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Net Slick

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Background Buzz: San Francisco's new-media mavens are chronicled in Carla Sinclair's digerati roman a clef.

Signal to Noise
By Carla Sinclair
HarperEdge, $22.50 paper

'Signal to Noise' fails to catch the creative pulse of San Francisco's multimedia gulch

By Jenn Shreve

CARLA SINCLAIR'S first novel, Signal to Noise, is part roman a clef, part romantic thriller--and all bad. Sinclair is best known as the author of Net Chick: A Smart-Girl Guide to the Wired World--a disorganized collection of Web site reviews, interviews and profiles of women on the Web--and the cofounder of bOING Boing, a pop-culture zine. In Signal to Noise, Sinclair draws on her own experiences on the cyber-frontier to parody the denizens of San Francisco's "multimedia gulch."

The new-media types who populate Signal to Noise are twentysomething hipsters working for start-up magazines and Web sites. Like ants at a picnic, these writers, editors and hangers-on gather at Caffe Centro in South Park--the java dispensary of choice for San Francisco's cybermedia junkies.

Enter our heroine, Kat, a 24-year-old intern at Going Gaga (read: bOING Boing), a publication promoted as "high weirdness for the techno savvy." She is obviously taken with the fast-paced publishing world around her while simultaneously frustrated with her insignificant role in it: "Everyone at this cafe has a goddamn book deal except her."

Kat's friends are talented trust-fund kids (starting magazines with names like Force, a.k.a. the now defunct Might magazine), designers at Esprit and the like. They drink a lot, wear velvet pants and worship a writer named Darren Couper (Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X and Microserfs). "Kat feels the pulse, wants to be the center of it," Sinclair writes of her heroine's plight. "But for now she fidgets in the periphery."

Jim Knight, the uptight features editor at Signal (Sinclair's fictional version of Wired Magazine), beats along with that same frantic pulse: "At Signal there are two echelons, and as Jim sees it, the two don't mix very well. Those in his own echelon, which include the publisher and top editors, have cocktail parties and go to private business retreats and meet the digital world's movers and shakers." The rest, Kat's group of friends, "go to raves and smoke a lot of dope and read zines."

OF COURSE, it's only natural that workaholic, suit-wearing Jim will be thrown in with the hoi polloi he so despises. In a bungled effort to hang out with Darren Couper, Jim and Kat and a few of her friends end up at his place, where Kat accidentally gambles away $200,000 of Jim's money at a gambling Web site called El Tropical run by trailer-park gangster wannabes in Las Vegas.

At this point, the novel leaps from parody to romantic thriller, landing with a painful kersplat from which it never recovers. The gangsters kidnap Jim and Kat, who are far more concerned about their budding mutual attraction than they are about guns being held to their heads or the ruined lives they've been forced to leave behind.

Signal to Noise reads like a teenage fantasy. Sinclair's plot is a Writing 101 skeletal structure upon which she drapes details of the culture of the "digerati" in hopes that her insider's observations will provide the substance her story is so sorely lacking.

The characters are as deep as the clothes they're wearing and the accessories that clutter their apartments. Unfortunately, Sinclair has passed over the truly interesting stories that are unfolding in South Park's flourishing world of young, energetic self-publishers, talented programmers and cutting-edge designers who are revolutionizing the ways we think and communicate.

The only people who will want to read Signal to Noise are the ones who might hope to find their thinly veiled counterparts in its pages--which makes a perverse kind of sense if they're anywhere near as self-absorbed and shallow as Sinclair portrays them. But to anyone who isn't tightly clued in to the area's scene, culture and history, Signal to Noise is just another poorly written romance thriller. You'd be better off thumbing through a trashy paperback at the checkout stand or surfing the Web.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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