Diary Of An 80s Computer Geek (Stephen Howlett) Review | Electron User Group - Everygamegoing


Diary Of An 80s Computer Geek
By Stephen Howlett
Spectrum 48K

Published in EUG #75

Stephen Howlett recalls how the Eighties shaped his life

This diary isn't so much a diary as a novella, and I finished the whole thing in just over an hour. In short, it's a factual account of how one man's life was directly anchored by his exposure to 8-bit computers in the 1980s. Each chapter covers, broadly, what the author was doing in each year between 1982 (age thirteen) and 1990 (age twenty-one).

The book itself isn't presented with a great deal of care. There's no blurb on its back cover, no page numbering and the Rubik's cube illustrating its cover isn't even mentioned in the prose. Spelling mistakes, grammar fluffs and lack of proofing are also in evidence too; for example, "it's" and "its" are confused throughout.

The first thing I liked about the book itself was that Steven Howlett has taken the decision to write it entirely in the present tense (For example, "I wonder if there is an opportunity to have my own software on these cover tapes?"). Whilst this does not fit the diary theme, it does sound very conversational. The biggest commodity this book has to play with is nostalgia and using this tense is gently endearing, almost taking the reader back in time.

Having said that, there are a great deal of missed opportunities to really evoke the period in question. Each chapter begins with what might be termed "context"; largely a 10-15 line news bulletin of the major events of the year. Yet this is largely unconnected to Steven Howlett's computing and coding "adventures". These adventures consist of: being given his first ZX81, going to school (where he is told computers are not for him), going to college, working at a computer store and chasing the royalty payments for his first commercial game. These adventures are also recounted in a very factual way. The specifications of each machine he encounters fascinate him, and the book sets these out in detail, without passion.

The closest we come to any great subplot is when Howlett and schoolfriends ask for permission to join the Computer Science class at his secondary school, which is curtly, and grossly unjustly, denied ("Without any discussion whatsoever, the mean-spirited old hag looked down her bigoted nose and tossed me and my classmates onto the IT scrap heap."). Later events lack any drama at all. Essentially all that happens in the whole book is that he writes a number of games, and very much enjoys doing so. Good for him, but not particularly dramatic for us.

In some respects, the "diary" is insanely focused. For example, the only game that's mentioned is the arcade quiz machine which serves as his inspiration for the ZX Spectrum game Snookered. Those unfamiliar with the period in question therefore know, from his news "context" that lots of Americans are watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, yet have absolutely no appreciation of the capabilities of the competing games Snookered is going into competition with. In other respects, the "diary" sometimes digresses into the most banal of trivia for no reason ("An interesting item in the computer media reports that Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs has paid 10 million dollars to Lucasfilm to purchase the Special Effects Computer Group").

As a fellow Eighties schoolboy coder, I would have liked to have seen at least some description of the code he actually put together, not to mention more of the things he got up to when he wasn't programming in front of his black and white TV set. In relation to Snookered, we do at least get a chapter which goes into the creative process he employed, even if all we learn is that he did the graphics first and it took him six months to complete the whole thing. But his second game, Ultimate Warrior, barely receives any recognition in his own book at all. In fact, the first time we learn it even exists is when he submits it for inclusion on ZX Spectrum magazine Crash's covertape. When and how he wrote it is skipped entirely!

If there's any sort of grand moral to this story, it's only that, in the naivety of youth, he believes himself to have achieved some successes but, with the passage of time, realises these successes make little if any mark on the pages of history.

It is difficult to know for whom Diary Of An 80s Computer Geek is written. If, in the Eighties, you encountered the "old school" teachers that barked at you rather than teach you; if you worked or visited computer stores; if you tinkered with Basic; or if you ran a mail order business from home, you might encounter the sweet smell of nostalgia reading about Howlett's life in that period.

As someone who experienced all four (and contrary to what this review might suggest), I enjoyed reading it myself. However, I'm clearly exactly the type of person the book is aimed at, and if the above reservations are anything to go by, I would suspect anyone aged under 30 will find its lack of any real structure pretty unenthralling.

Dave E