Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Dreaming in A Digital World

Dreaming in a Digital World / Blanche Howard
Bev Slopen Edition, 2010 (ebook only)
Words: 83047 (approximate)

I read this book on my holiday: my goodness, is an ereader convenient for travelling! Actually I've become accustomed to my Kobo much faster than I'd anticipated, and enjoy reading on it now. I was also very lucky that I was able to finally read this book by Blanche Howard, as it has been published in ebook format only, which I absolutely did not read before I bought an ereader, as reading for any length of time on a computer is just not tenable.

Anyhow, all that to say that this is one of the books I really enjoyed on my holiday. I read another of her novels, Penelope's Way, for last year's Canadian Book Challenge and greatly enjoyed it. This novel is quite different -- the main character is a computer programmer and one of the only women in the field (it's set in the 80s). It involves programming, passionate affairs, plentiful office politics, and the possibility of artificial intelligence. Oh yes, also lots of dream analysis.

While I was reading I kept being reminded of Connie Willis, who I've been reading a lot of lately. This was because of the themes of the book: a smart woman having to make it in a man's world, with a setting in the sciences, and the voice of the narrator which could have come out of a Willis novel. These comparisons are a positive, in my mind -- this book was enjoyable and had a lot going for it. It felt modern and yet dated at the same time, showing the vast distance between the period when computers were new, and huge, and a 486 was top of the line and today, when we take this all for granted and expect the power from our smart phones that used to exist only in a computer that took up a whole floor of an office building.

The story follows Genevieve Varley, who works in a software company that resembles an insurance office more than Google. It's very structured and the boss is old-fashioned (read, misogynistic) so that Gen has difficulty getting her work recognized, although she is the top performer. There is only one other female programmer, an older woman fond of quoting Shakespeare and having a regular tipple. Nonetheless, this woman is a genius and near the end of her tenure takes a strong liking to Gen, changing their lives forever.

In between our meeting Gen as she is promoted to the 26th floor and seeing her startling decision near the end of the book, we follow her struggles to find her place as a woman in this changing world. She's fine with her brilliance but her bosses and her boyfriends have difficulties. She has a life-shattering affair (with someone who seems to me frankly unworthy of her ardour), then tries to recover and finds another love which doesn't work out quite as planned. She has a friendship with the boss' dishy secretary Linda, who is a lot more savvy than she lets on. Her parents live nearby and she has a good relationship with them as well. All in all, she seems quite a well adjusted, normal woman: it's her job that's the problem.

In the novel we learn quite a bit about the vagaries of computers in the early days and the issues women faced. At first I found it a bit much -- really? That much sexism even then? I wasn't sure I believed it. But then I thought about it, and during the years the book was set I wasn't yet in the depths of the working world, so couldn't know whether or not this level of sexism still existed. But considering that my math teacher in those years was a raging sexist, refusing to admit that I was top of the class or let me answer any questions that might make the boys in the class feel bad (his words), I guess there was still sexism especially in the fields of math and science. And we know that in this field of computers even today there is a preponderance of men, with women hitting what's known as the Silicon Ceiling. But women these days are fighting that.

Got a bit sidetracked there! Back to this novel...it was a good read that obviously made me think about a lot of things. I enjoyed it, and found it good holiday reading. However, there was a fair bit of rumination going on, and that slowed down the progress of the story at times. Also, the heavy reliance on discussion of Gen's dreams felt a little, well, you know when someone is telling you their dream and it doesn't really make sense to you because you can't picture the images they're trying to get across and you don't have access to the inchoate emotion attached to the dream and it just begins to feel tedious and boring because you Just Don't Care? That feeling. I ended up skipping over a lot of her exposition of the actual dreams just to get back to the action.

But I still enjoyed reading this and am grateful to the publisher for making me aware of it so that I could try it out. There was mystery and science-y bits and romance and action and Shakespeare quoting women...all in all, many of the things I love! It was entertaining and certainly an unusual read for my Canadian challenge.


  1. I have never heard of this before, but it does sound interesting. Good review!

  2. It sounds kind of 9 to 5ish without the humour. Though I don't think it's one I'd likely enjoy, I am glad to hear that it was entertaining for you despite its "sleepy" parts.

  3. Kailana - it was good ;)

    Wanda - it actually reminds me more of a modern Barbara Pym, like Quartet in Autumn,in a way - about lonely lives and what comes after work


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