Of mice and men

Interview: Po Bronson; First he crucified Wall Street, now America's hottest new satirist has turned to Silicon Valley with a novel which takes the lid off the billion- dollar workings of the infotech industry

Before I get him onto his big subjects - Silicon Valley, Bill Gates, the future of technology - I'm burning to tell bestselling American novelist Po Bronson one thing. Does he know that he shares a name with one of the Teletubbies? I place a photograph of the controversial gurgling creatures on the table in front of him. "No kidding? Pee-Oh? Po? That's amazing." The thing is, I explain,they live on this strange golf course, beneath which is a sort of technological underworld full of electronic machinery. "Kinda scary..." says Bronson. Is that, I wonder, what Silicon Valley's like - but with more grass? Bronson concedes it is, and then explains the origin of his unusual name. "My parents gave me the name Philip at birth, but they got bored with it, so they said they wouldn't go to bed until they came up with something else. I don't know the origin because they were drunk and it was 3am."

Bronson, 33, is in Britain to promote his second novel, The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest, a smart, pacy satire on life in California's high-technology business. The plot follows the fortunes of a group of engineers who are attempting to design a $300 computer - a project scorned by their industry's "ironmen", scientists more interested in producing bigger, better and more powerful systems as a way of proving their virility. "You're not a man unless you upgrade," as his protagonist Andy Caspar puts it. His heroes aren't exactly square-jawed swashbucklers: one has an imaginary girlfriend, while another cocoons himself in a cupboard lined with bubble-wrap. They have their planning meetings in Burger King, and play a game called Ten Women, in which they have to decide which female they'd like to bed out of every ten that appear during TV ad breaks.

Bronson, however, looks like he'd be more at home chopping wood than clicking his mouse, and his publicity shot has him as a puffa-jacketed cross between Richard Gere and Marlboro Man. It's a picture that says, "Hey, I'm Po Bronson, I build log cabins with my bare hands." Does he feel he has to insulate himself against the nerdiness of his subject-matter? "You know," he deadpans, "I'll admit that my looks really help me in my writing. I get my hair cut and I find adjectives really come more easily. I go to the salon and have my fingers done and next thing you know I'm very proficient with plot." I'm trying to get a discreet look at his fingernails. They do look rather neat. "I've cut my own hair since I was 16," he reveals. "Actually, my publisher wanted me to look geeky. But I thought that if I catered to that concept I would be criticised for trying to play the part. I have to be who I am."

Bronson's book has been praised by Tom Wolfe, spent several weeks at the top of the bestseller charts, and has generated much controversy, as commentators have tried to pin his characters to real computer-industry figures. He's received enough calls from people demanding to know if they've been parodied to cover his dramatis personae twice over. "The chief technology officer at Sun MicroSystems believes that he's a character in the book. Somebody asked him on a scale of one to ten how mad he was about this, and he said, 'I'm an 11.' These guys are working so hard, and they don't know why they're doing it. They want to come across as dramatic, important people."

Bronson carried out 18 months of research for the book while writing on technology for Wired and the New York Times Magazine. He found engineers were only too willing to talk about how their ideas were used to enrich vast corporations while they went unrecognised. "They didn't want me to tell their specific story, because they were bound by non-competing agreements in severance packages not to tell their story: if you ever leave a Silicon Valley company you can never speak to people about it. But they're so willing to talk off the record - it's almost like they've got their stories canned, like they'd been reading Wired and thinking, 'Some day they're gonna call.' They're very vain like that, but many of them don't really understand the way their world is working. They can't even imagine what they'd do with their Thursday nights if Seinfeld went off the air."

Work is Po Bronson's inspiration. After receiving an economics BA from Stanford University, he went into investment banking, putting in a 12- hour day and making do with four hours' sleep to write his first novel, Bombardiers, a satire on his day job. "I get a lot of flak about this from other writers. They ask why I'm not writing about an emotional rather than a professional terrain. So, I always have this guilt about doing what I do, that somehow writing about work is not literature. They think I'm doing it for the money."

So, why is he doing it? "Because it's the only thing that I know," he confesses. For Bronson, family and finance are inseparable. When he was 14, his mother sent him and his brother to live with their father while she trained for accountancy exams. "We ate her out of house and home so she gave us up," he reflects. His father bought a business that recycled rotary-dial telephones, just as they were going out of fashion. It was a disastrous investment. "All during my high-school years the company was bankrupt. We couldn't answer the phone at night because it would be creditors who were calling." Life was made more complex by his father's desire to keep up appearances. "He leased a nice little car - a Jaguar - partly so that he could retain the illusion of wealth to my Mom. So, I grew up steeped in the con-games of real business. It was an environment where business was something that made people suffer and you had to be very slippery. And the main motivation for it all was that my dad was trying to hang onto his kids."

Later, when the family moved to San Francisco, he attended the Lakeside High School, whose most famous alumnus is the godfather of Silicon Valley, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. "He spoke at a high-school graduation and he bored us to tears," Bronson remembers. "When I was very young I knew his sister, so I used to go to her house and I'd hear him bumping around upstairs. Partly because of that I don't have any awe of him - much to my weakness, because there are a lot of things about him to be awed by."

Gates is a figure conspicuous by his absence in The First $20 Million, but Bronson's got plenty to say about him. "He believes in the platonic ideal of the benevolent philosopher king, who can run things better than a democracy." Although Gates is funding much core research, Bronson argues "All of Microsoft's products have been copies or purchases of other people's stuff. It's the old concept of buying the competitor and burying him, and that is not a satisfactory way to go for the future of technology. We shouldn't worship the guy."

So, I ask, if Gates rang up tomorrow and said, "Po, you seem to know a lot about this business, why don't you come and work for me as an advisor...?" He finds the idea intriguing. "I know someone who helped on his book, The Road Ahead. He was paid enough money to retire and forget about it, but he was forbidden from ever talking about it, and it's killing him." The thought of signing such a deal makes Po Bronson shudder. "My capacity to speak freely is too important to me. It can't be bought by anyone."

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