Fictional references


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Books about Apple and the Apple II and its founders and inventors are innumerable — history has woken up to the importance of these industries and innovators. But the Apple II plays an important role not just in fact, but also in fiction. A voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I've recently come across references to our favorite computer in a number of novels.

First was in Ready Player One, a novel by Ernest Cline and the best book I read in 2011. The main character spends most of his time plugged into a virtual-reality MMORPG designed by a "a god among geeks, a nerd ueber-deity on the level of Gygax, Garriott, and Gates." In his quest to unearth an Easter egg, our hero, having received a clue pertaining to Captain Crunch, researches interstellar maps for a relevant planet. "I found a few worlds named after famous hackers, like Woz and Mitnick, but none named after John Draper."

Any book with an entire celestial body named after Steve Wozniak is okay by me!

Last year, I read my second-ever e-book: These Days, a novel by Jack Cheng that I picked up through its Kickstarter. This book's main character, Connor, is a graphic designer for a company called Pseudo. At one point, he is asked: "Do you know who Doug Engelbart is?"

It took a moment for Connor to place the name. One of the few entertainment projects Pseudo had been able to land was a series called ArpaNet, a failed attempt at capitalizing on old-school detective shows and eighties nostalgia. Every episode, the show's protagonist, Frank Arpa, a university professor who moonlighted as a private investigator, would log on to the bulletin board systems of the early internet to hunt for new leads. Whenever progress on a case stalled, a mysterious informant who went by the handle of Lick would steer Arpa and his team in the right direction. The network had shelved the series after four episodes, but Connor had had a blast working on the project while it lasted. It was probably the most fun he'd had in all his years at the company. He'd been tasked with recreating the text-only interfaces of the era and spent hours upon hours digging into command prompts on old computer history websites. He watched YouTube videos of ancient operating systems. He bought a working Apple II off Craigslist and experimented with text-only ASCII banners and graphics on the green monochrome screen. In the course of his research, he'd come across a particular black-and-white video shot in the late sixties. In the video, a silver-haired man talked into an operator's headset as he stared at a monitor off camera. The text on the monitor was superimposed onto his own image as he spoke, and every once in a while the video would cut to a view of his hands. He operated a blocky wooden mouse and a keyboard, and a second pad that looked like a section of piano keys, and all the while the computer made strange, abrupt noises that sounded like bursts of a high-pitched electric razor, or the first half of a dog's bark. "The Mother of All Demos," said the caption beneath the video. And the man in it was Doug Engelbart, the head of a group of scientists at a Stanford research lab. In the video, Engelbart and his team publicly demonstrated for the first time NLS—an early ancestor of the internet—along with hyperlinks, the computer mouse, and videoconferencing, all in an hour and a half.

Now I'm amid a novel by Austin Grossman. I really enjoyed his 2007 debut novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, about the antagonist of a Justice League-like team of superheroes. His April 2013 novel is You, a book that is, inexplicably, set less than two miles where I live outside of Boston. The main character was born in 1969 (the same year as the author, and a decade before me), and the book is set in 1997 as he enters the computer game industry as a designer. Several flashbacks to his childhood trace the path of his experiences with personal computers. On page 13:

One summer in middle school I finally got an Apple IIe, a beige plastic wedge with computer and keyboard in one piece, along with its own nine-inch monochrome monitor. I discovered the delinquent thrill of using copy programs like Locksmith to duplicate copy-protected games on a 5.25-inch floppy disk and the trick of double-siding a disk by clipping a half-moon out of it with a hole puncher.

Austin Grossman's YouOn page 66, digging through the archives of his employer, Black Arts, for their earlier titles: "I was sure a few dozen copies were out there lying in basements in cardboard boxes, filed away with cracked copies of The Bilestoad and Lode Runner… [but here] there wasn't much from 1983 apart from an incomplete set of blue-and-white Ultima III: Exodus floppies."

And on page 81, he lists more games he grew up playing: "Silly 2-D games, little guys jumping around on platforms — Sammy Lightfoot, Hard Hat Mack, cheap Mario Bros. rip-offs. Adventures — Escape from Rungistan, Mystery Mansion.

I've not yet finished You, but I'm sure there will be even more references to growing up digital. So far, I find myself agreeing with one review: "You is a brilliantly written piece of fiction from author Austin Grossman. If you enjoy video games, fantasy, science-fiction — grew up in the 70s, owned an Apple II and spent many nights lit by the glow of a monitor screen — if you don't know who you are or what you want to be, You is a book you can’t miss."

Since none of these books are about the Apple II, it makes it all the more fun to unexpectedly encounter our old friend in these new contexts.

What book would you write to feature the Apple II?

UPDATE (May 15, 2014): DOS is good enough for George R. R. Martin!


  1. Not sure about fictional references in books, but Ben Stiller's character in the movie "The Royal Tenenbaums" is shown using an Apple ][ (in 2001; part of the point of the character is that he never really outgrew the 1980s). And the computer in the hatch in LOST is at least "played" by an Apple ][, although I'm not sure it really is supposed to be one given that the Dharma Initiative would seem to be from the early rather than late 1970s.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan! I was unaware of the Royal Tenenbaums connection. I've blogged about the Apple in Lost and in the movie Hot Tub Time Machine.

    For more such cameos, I point you to the excellent online resource, Starring the Computer.

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