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Generation 64 - A Book Review
by Taper/Triad

Considering the massive impact Commodore had in the early days of the computer industry, the company has hardly been properly rewarded in the history books, or in popular culture for that matter.

Apple usually gets a lot of undeserved credit for starting the home computer boom, but in comparison to the Commodore 64, the Apple II was a midget both in technical terms and when it came to sales. Still, Apple's view on history has been given the time of day in numerous books, documentaries and even movies. The one thing Apple always excelled at is public relations. Of course the history of IBM has been given a lot of focus as well, but mostly in the business realm, which is a lot more deserving. Apple and IBM are still alive today, so perhaps it's simply a case of the winners writing the history. Fact is that in comparison there is very little material published about Commodore.

There are a few videos covering different aspects of the company, like David Haynie's Deathbed Vigil tour of the factory and offices in West Chester on the last day of the fallen CBM back in 1994. Some interesting episodes of the old TV-show Computer Chronicles also cover Commodore products, and then we have Brian Bagnall's excellent book Commodore - A Company on the Edge which probably is the most extensive coverage of the early Commodore years you can find. Sadly, the follow up that aimed to cover also the Amiga years seems to be cancelled.

So imagine my delight when a new book was released, entitled Generation 64, focusing on the influence of the Commodore 64 on the generation many of us belong to. I knew I had to buy it as soon as I heard it was published, but I didn't get around to it and actually ended up getting it as a Christmas present a year back. It's written by Jimmy Wilhelmsson and is still available in print. So far Generation 64, is only available in Swedish, but rumours say there might be an opening for an international edition if demand is high enough. However, the book is heavily focused around the impact of the Commodore 64 in Sweden, so time will tell if non-Swedes find that interesting at all or not. Some of the people featured in the book are well-known or at least semi-known in Sweden, but probably totally unknown outside the country. Personally, I have read books about computer history focused on UK, Germany and USA with a great appetite, so that might not be a show-stopper after all.

Let me reveal my verdict at once, to completely ruin any tension among you readers. This is an excellent book and you should buy it. If you don't know Swedish, perhaps you should take a course at the local university. However, this wouldn't be a review if I didn't dive into the book a bit more than that, as well as throwing in some personal opinions and memories while at it. So, let us begin dissecting this rare offering!

Physically, the book is presented in a large coffee table format, consisting of 181 pages of mixed text and full-colour pictures. It boasts an attractive dust cover, and looks beautiful on any coffee table worth its beans. The pictures are vivid and well chosen, ranging from portraits of the interview subjects to commercial sales material for computers and games.

The book is divided in several chapters of varying length. First we have the mandatory foreword by the author, followed by a page containing some short information about the cultural and political climate in Sweden in 1983.

Memories of years gone by are never exact and always subjective. This is clearly evident in the text about 1983. It is indeed true that politicians of different leanings as well as unions at the time had some worries that technological progress and computerisation would result in higher unemployment. In hindsight this might very well be true, at least to some extent. There are some interesting views by for example American professor David Harvey on this subject, for those interested.

Trying to stop technical progress is however not a viable way to combat unemployment, as already Karl Marx noted in his study of the Luddites. Still, my opinion is that the tone in this first part of the book is overly critical. Reading it you might get the idea that the major leading forces in Sweden at the time were entirely against technical progress.

I remember the 80s quite differently. The worrying was definitely present and there was indeed suggestions brought forward that seem very alien to us today. However, I also remember a society totally fascinated with new technology. The same unions that worried about higher unemployment also financed computer courses for workers. A friend of mine, now in his 60s, used to teach in such a class. He vividly described the classroom, filled with Commodores and 1541 drives, and the enthusiasm among the participants.

My mother in law attended a course a few years earlier where the computers of choice were Sinclair ZX81 machines. That specific course was held by the (at the time) public phone company in Sweden, Televerket, for their employees. Everyone who completed the course was rewarded with a brand new ZX81 to bring home (the one my mother in law obtained is now situated at my place, still fully functional).

Many public schools also began introducing computers. Especially popular in classrooms was the Swedish ABC 80, but other brands were frequent as well, such as the Australian Microbee and a bit later Compis (which turned out to be quite a failure, though). The school I attended decided on the rather cute Microbees with greenish monochrome monitors, and I totally loved tinkering with them.

The Sweden I remember and grew up in embraced technology as much as worried about it. I think these pioneering years deserve to be evaluated in a somewhat more nuanced way. I agree more with the opinion stated by King Fisher in the interview conducted with him that the whole society had a dualistic view on computers and technology. I do however not agree that we should put people who had worries about computers 35 years ago against the wall and question them about it - I'm sure they are perfectly aware of the benefits of technology today, if they are still alive...

After the introduction the main part of the book begins. In each chapter we find in-depth interviews with individuals, grouped together according to their connection with the machine we all love in different ways. Focus is aimed at how the Commodore 64 influenced and transformed the life of different people. Granted, some individuals featured are hard to label and could very well belong to more than one of the chapters, but the author has done the best job possible inserting them into their specific context.

I will walk you through each and every chapter and describe the content in short, to give you an idea on the setup of the book.

Chapter 1 - The tale of the ABC 80

It's fitting that the first chapter of the book is a homage to the Swedish computer ABC 80 (manufactured by Luxor), which in a way can be seen as a forerunner to the home computer boom in Sweden. The ABC 80 was not a home computer per se, but mostly used in workplaces. However, the computer was accessible enough for those individuals interested in technology and electronics to be able to obtain one. By the standards of the day, it was also at least somewhat affordable as well.

After a short introduction to the ABC 80, the first interview in the book is conducted with Henrik Schyffert, a comedian with ground breaking TV-shows such as Nile City and Percy Tarar under his belt (known to every Swede). It turns out he took his first steps in the digital world on his dad's ABC 80, and has been a keen computer-user ever since. The chapter ends with a description of the C64, the computer that would succeed in conquering the homes in a whole different level than the ABC 80 ever did.

Chapter 2 - The tale of Handic

A few pages are dedicated to Handic, the exclusive and official Commodore importer in Sweden during the early years. Then the book moves on to Commodore and presents some snippets of text with Lars Molander, the first CEO of Commodore Sweden (after Handic lost the importing rights and CBM themselves started an official outfit). For those interested in Handic, I also recommend my own article in Attitude #13, which contain a lot of information on this company.

The main interview in this chapter is conducted with Therese Stridsberg, who tells us about her childhood, growing up as the daughter of a Handic sales manager and probably one of the first people in Sweden who played a Commodore game!

Chapter 3 - Gamers

Here we find interviews with four gentlemen who give us their background story on living with the C64 as kids. One of them, Thomas Engstrom, tells a hilarious tale when he and some other teenage boys visited an older man in his scruffy den to buy tapes with pirated games, and saw a naked woman on the bed in the apartment (must have been a win-win moment for a teenage boy). One of the other interviewed, cartoonist Simon Gardefors, shares his deep feeling of joy when rain started to fall, because that meant his parents would let him stay indoors in front of the C64. I'm sure many of us can relate to both, sourcing pirated games in peculiar ways and the curse of too good weather.

Chapter 4 - The 80's Generation

Katarina Glantz who is working on a paper about the creative side of the C64 scene is interviewed and makes some good points. Quote: The social bond between C64 users results in the culture living on way after the company Commodore vanished. The network was enormous and worldwide. Also Maria Hagglof is interviewed in this rather short chapter.

Chapter 5 - Musicians

In this chapter a few musicians explain how important the Commodore 64 was to them and their careers. Robert Stjarnstrom from Machine Supremacy gives credit to the C64 community for basically launching them into the limelight. Alexander Android Hofman from the Swedish cult synth band S.P.O.C.K. states that Without computers I probably wouldn't have begun making music. He had a special connection with FairLight and was considered an unofficial member in those days. Another S.P.O.C.K. member, Johan Plasteroid Billing was actually a full member of FLT. His handle was Flood and he was a frequent caller on the Swedish C64 scene boards (this is not mentioned in the book, though). Also Pelle Almqvist from The Hives talks about his experience of the C64.

Chapter 6 - The Hackers

Pex (more known to us sceners as Mahoney) is one of those featured in this chapter. He talks about the will to experiment and discover, as well as shares his insights on why the C64 is such a fantastic computer. Then we have Tomas Hubner, well-known game reviewer in Datormagazin (the largest Swedish computer mag at the time), who talks about how the modem was a real breakthrough for him. His parents wondered if he was on drugs because he looked so tired after nightly BBS sessions. Knowing the Swedish BBS scene, that was not an exaggerated suspicion... ;) Bjoern Xerox Knutsson is also interviewed, he grew up with computers thanks to his dad who was working for Ericsson. He was one of the earliest crackers and became an inspiration to another well-known Swede, Mr Z. Xerox also worked at Datormagazin.

Chapter 7 - The Demo scene

This chapter begins by displaying a full page of a piece of art made by Twoflower for the TRIAD demo Revolved, coupled by a text explaining what a demo is and where demos come from. We are also presented with some pictures and stories from early demo parties. The first interview in this chapter is with Flamingo. He tells us about when he broke out of local isolation and was recruited to TRIAD by Jerry, who had embarked on a mission to revitalize the group.

Chapter 8 - The crackers

Framed by the famous Cracked by Mr Z raster-intro, we get a small preface about cracking. Then the two groups who in their own ways came to define the Swedish cracking scene are presented: FairLight
and TRIAD.

The tale of how Strider and Black Shadow created FLT on a train back from the Easter Party 1987 is told. Bacchus is interviewed and talks about copyright and immaterial rights, and how the cracking scene is one of the reasons of the so-called Swedish IT-wonder. Also Strider is interviewed, sharing more information on his role in FLT.

Then the saga of TRIAD is put in print, including the philosophy of the three pillars. King Fisher talks about his background and how he found home in the C64 scene at the Alvesta Party in 1987. His role as an open source evangelist and his book Copyright finns inte (Copyright does not exist) is also covered.

Also Ixion is interviewed, still keen on staying anonymous and thus with his photograph pixelized. He tells us about how space was a major inspiration to him as a kid, how he had his own telescope and liked to watch Moonbase Alpha. He had very understanding parents who let him occupy the phone line and never commented his computer activities in a negative way. He also talks about how he formed his first group, The Pact, and how he and his supplier Skydive later came in contact with Lucifer as well as Fred, Arrow, RND and Mr Z. Talking about the latter, a section is also dedicated to Mr Z's Turbo 250 and his trainers.

The chapter fittingly ends with a homage to three fallen heroes: Jerry/TRIAD, 801DC/TRIAD and Jedi/Light, with an iconic picture of Jerry wearing his TRIAD-cap on a full page.

Chapter 9 - The Graphicians

Also this chapter is populated by sceners. Ogami/FairLight shares his story about being a C64 graphician, doing most of his work in Koala Painter, and how he later ended up working in the graphics industry. Next on stage is Morpheus of Flash Inc. and fame. Apart from speaking about his past as a demo graphician for Flash, he talks about his work with preservation for Last but certainly not least is The Sarge, once a celebrated graphician in TRIAD and FairLight, now designing graphical content for large TV-shows such as The Gladiators and Let's Dance. Sarge tells us about how Ixion recruited him to TRIAD, how he later ended up in FLT, and also a bit about how the game Rubicon came to be.

Chapter 10 - The Entrepreneurs

An infamous nazi once said Whenever I hear the word culture I reach for my gun. Well, whenever I hear the word entrepreneur I reach for mine... However, as entrepreneurship is the buzzword of today I can't seem to avoid it reading this book...

Mikael Pawlo started his career as a writer of the Commodore 64 pages in Svenska Hemdator Nytt, the main rival to Datormagazin in the Swedish computer press. To some C64 sceners he is probably more known as The Bymp/Tropical Duo. While Mikael's story about growing up with the C64 is interesting in its own right, the connection to his later entrepreneurship is pretty vague if you ask me.

Also Maze/Noice is featured in this chapter, and while it's really nice to see sceners getting some well-deserved attention, the next interview is the highlight of this chapter. In 1983 Philip Diab established the distributor American Action which distributed games from various US companies, as well as games from Greve Graphics like Soldier One and Captured. The story on how American Action (or possibly their sister outfit Soft Express) fooled HK Electronics into buying loads of old crap games is just great.

Chapter 11 - The Game Developers

This chapter concentrates on a few Swedes involved in the game industry on the C64. Arne Fernlund wrote the first successful commercial game from Sweden, Space Action, which was sold via Handic.

Next up is Lars Hard from previously mentioned Greve Graphics, who almost have a mythical glow around them, at least for people in Sweden familiar with the Commodore 64. Their office was located in Helsingborg, just a 20-minute car ride from where I'm sitting right now writing these lines. Sadly only two pages are dedicated to this firm. Some more coverage would have been nice. The last man interviewed in this chapter is another scener, Creeper/Antic, who among other things talks about his involvement with Cherry Software, who distributed his game Bouncy Balls in 1996.

This was needless to say a bit too late to gain commercial success (but we hard core C64 freaks surely appreciated the effort nonetheless).

Chapter 12 - The tale of the Amiga

The last chapter of the book deals with the Amiga as the successor to the Commodore 64, and how the two scenes exist in parallel to each other, a fact valid still today (even if one easily can argue that the C64 scene is still the most vital of the two).

For me this is the weakest chapter of the book, and rather thin page-wise as well. Peter Sunde of Pirate Bay fame is interviewed and talks about his background with the Amiga and connection with the Amiga scene. Also Angelica Norgren, radio host for a popular gaming program, is interviewed and talks about when her family obtained an Amiga when she was a kid.

As a final conclusion, Generation 64 is a well-written and interesting book. In comparison with the book 8-Bits in the 80s, which deals with Nintendo and their Swedish distributor Bergsala, Generation 64 is better in all aspects. Everything from the flow of the text to the layout is executed with style. It's currently selling for around 26 Euro, which is a bargain. Perhaps it's not too late for Commodore to claim its rightful place in history, some 21 years after the demise of the company. Let us hope for more coverage in mainstream media also in the future.


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