of the way this book captures a time and place.

THE BUG by Ellen Ullman is about the quest to track down and fix a software bug, and I've never read another piece of fiction that makes authentic programming details such an integral part of the plot. If you're tickled by the idea of "kill -9" as a plot point, you'll like this book. But if you don't know what this means, don't worry, because all is entertainingly explained within the text, and the story is about so much more than a bug.

The setting is the mid 1980s, during the early days of graphical user interfaces. A software tester who wanted to be a linguistics professor discovers a bug that can't be replicated. She passes a report to the engineer responsible for the front end, and he tries to ignore the problem, the same way he's ignoring his girlfriend and the increasing distance in their relationship. In time, the bug reappears, but it remains elusive, unable to be captured or corrected, and it gradually wreaks havoc on the lives of these two characters.

I admire the way Ullman digs into the depths of both code and human behavior to tell this story. The strong and careful plotting make this is a suspenseful and fascinating read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Ploughshares, Amy Jo Burns offers five aphorisms to consider when revising: "Don't simplify the complex: Real life has no saints or sinners, only humans who are capable of selfless and selfish acts."

No comments:

Post a Comment