It’s been a while since I read this book, having picked it up at Powells on our Portland vacation last year. It was sitting on my shelf for a while before I read it, but when I finally did get to it, I was pleasantly surprised at the discovery. I had originally picked it up because I liked the title, the blurb on the back, and the lego man on the cover (the current version is less lego-y), but it was some good fiction, and strangely relevant to today’s times.
The book focuses on a group of software developers who are working at Microsoft on the bottom rung, which isn’t necessarily a bad place to be, but in the 1990’s when this book is set it meant that you were basically a geek of the highest order and didn’t really have much of a real life. The main characters are staying in a typical of the time “Microsoft House” which meant that they were all workaholics and sharing a house with a bunch of other Microsoft employees.
After a couple of character-establishing chapters in which we are introduced to all of the characters and all of their quirks, the whole house gets recruited to Silicon Valley to become part of a startup which will be revolutionizing the industry and making something that has never been made before. The product they are building is a kind of object-oriented block-building world, with procedures and things that you can attach to everything. It is very reminiscent of something like Second Life and eerily similar to Minecraft when it is described in the book. The product and company itself goes through some interesting transformations and pivots, but that’s not really what makes this book any good.
It chronicles from the perspective of Dan, who could be called the main protaganist. It reads really like a geek blog, with time passing between chapters and things happening that are discussed in the past tense. Every chapter brings new things, and like a blog, it can meander from subject to subject from times. It also contains some of classic blog-style interdictions of “computer thought” which are really just some random words which are placed strangely across the page and make you think because of their placement between the chapters, about what is missing between these tellings of goings on.
It’s grounded in the reality of the 1990s and the dot-com and tech boom which happened around then, so there are the main players like Sun and Apple which are marginally involved. The style of writing really makes you feel like you are reading from someone who is inhabiting this world of startups, high ideas, spending money and coding sprees. True to form, the startup company begins in a company house and then moves to an office which has it’s own style later on.
There are somewhat of a group of plots in the book, each riffing off of each other in strange ways and connecting at various points. One of the group at the original house didn’t leave Microsoft and there are various little interludes to keep us up to date on what is happening with him, and the main character gets hooked up and a love story develops with another of the developers at the company. There is also a lot of family dynamics between Dan and his parents - his father is one of the older generation who worked in the valley when it was just getting started and doesn’t know what to do with himself.
All in all, I would say that this book is surprisingly relevant and a clear look into a geek culture which exists even today, even though the pages of the paperback that I got were yellowed and frayed, almost 15 years after it’s publication. The main storylines are connected and the characters are written very true to life. Some of the references are dated but you could place these same people in a similar situation at a company today (although Microsofties have grown up quite a lot I think) and it would be believable and just as compelling.
The only downside of this book is that it feels like it’s lacking any type of closure. You get to the end of the book and there really isn’t anything resolved, and while you’ve though about some interesting things along the way and the journey was great, there really is no destination that the author takes you to. Some would say that this is a bonus, because there is a lot in the story about how life is always evolving, but it still felt like there was a chapter missing at the end for me for some reason. I give it a B+ because it could be better, but it’s extremely satisfying in it’s own right.