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The User-Friendly Manual to the World of PC Clones

Books: Po Bronson's new novel takes a penetrating look at the software wars, leaving many to wonder just how closely his characters are modeled after real people.

March 25, 1997|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — When Po Bronson started hanging around Silicon Valley to research a novel, he met some real entrepreneurs with a great idea for a CD-ROM venture. In Silicon Valley, great ideas are as common as nice weather. Bronson himself once had a great idea for a greeting card company that went belly up. But he figured that the company behind the CD-ROM might be a gold mine for material, so he threw $10,000 into the undertaking, expecting to write it off as a business expense. Instead, the start-up was snapped up by a bigger company and Bronson's stake jumped twelvefold.

"I just wanted some access," Bronson says with a laugh.

These days, that's not a problem for the clever and irreverent writer, whose work seems touched by good fortune at every turn. The 32-year-old author's new book--"The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest: A Silicon Valley Novel" (Random House)--has already grabbed the attention of critics and nerds alike.

"Half the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems, is busy playing pin-the-tale-on-the programmer with pre-release copies of what may turn out to be the 'Primary Colors' of Silicon Valley," gushed Time. "Bronson has filled the plot with enough corporate double-dealing, espionage and sleight of hand to libel all of California."

As soon as sections started appearing in Wired magazine, San Jose Mercury News reporters were quick to e-mail Bronson wanting to know if they were the prototype for the journalist ("Really, it's me," confides Bronson, who gathered some of the material while writing for Wired).

Salon, the online magazine, hailed it as the first Silicon Valley novel to live up to the title, declaring Bronson far superior to such cyberhacks as Douglas Coupland and Pat Dillon.

"I didn't set out to write a great Silicon Valley book," says Bronson, something of a writerly equivalent of a computer nerd, whose boots could use a shine, his old car a hubcap and his house some furniture. "I just wanted to raise the bar. I think it's a successful piece of writing; it moves along and gets to the personality and drama of the industry. I just wanted to write a book with a plot."

The novel tells the story of a group of programmers led by idealistic Andy Casper and their quest to take on the industry with a $300 computer for the masses (the VW, as in Volkswagen, PC). His nemesis is Francis Benoit, an evil genius who, simmering over the dumbing down of his last computer chip, snares Casper and crew into a web of deceit and manipulation, legally stealing their revolutionary computer language and positioning himself to become the Bill Gates of the Net.

To many, Casper sounds like Steve Jobs, the visionary Apple Computer co-founder. Others peg Benoit as Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.

The hype, however, tends to obscure the point that the book is really about the lowly engineers-- "ironmen" programmers who speak in laconic phrases like the code they write and forget to take off their bike helmets when indoors--and their dreams and struggles against the gatekeepers, moneylenders and power brokers of the valley.

"Silicon Valley was the opposite of the hype," Bronson says. "It was the real people who were the drama. It wasn't these great men who were leading the company, but these ordinary people. Dreams don't come true; people are motivated by these myths and nothing comes true." To Bronson, Silicon Valley is less a meritocracy than a cutthroat business jungle.

Bronson (ne Philip but dubbed Po since childhood) first learned about the rapacious world of business when his divorced mom tried to jump from being a secretary to bond broker, which meant having to pack off her three sons to live with their insurance salesman father. The job didn't work out, but the Seattle native kept his mother's experience in mind while studying economics at Stanford and dreaming of becoming a writer. He took a job at PG & E, double-checking a computer's math, sold bonds for First Boston, worked at a political newsletter and then at independent publisher Mercury House, before creating his own small company, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, which he still runs.

At the same time, Bronson wrote two novels and picked up a master of fine arts in creative writing from San Francisco State University and finally produced a novel that he liked enough to take to an agent.

"Bombardiers" (Random House) is the story of a young bond trader who blows a bundle of his company's money and disappears, shaking the world financial system. The book hit the shelves the same week in 1995 that British financial behemoth Barings announced that a 28-year-old employee named Nicholas Leeson had lost more than $1 billion and dropped out of sight.

The book sold fairly well, letting Bronson quit the publishing job and move into the "writer's grotto," a flat shared by a number of young authors in the Castro district.

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