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Valley of the Deals

Cyberauthor Po Bronson

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Don’t hate Po Bronson because he’s beautiful. As the 33-year-old author admits, his Richard Gere-like looks have ”probably helped sell a few books. People get suspicious, but it’s not something I dwell on.”

Bronson may have learned not to dwell too long on anything after a year spent researching the ”Ironmen” software engineers in Santa Clara County, Calif., for The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, his acclaimed, hot-selling satire about a 26-year-old’s effort to build a $300 PC without being eaten alive by corporate intrigue and betrayal. What drives the protagonist and the Ironpeople like him is not so much money as it is rescuing a world stuck in an ”infinite loop” — computer lingo for what happens when a computer program stalls or stops working.

”It would continue to go around and around endlessly, infinitely,” writes Bronson, who’s also chairman of an independent-press distribution company. A lot like people, in fact. ”People can be caught in their own infinite loops and have no idea they’re caught in a loop!” The Ironmen, he explains, work round the clock ”to jolt society out of its infinite loop.”

Sound idealistic? Actually, $20 Million, the latest entry in the relatively new genre of geek lit (Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, Pat Dillon’s The Last Best Thing), may be most realistic in portraying the treacherous world of high-tech titans and their foot soldiers. ”Silicon Valley is far more ruthless and back stabbing than Wall Street,” says the San Franciso-based writer, whose first novel, 1993’s best-selling Bombardiers, mines his experience as a bond trader in the ’80s. ”I was interested in the anti-myth entrepreneurs who had been hoodwinked, guys who had done the technology and saw someone else steal the credit.”

Though $20 Million is rumored to be a roman à clef — some characters are said to be based on such industry legends as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Sun Microsystems’ Eric Schmidt — Bronson will say only that he gained access to Silicon Valley ”through friends.” ”I spent the day with [Ironmen] at work,” he says. ”I asked them who their enemies were, what their dreams were.”

Bronson, now in the midst of a divorce, says he was left with ”great feelings of compassion” for the mostly male denizens of the Valley. ”Many of them are too proud to admit they got beat or conned by somebody,” he says. ”It’s a very heads-up, can-do philosophy. They’re all waiting for their next good idea.” Meanwhile, Bronson has set his own sights beyond the infinite loop. His next book, he says, will be about Pacific Rim immigrants: ”They’re more ruthless than the people on Wall Street and Silicon Valley combined.”