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VALLEY OF THE CHIPS

THE FIRST $20 MILLION IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST
A Silicon Valley Novel
By Po Bronson
Random House 291pp $23


The dust jacket illustration on Po Bronson's novel, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, says it all: Suit-and-tie-wearing stick figures with dollar-sign heads scramble up the side of a giant cube made of electronic parts. When they reach the top, the money men grab T-shirt-clad engineers with binary zeros and ones for heads--and then fling them into oblivion.

It's a powerful metaphor for the often brutal business culture of Silicon Valley, and an apt precis of Bronson's entertaining second novel about power, greed, technical showmanship, and corporate chicanery--this one set in America's high-tech mecca. Bronson, author of the best-selling 1995 novel Bombardiers, which chronicled the savage world of Wall Street bond traders, spent a year soaking up Silicon Valley's culture and lingo. The research paid off: With his knack for detail, he has produced a delicious satire of a fascinating world.

The novel is also extremely timely: It deals with the development of an ultra-low-cost computer (read: the Network Computer, or NC, which is being promoted by Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp.) and breakthrough software (read: Sun's Java) that could undermine the foundation of today's PC industry. The menace posed by these products unleashes forces that threaten to ruin the novel's naive but wily protagonist, Andy Caspar, and his earnest band of digit-head pals.

Caspar's nemesis, a superstar chip designer named Francis Benoit, embodies the jaded arrogance of engineers whose success chokes off their connection to the rest of humanity. Hank Menzinger, head of the pressure-cooker La Honda Research lab where Caspar and Benoit work, plays a slightly ambiguous role that seems to get lost as the book progresses. Perhaps the most memorable character is Gordon ''Papa'' Lewis, the bluff chairman of Omega Logic Corp., a chip-and-computer company that uses La Honda as a research center. Lewis, vaguely reminiscent of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s legendary Chairman Jerry Sanders, plays a crucial role in the novel's denouement, but Omega itself has no obvious real-world counterpart and seems a bit incredible.

Several of the characters are thinly drawn, and some of the details don't ring true. We never fully understand Benoit's dark motivations. And the sweet, budding love affair between Caspar and his neighbor, Alisa Jennings, is underdeveloped. The plot twists keep the reader absorbed, but they lack the desired jaw-dropping surprise.

In short, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (the title refers to the difficulty of obtaining venture-capital funding) is not great literature. But it's a rollicking good read that sheds a revealing light on the personalities and values of Silicon Valley. Bronson deserves credit for creating a page-turner from the travails of a high-tech startup.

By ANDY REINHARDT


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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