Sunday, November 02, 2008

Three Good Silicon Valley novels

I've been reading a lot of Silicon Valley literature in preparation for California Studies Association next conference in De Anza College in April, 2009. The conference is on Silicon Valley.

Well, here are short takes on three good Silicon Valley novels:

1. Matt Richtel's "Hooked," a fun, absorbing murder mystery about addictions. Nat Idle the hero, a S.F. medical journalist, is sitting in a San Francisco Internet cafe when a woman hands him a note in the handwriting of his dead girlfriend Annie telling him to leave immediately. He walks out and then the Internet cafe blows up. Idle uses his journalistic skills to search for who bombed the cafe and to investigate if Annie is really dead. Annie was/is a venture capitalist, daughter of a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist. So the novel takes us from the mansions of venture capitalists to the down home S.F. bars where Idle hands out with his friends, from encrypted files to geeks who open such files. In a lighthearted way the mystery is really about addiction to love and addiction to computers and how the two are intertwined.

2. Po Bronson's "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" is a fascinating novel about young engineers struggling to escape the treadmill of bad jobs and boring lives in Silicon Valley. The head of research at La Honda Research Center in the Silicon Valley hills assigns new engineer Andy Caspar to La Honda's worst research job: designing the $300 computer. Caspar recruits three other software and hardware guys at La Honda and inspires his team to take their job seriously. After they are all fired, they begin their own startup--the four idealistic young guys trying to make a go it amidst the nasty politics, betrayals, and backstabbing of the older men in the computer industry.

Bronson gets the details right from Caspar's boarding house for penniless Stanford grad students, to all four engineers' romantic problems, to the 'board" meetings the four engineers have in the local fast food joints to the mind games the engineers play such as the infinity loop. Infinity loop is a prank engineers play getting a newbie to go on a wild goose chase ending exactly where they started. The infinity loop in the novel is the model for all the traps or loops or treadmills in society that make people go round and round ending exactly where they started. The engineers are aiming at jolting society out of its infinity loop.

3. Po Bronson's "Bombadiers is a satire of corrupt bond traders on mid-1990s San Francisco. While not actually set in Silicon Valley, the novel captures the 1990s spirit of yuppies struggling on awful jobs to make big bucks and how their companies mercilessly manipulate them. Bronson worked for a time at First Boston, an investment bank, so he really captures the atmosphere of Bay Area yuppies on the make--whether in finance or Silicon Valley of the 1990s. Actually, the two fields were closely intertwined.

Sid Geeder, the hero of "Bombadiers," is the King of Mortgages, the top seller of terrible overpriced bonds based on bad mortgages from failed S & Ls. Geeder and all the other salespeople know the bonds are terrible and know that the bonds are unpayable, but gleefully he sells bonds worth millions to those he hates as a way to undermine to government. To sell the bonds, Geeder makes up lies that "were well-constructed bombs that blew up few years down the road." Geeder is a "bombadier," spewing out his bombs--lies--about the financial system in order to make his $4 million in stock. Now that all those bombs of securities based on bad mortgages have blown up the global financial system, this novel is utterly fascinating in a ghoulish way.

Bronson's chapter "Addictions" shows how the bonds salespeople are all addicted--to greed, to drugs, to lousy romances. Addictions seems to be part of the job. Another fascinating chapter "Information Economics" deals with how "the Information Economy was a Ponzi scheme spiraling out of control" starting with information glut stemming from computers and the press as well as the investment bank spreading rumors aka lies through the information system to help sell bonds. If a reader wants to understand the mindset of bond and stock traders knowingly selling bad securities, this novel is for you.

Another fascinating chapter is "Assets" detailing how this extremely rich investment bank tries to stay as liquid as possible--everything in its offices is temporary and it can fire all its salespeople at any moment. The company's biggest asset is its workers' brainpower: "the firm strategized incessantly to milk its employees' brainpower while simultaneously keeping them so strung out, addicted, and off-kilter they didn't know how valuable they had become." What's fascinating is "Bombadiers" as well as "Hooked" show how Yuppie's addictions hook them into the nasty system while the characters in "Bombadiers" as well as "The First Twenty Million" struggle to escape this vicious system or get out of the infinity loop.

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