Code Boys

Well-informed fiction -- like Po Bronson's new novel -- may be the best way to map the infinite-loop mind-set of Silicon Valley's obsessed and brightest.


Scott Rosenberg
February 6, 1997 4:07PM (UTC)

good software coders don't waste processor cycles -- valuable silicon brain time. Similarly, a good novelist doesn't squander his allocation of human brain time.

It's only a few pages into Po Bronson's absorbingly sharp new "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" that he nails the mind-set of the engineers he writes about. Bronson builds a precision micro-farce: When a photography team arrives at the grounds of the legendary La Honda Research Center to set up an advertising shoot with an exec, they get the runaround from prankster staffers who send them from building to building, across the sylvan think-tank campus and ultimately back where they started.

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More than a joke, it's a real-world illustration of the novel's central image: the infinite loop. What the hapless visitors to La Honda are experiencing is not just the sadism of socially maladjusted savants. It is, as one of Bronson's characters muses, a lesson in how these computer engineers view the world.

When a computer hits an infinite loop, a feedback cycle in which it keeps repeating the same circular sequence of instructions, it stops responding to commands -- it "freezes." To Bronson's engineers, "People can be caught in their own infinite loops and have no idea they're caught in a loop." Not only people, but human society itself, with its political and economic gridlocks, "had some time ago entered into an infinite loop and stopped responding." It turns out that the characters' cynical veneers hide a secret idealism: "They all knew why they worked around the clock, week in and week out: they wanted to jolt society out of its infinite loop!"

Bronson's previous novel, "Bombardiers," chronicled the greed and malaise among young bond traders in the mad days of the savings-and-loan bailouts. His new book, despite the title's promise of entrepreneurial shenanigans, is interested less in Silicon Valley's money games than in its mind games.

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On the surface, "The First $20 Million Is the Hardest" (Random House, $23, 302 pages) follows what has by now become a standard script for computer-industry fiction: Some brash young engineers break away from the corporate mothership, form a startup company and try to change the world with their revolutionary product -- then discover that Things Aren't So Simple and end up burnt out or bought out. But Bronson doesn't just use this narrative as an opportunity to drop names or repurpose nonfiction reporting; he turns it into an excuse for poking inside his engineer characters' heads. His subtitle for "The First $20 Million" is "A Silicon Valley Novel" -- and it's the first book to give that label some genuine value.

SILICON VALLEY -- WHERE FICTION PANTS TO KEEP UP WITH FACT

The popular media may greet all things technical or "geeky" with profound boredom, but that hasn't prevented the culture of the computer business from becoming trendy. Money is always hot, and the enormous wealth this industry has created bears its own alluring scent. But money alone doesn't make much of a story; no matter how it's been made, it always looks the same. Thrillers that try to trade on the ostensible glamour of the high-tech world could just as easily be about finance or couture. Such novels generally tell us more about the publishing industry's money fetishism than about technology itself and the people who create it.

The first recent novel to get more serious about the mind of Silicon Valley was Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs" (now in HarperPerennial paperback, $13, 371 pages). In following his young characters on a comic journey from inside the belly of Gates' beast to the promised land of the startup company, Coupland got the lingo and the attitude right. But "Microserfs" is chopped up into tiny diary-entry-style bits and weighed down with pop-culture effluvia and ephemeral trivia; it sacrifices long-term insights for short-term nods of recognition. Only 2 years old, it feels as dated as the ads it quotes.

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After "Microserfs" came Pat Dillon's "The Last Best Thing" (Simon & Schuster, $23, 350 pages). Subtitled "A classic tale of greed, deception and mayhem in Silicon Valley," it was published last October after serialization in the San Jose Mercury News. Dillon, a veteran journalist, uses the novel's installments as handy containers for a compilation of goofy anecdotes culled from news clippings and rendered just one notch more fanciful: exploding laptops and anonymous cyber-sex sirens, glamorous female Asian FBI agents hunting the Unabomber, Survival Research Labs robot fights and cellular-phone taps.

Stripped of this topicality, "The Last Best Thing" is a straightforward roman-`-clef about Infinity, a once-visionary computer company (much like Apple) that is now pinning its revival hopes on a not-yet-named startup company run by a former exec. The hapless marketing VP and the boss' savvy Latina executive assistant gradually discover that their own company is -- surprise! -- a digital Potemkin Village; there's no product, just vapor and hype.

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"The Last Best Thing" energetically shows off the fruits of its author's immersion in the life of Silicon Valley today. But too often it reads like the newspaper column it began as rather than the novel it wants to be. Dillon lacks the novelist's skill of building a world that's recognizably true yet unmistakably fictional; the wine vintages he so precisely names and the real locations he describes never congeal into the substratum for a credible story.

It may be that "Silicon Valley novels" have been so disappointing so far because Silicon Valley is still very much in flux as an economic entity and psychic location -- and very much available as a subject for great nonfiction. It's hardly surprising that the influences Po Bronson cites in a playful quiz on his Web site are all nonfiction books like Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine," Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" and Jerry Kaplan's "Startup." Kaplan's chronicle of the rise and fall of his ill-fated pen-computing venture, the Go Corporation, is justly popular for capturing the nail-biting start-up experience. A novelist would and does have a hard time matching the sheer absurdity of its snapshots of paranoid IBM security details, cliffhanger refinancings and fire-alarm-plagued demos.

At the beginning of Kaplan's book, one of his colleagues explains why he's willing to bail out of an established job and hitch his wagon to a startup: Developing Go's pen-based computer is "a chance to really make a difference." That ideal, however battered and compromised, motivates the typical Silicon Valley-novel protagonist. It is certainly what gets Bronson's hero, Andy Caspar, started.

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A nasty bit of office politics leaves Caspar -- a former marketing guy trying to make it among the "ironmen" software engineers at La Honda -- in charge of what seems to be a dead-end project: building a $300 computer for the average Joe, a digital Volkswagen or "VWPC." When the Intel-like sponsors of La Honda -- afraid that the project might undercut their own profits from overpowered, overpriced PCs -- turn the screws on the project, Caspar thinks maybe he's onto something and goes independent with his motley team.

Bronson does a fine job of explaining not only the economics of the computer business and the high-risk workings of venture capital but the dynamics of software and hardware development as well. As his characters pursue their VWPC grail, one of them, an overweight coder named Tiny who's prone to "freezing up" in epileptic seizures, comes up with a nifty program called the Hypnotizer -- a kind of universal system emulator, a lot like the Java "virtual machine" that powers many of today's real-life cross-platform schemes.

"The First $20 Million" explains these innovations, and their significance, in lucid, entertaining language. Sometimes the book offers sharp reminders of tech-biz blunders that never quite made it into the pool of common knowledge -- as when an arrogant chip expert seethes with resentment that his design for a processor much like the Pentium was hobbled so it could still work with older software.

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With other material, Bronson can be a little behind the curve. The VWPC sounds a lot like the "network computer" that Oracle and others have been struggling to build, but that dream rapidly changed from "a $500 PC for everyone" to "a $1,000 PC to help corporations shave their budgets." Meanwhile, WebTV and its competitors have moved into the same Everyman's-computer niche by piggybacking on the appeal of the Web rather than the vision of a universal operating system.

But the technical timeliness of "The First $20 Million" is pretty much irrelevant. Long after the "network computer" has faded from sight and other innovations have spun through similar hype-and-trash cycles, readers will still be able to enjoy the book's characterization of the technology industry's captains and foot soldiers.

THE SOUL OF THE NEW MACHINISTS

Puzzles and logic games obsess Bronson's characters. Sometimes they seem to view their lives as just higher-stakes versions of "Myst," "The Seventh Guest" or the classic "Adventure." When they aren't playing infinite-loop tricks on visiting photographers, they're playing a game called Ten Women with each other to take the edge off their workaholic loneliness:

"In Ten Women, each guy has to choose -- from the next ten women he sees -- which woman he would like to spend a week with on a deserted tropical island. Every woman counts towards the ten, even if it's an old grandmother feeding pigeons at the bus stop ... The game had one catch: A guy had to pick his woman as soon as he saw her, not at the end after watching all ten."

The game isn't just an idle outlet for testosterone. It's yet another lesson in their industry's dog-eat-dog dynamics:

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"It was like shipping software; if you chose not to ship, you couldn't ever get the opportunity back ... The relevant question never goes away: Do I ship now, entering the market before my competitors, thereby gaining early market share? Or do I wait, improve my program until it's the best on the market, and steal market share with a superior product?"

One pleasure of reading "The First $20 Million" lies in the deft way Bronson transforms the pastimes of the engineer tribe into symbols that illuminate their world. Analytical yet naive, methodical yet easily spooked, the book's young characters are both likable and irritating, smart and smart-alecky. As they adopt the nearby Burger King as their board room and argue about how to calculate their fledgling company's market valuation, we get a good sense of how it feels to become your own boss -- both the charge and the vertigo.

Another pastime the La Honda engineers enjoy is called the Grids: big, randomly generated arrays of algebraic statements that need to be solved in a certain order to resolve every variable. The "ironmen" race to solve these puzzles, competing with one another and, in one hilarious scene, with their intimidating boss.

Like Ten Women, the Grids, too, have a purpose, Bronson explains. They embody a basic method of the engineering way of thinking -- "to break a problem into smaller and smaller parts, until each part is easily solvable." Such an approach is ideal when you're building chips with millions of transistors or programs with millions of lines of code. It doesn't necessarily translate when you are trying to steer a business or bring an ideal to life.

The end of "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" leaves Caspar and his colleagues at a point where, having dodged various bullets, they're free to pursue their dream of upending the existing industry order and "making a real difference." What's poignant as well as funny is that, for all the keenness of their analytical minds, they still don't know how to gauge whether they've won or lost. It's a problem that won't break down into small enough parts.

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It never hurts to be reminded that some problems are impervious to solution by digital divide-and-conquer -- that no matter how much faster computers bring information to our fingertips, they do not necessarily bring us any closer to truth or understanding. Still, as the machines we build come more and more to resemble our own minds, it's hard to escape the feeling that they must contain, or conceal, some vital meaning. To Bronson's engineers -- and, for that matter, the characters in "Microserfs" and "The Last Best Thing" -- the very nature of the digital technology they create promises some arcanely wonderful form of revelation.

That promise was neatly framed 30 years ago in what may well be the granddaddy of all Silicon Valley novels, Thomas Pynchon's 1966 "The Crying of Lot 49." Pynchon's heroine, one Oedipa Maas, stands on a hillside and looks out over a development called San Narciso (it happens to be in Southern California, but it could easily be Santa Clara):

"She thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had ... There were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There'd seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding."

As she chases down clues to a possibly conspiratorial private mail system that seems to have existed for centuries, Pynchon's heroine can never know for certain whether her intimations of grand patterns are genuine, or just metaphysical static. Today's Silicon Valley novelists are more convinced than ever that if only they try hard enough, they can make our circuit boards give up their secrets. But, like Pynchon's Oedipa, they can never be sure if they're right -- or just loopy.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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