Silicon Valley Season 3
Tech satire can feel like a boys' club.  Courtesy of HBO

The New Novel That Nails Tech Startup Gender Politics

May 01, 2017

The relatively new genre of Silicon Valley fiction already has some illustrious entrants.

There's HBO’s excellent hit comedy Silicon Valley, of course. And Dave Eggers' The Circle, which was made into a movie with Emma Watson that came out in April. There’s even a video game, “Watch Dog 2,” set in the office parks of the Bay Area.

Courtesy of Hachette 

One thing the majority of these pieces of tech satire have in common, though, is that they were created by men. Similarly successful books like Dot Dead, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, Cash Out, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, are also the work of male authors. Which is what makes it all the more refreshing that this spring’s buzziest new literary skewering of startup culture, Startup: A Novel, comes from a feminine perspective.

The book is by former BuzzFeed culture editor, Doree Shafrir, and follows New York startup founder Mack McAllister. (Mild spoilers follow.) Mack created TakeOff, an app that tries to make people happier by sending them motivational push notifications when it senses they might be feeling low. He has also been sleeping with an employee at his company, and when the romance goes south, Mack lacks the professional or emotional maturity to not escalate the situation into a disaster. A cast of enabling male colleagues aid and abet him in the ensuing comedy of errors.

But though Mack is the first character we meet, the story’s real heroes are women: a young tech reporter covering Mack, a social media manager at TakeOff, and the woman who spurned him. Set in the famously white, male-dominated tech landscape, the female characters encounter what will likely be familiar territory for women in the field: Higher-ups who lavish a little too much attention, the awkwardness of trying to muscle through crowded all-male tech meet-ups, and the career risks of speaking up about sexual harassment.

Given the subject matter, it would be easy for this book to slide into preachiness, but Startup resists. Mack's escapades are considerably less cartoonish than the allegations of workplace harassment recently reported at Uber. Instead, Shafrir's characters operate in a grey area. For example, it's clearly the wrong choice for the young reporter to expose Mack (Shafrir doesn't dwell on the clear illegality of some of her characters' reporting tactics). And the audience is invited to consider: When is a dick pic sent to an employee not really a bad thing?

Startup probably won't win literary awards for its mellifluous prose, but it's a welcome, breezy addition to a category that's in danger of getting repetitive. The book dwells only briefly on the tech industry's well-known self-obsession or privacy invasions—though that’s in there, too. Shafrir creates several hilarious but plausible companies to populate her fictional New York tech scene: StrollUp (“Uber for Strollers”), iDecorate (an app that filter your tastes and select home decor for you), and TechScene (a believable amalgamation of BuzzFeed and TechCrunch, that seems to overvalue breaking news on startups' funding rounds).

And the book wholly resists taking cheap shots at nerds, or fear mongering about an AI revolution. Instead, Shafrir presents a humorous and thoughtful meditation about both the sexism in tech, and its counterpoint, as one character describes it: today’s “very male-hostile moment.” More than anything, the book will leave you wishing there were more like it.

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