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Amazon.com / Erin McCarthy

10 Totally '90s Books About the Internet

Amazon.com / Erin McCarthy
Amazon.com / Erin McCarthy

The '90s were a heady time: So many laser backdrops in school photos, so many neon accessories, Saved By the Bell, pre-meltdown Britney. The Internet was fun, if somewhat limited—mostly we just browsed Geocities pages and hung out in AOL chat rooms. But authors of the '90s found interesting ways to tap into the fear of the unknown and write Internet-centric fiction as awesome as it was terrible. Here are 10 of those books.

1. Net Bandits (1996)

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Michael Coleman’s mid-'90s teen thriller took chatroom anxiety to new heights when he wove a tale of an anonymous boy who seeks help from his online pals:

Will the Internet help save a life? TAMSYN, GET HELP. The message appears on Tamsyn's computer screen. It's signed ZMASTER, the online name of a mystery kid. Tamsyn doesn't know if she should take the cry for help seriously, but she and her friend Josh soon start to think something is definitely wrong. Can they find out who ZMASTER is in time to help? Electronic messages flash around the globe as friends thousands of miles apart try to find a boy in terrible danger...

2. Romiette & Julio (1999)

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Romeo and Juliet got what may have been their first Internet-centric update in Sharon M. Draper’s edgy urban young adult novel, Romiette & Julio, which explored not only the new and exciting world of online dating, but also the '90s-era social drama of interracial relationships and gang warfare:

Romiette, an African-American girl, and Julio, a Hispanic boy, discover that they attend the same high school after falling in love on the Internet, but are harassed by a gang whose members object to their interracial dating.

3. Interception: An Internet Thriller (1997)

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If you thought email privacy was a modern concern, Graham Watkins’s 372-page thrillride from 1997 should put that idea to rest:

Andrea Lawrence is a recently divorced New York psychologist with a client who abruptly left her husband and children for a man she met on the Internet—and disappeared. Trying to reconstruct the case profile, Andrea finds herself drawn into the electronic world of vicarious relationships, fantasy romance, and Grant Kingsley. After the tragic death of his wife, Grant had retreated to a California ranch, unwilling to engage in even casual social contact. Until he discovered the Internet, which offered long-distance friendships, romances, and virtual sex. The chemistry between the two is immediate. As her affection for Grant grows into love, Andrea comes to understand the power of electronic connection. She and Grant arrange to meet face to face. But their E-mail has been intercepted and doctored by a third party, one with its own terrifying reasons for interfering with a private etectronic [sic] love affair. Things begin to go eerily wrong when both are met by impostors and diverted from their mutual destination. Sensing that the person he met at the airport is not the same one he met on the Internet, Grant begins a desperate search for Andrea, but instead finds himself caught up in a ruthless conspiracy of espionage, kidnapping, and murder.

4. Danger.com #2: Firestorm (1997)

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With “cyberheads” and murder and “webs” of lies, Jordan Cray’s YA net-thriller couldn’t tap much deeper into the fears of Netscapers everywhere:

A wrong turn down the information superhighway. A strange chatroom where users speak in code. Randy Kincaid is suddenly caught in a web of lies—and murder. With the help of cyberhead Maya Bessamer, Randy must find out who's behind the killings. Or the next victim might be him.

5. back\slash (1996)

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William H. Lovejoy jumped right on the new Internet crime political fiction bandwagon with this massive, intricate tale of cyberthieves and Executive Orders:

It starts with unexplained glitches in the U.S. banking system: private funds are transferred and automatic teller transactions are scrambled. It spreads into the business community, first nationally, then throughout the world. A cyber terrorist has done the unthinkable: by seizing control of the Worldwide Information Network, he has the power to close airports at will, paralyze telephone communications across continents, stop the sales of weapons, and put a stranglehold on arms delivery systems on land and sea. As the global community marshalls [sic] its forces against this insidious threat, nations from Israel to Russia, from France to Japan, all join in uneasy alliance. And in the United States, the President issues CIA officer Peter Martin an Executive Order: to use all the means at his disposal to stop this unseen enemy—before it is too late.

6. Monsters in Cyberspace (1997)

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So here we have a complicated situation: A girl’s toys are not only coming to life—creepy all on its own, really—but they’re also using her computer. And her dad is missing. And she’s 13. This is heavyweight stuff, straight from the pen of Dian Curtis Regan:

Thirteen-year-old Rilla tries to hide the fact that her stuffed toy monsters from the Monster of the Month Club are coming to life, while their use of her Internet account threatens her online search for her absent father.

7. Cyber Bride (1999)

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Annette Couch-Jareb’s Cyber Bride appears to be out of print, which is extremely unfortunate since it’s described as “the best book I’ve ever read” in a review from 1999. We do have the plot summary, though:

A relationship through the buffer of her computer is the only sort of attachment that Kate Delaney seeks. For her, a romantic Saturday night consists of a cup of hot cocoa, her cat at her feet, and a long "chat" with her anonymous internet friend, Cyber Scribe. Kate has unconsciously walled herself off from the outside world. Her only human contacts are with her art agent and her grandfather until Edward Tucker, the handsome man in the coveted terrace apartment floors above her, makes a concerted effort to introduce himself. By accident Kate soon learns that Tucker and Cyber Scribe are the same person. Can she trust a man who conceals his identity and tries to woo her simultaneously as both Tucker and Cyber Scribe?

If you’re really intrigued—and you know you are—new copies are available on Amazon starting at $173.92 CDN.

8. Sleepover Club #17: The Sleepover Club Surfs the Net (1999)

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Fiona Cummings gets risky and tosses aside scary stories of child abductions and international bank heists. The ever-excitable Sleepover girls decide to surf the net, and what do they find? Nary a murder nor duplicitous lover, but a fun-filled land of contests and “coo-el” prizes!

Sleepover Club No 17 in which the girls Fliss, Lyndz, Kenny, Frankie and Rosie hook up to the Internet. High-tech excitement all the way—brilliant! Rosie is hooked up to the Internet on her home computer and she and the rest of her Sleepover pals are totally amazed and impressed! Excitement mounts when Rosie finds a competition to design a Home Page, with fab prizes for the winners and runners-up. The only trouble is, the Home Page has to be for a club that the entrants belong to. Clever Frankie points out that they do all belong to a club—the Sleepover Club! To everyone's great excitement, the girls come second! The prize includes a fully-designed Home Page up and running on the Web. Now that is truly coo-el!

9. How I Spent My Last Night on Earth (1998)

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Internet rumors are not to be believed under any circumstances. These days we have Snopes, but in a gentler time—say, 1998—people just kind of ran with it. So what happens at the (probably) fictional Time Zone High when rumors of the apocalypse start flying around the information superhighway? If your name is Legs Hanover, love happens. Thank you, Todd Strasser, for painting such a stark and realistic portrait of the End Times:

Something strange is happening in the parking lot of Time Zone High: The established cliques aren't in their usual gathering places. Instead, everyone has joined in one large, frantically interacting mass. Why? Maybe it's because the world may end tomorrow. For the attractive, brilliant Legs Hanover, this poses daunting questions: What are the romantic possibilities, given she may only have twenty-four hours to live before a giant asteroid smashes into the earth? Or is it all just an Internet cyberhoax? Either way, it's time for Legs to meet the object of her daydreams—the handsome, frequently truant Andros Bliss. Because during the next twenty-four hours, everyone's life is bound to change. Todd Strasser continues the Time Zone High saga with this hilarious, thought-provoking novel about emotional confusion on the brink of disaster.

10. It Came From the Internet! (1999)

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Few things are more '90s nostalgic than R.L. Stine books, and this one is doubly so because this is the tag line:

Your computer just gave you a virus! Get help from a bizarre teenage computer hacker or a doctor prescribing computer chips and dip...

Your computer gave you a virus. We're betting that many a nine-year-old was afraid to feed his Neopets after reading this.


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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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