There’s not a great deal published about the culture of the early computing industry, so I read with great interest anything I find that captures the feel of the time. I’ve put my notes about Robinson Mason’s C64 Walkabout together so that we have here what I’ll call a review!
Mason says in the first chapter that it’s unimaginable that a computer launched in 2012 would last until 2024. This partly brings to mind the disposable nature of computing today, the accelerated turnover that feeds landfill sites around the world; but this is only in passing – the comment is that the Commodore 64 enjoys a landmark status that few other pieces of technology can boast. A lot of this is down to the communities that have built up around the machine, much of which is documented in the book. What comes across strongest is the enthusiasm of the devotees such as Mason who make up those communities.
This is a ‘how to’ book that will help anyone whose interest has already been aroused by the network of video, audio and textual content put online by enthusiasts. The author’s detailed knowledge covers collecting, the demo scene that emerged in the late eighties, computer fairs, adventure gaming, non-gaming software, the Vic-20, emulators, interactive fiction, and all without resort to lengthy discussions of the main games on the C64 that have already been discussed to within a centimetre of their life.
Coverage, in this sense, is partial to the author’s experience, which although extensive, limits the comparisons. This is not necessarily a problem. More even-handed coverage would require exhaustive research outside the resources of an enthusiast, and would be unlikely to be recompensed by the low revenues possible from an eBook for a niche market. What partiality brings to the reading experience to Walkabout is a character and quirkiness that even-handed coverage would miss. A roundup of adventure games suddenly digresses into an interview with a programmer. Watch out for the charming anecdote about C64 music and piano lessons.
It’s hard to imagine this book encouraging more than a modest interest in C64 retro computing, despite this apparent intention. It’s not that the advantages aren’t argued enough, in fact, they occur repeatedly throughout. However, the unconverted are unlikely to get to most of this encouragement when it’s woven into material that’s aimed at aficionados. Likewise, aficionados may find themselves feeling like the converted being preached at. The book cries out for a bridge. For example, having a ‘The Case for the C64’ chapter early on and free to read on Amazon’s Look Inside could separate the appeal to new audiences from the instructional content better.
Not that structure needs to be so rigid that it loses balance. Helping readers and giving personal touches aren’t mutually exclusive. The retro discoveries made by the author’s daughter bring a parental angle that’s a touching reminder that enthusiasms can be passed on. This is both personal and informational. Family / intergenerational aspects are what eBook authors can do more of that authors publishing through traditional means are often discouraged from. There’s a balance to Walkabout’s getting down to business and chatty diversions that suggests that the enthusiasm to make the case for Commodore retro can’t be entirely separated from clearer organisation for those looking to follow a resource. For this reason it’s hard to call the book a ‘reference’ in the usual sense. Take this passage about caring for vintage hardware:
It is also a good practice to clean the contacts on the cartridge port and cartridge contacts with rubbing alcohol (91% – not 71% – the 71% has inactive ingredients for skin contact that could be an unnecessary contaminant). The contacts can oxidize or might just be dirty from storage over the years. Despite these efforts you may find that reseating the cartridge will work best.
Like elsewhere, the recommendations can read like a mix of grooming, nursing, art conservation, and even love letter. Preservation is a theme that runs throughout, as it is bound to, and it came up with useful things for my novel. Particularly useful were the historical references such as the attempts made by C64 developers to keep up with bigger machines by squeezing more out, e.g. by software that required multiple disk swaps.
There’s an unstated but implied point here that’s a good one to end on. As technologies age, the love shared among devotees will inevitably rub up against the upgrade culture that makes technological development possible. Anyone interested in this friction will find this book especially rewarding.