By Gary Flood
Is it possible to write a good Silicon Valley novel? The nearest anyone seems to have come is Po Bronson with his recently published The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest (Random House) – but it’s still a near miss rather than a bulls-eye. Bronson, who looks like the Marvel Comics version of Thor the War God on his mean and moody author jacket picture, made something of a splash with his earlier Bombadiers, and Million in some ways repeats that earlier outing’s successes and failings. In his first novel he lampooned the world of San Francisco based high- pressure bond salesmen. Bombadiers was often funny, but was so obviously a tribute to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 that anyone half-familiar with that work must have groaned repeatedly. Bronson had worked at one of the West Coast investment banks (he grew up in Seattle, then graduated in economics from Stanford), so there is some vague hint of authenticity in there somewhere. His new novel, which paints a Silicon Valley portrait full of betrayal, ego mania, double-dealing, entrepreneurial ambition and geek psychology, is again, often funny, has some good ideas, but suffers from not having enough of an idea of its own to sustain its drive. Bronson claims in an afternote that the novel has some basis in his own experience, too. For the last couple of years he has been working as a high-tech reporter for The New York Times, Wired, and Forbes ASAP, and he says that while covering this beat I kept hearing stories that represented, in effect, [logical] NOT gates: entrepreneurs who had been impeded, cheated or canceled by the gatekeepers of power. He adds that he was asked so often if the novel he was working on was about Bill Gates that he was thinking of calling it Not Gates – hence the pun that through Gates’ current near monopoly on desktop computer operating systems he has become the ultimate gatekeeper of power in Silicon Valley. In fact, what Million should be subtitled is Why Someone Invented The Network Computer, because that is what his good-guy characters – well- meaning Andy Caspar, supernerd programmer Tiny, Salman who lies about all the wild sex he’s having with his nonexistent girlfriend and sneery Darrell – do. Gates isn’t in the novel and isn’t mentioned, nor is Network Computer poster boy Lawrence J Ellison. Instead we have Omega Logic, which is a bit like Apple and a bit like Intel, which has outsourced development of its next generation 686 chip to a non-profit research lab called La Honda. Here reigns ironman Francis Benoit, an excellent villain, given to truly Steve Jobs-like bursts of rudeness and arrogance. The ironman term, invented by Benoit, denotes an engineer whose brain is so mighty, whose powers of concentration so intense, that they can devote their energies to any computing problem and solve it. Benoit is angry with Omega for having made him dumb down his previous chip design, the Falcon, so that it was slow at running sixteen-bit programs, and in revenge he hatches a truly Machiavellian plot involving the innocent Caspar, who is landed in what seems to be a stinker of a La Honda project: invent a $300 computer. The moment it looks like he and his, at first reluctant, team seem to be cracking the problem, by developing the ultimate cross-platform environment called the Hypnotizer (so named because it entrances whatever CPU it’s running on to let it do its thing), the boys are rudely thrown out of La Honda altogether. They attempt to set up their own start-up to commercialize the idea, and the rest of the story concerns the (sometimes wildly over the top) twists and turns of Andy versus Francis’ superplot to screw Omega, and in the process torpedo Caspar’s own dreams of commercial success. All in all, the less compelling parts of the book prove to be the humdrum story of Andy’s company, Universe, and its search for funding; much better is the first part of the book, where Bronson has some fun with the ironmen and their rigid, ostensibly technical but fundamentally macho sensibilities: The general consensus around La Honda was that plain old smarts were not very rare. Smarts and fifty cents could buy a cup of coffee. Smarts and confidence, though – that was the explosive mixture. A fortress of confidence was the proper image to project. Bravado. In those halls there was so much bravado and machismo bumping into each other that if you lit a match the whole place might explode. Andy waited in fear. He’d heard rumors about Francis Benoit’s supposedly simple quizzes; he’d heard Francis liked to create huge grids composed of hundreds of oh-so-simple little mathematical questions and have ironmen race to see who could finish the grid first, testing them as though they were two microprocessors. Francis’ eyes were closed. When he opened them he said, ‘Okay. You have thirty seconds to answer this one question… What time is it when the big hand is on the four and the little hand is on the eleven?’… A man in a panic, he could get anything wrong… Brains could be as sharp as quartz or dull as Jell-O, depending on the way a man handled pressure. Andy fails the deceptively simple test, the first of many times Francis gets the better of him, because he has not learnt to be as measured as the microprocessor logic the latter spends his time designing. The struggle between the two is fun and Tiny the huge shuffling techie is a great character. But the rest of the cast are stereotypes or stick figures (Alisa the design student roomate/girlfriend, Conrad Goss the shadowy investor, Omega’s over the top chairman Gordon Papa Lewis) and the story kind of goes nowhere. Like Bombadiers and Catch-22, with Million it’s Java; anyone who knows anything about the history of the last twenty-four months in IT will find themselves constantly complaining, But it’s a Network Computer, stupid! That said, Million is probably a better novel than Douglas Coupland’s earlier Microserfs (which, puzzlingly, is being turned into a movie – maybe they’ll add some automatic weapon discharges to beef up the plot), or even Michael Malone’s The Bitch Goddess. But maybe not every industry has an Arthur Hailey (who made some kind of drama out of the hotel and aviation industries) or even a Mario Puzo (who did the same favor for organized crime). Maybe IT is so dull that there couldn’t be such a figure – after all, not too many life-threatening dramas result from you not documenting your applets. Still, Million deserves a glance, if only for the truly hideous and amusing Francis, a Renaissance cardinal of intrigue who hates people who wear shiny shoes.