The Nudist on the Late Shift, Po Bronson

Random House, 1999, 248 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 0-375-50277-7

When charting the evolution of human civilization, things inevitably get rolling in Africa. After some time in the Middle-East, the vanguard of human society eventually moves to Europe. (And China, which for the purposes of this review, we can pretty much ignore.) Then it’s off to the New World, where the (North American) East Coast enjoys its moment of glory before passing the marker to the West Coast. Interestingly enough, new territories, unmarked as they are by existing social conventions, are always fertile breeding reactors for new social experiments.

Lacking habitable land on Mars or Venus, the cutting-edge of humanity has remained in California, making movies, enjoying the surf and increasingly pushing back the limits of technical knowledge and capacities. The so-called “Silicon Valley” has sprung up from relatively sedate farmground, pushed by university graduates, venture capitalist and, let’s just face it, plain weirdos.

The Nudist on the Late Shift is an attempt to explore what is Silicon Valley, through various aspects of life in the Valley. It reads a lot like a collection of articles in Wired, which in fact it is at a certain degree: Bronson is a regular contributor to the magazine, and certain parts of the book did seem awfully reminiscent of previously read material.

But the book has an advantage that Wired doesn’t, and it’s that it’s going to be shelved in libraries for a long time, explaining to future generation what was, for a brief time, Silicon Valley. Whether they find it amusingly quaint or unbearably insane will say a lot about the final impact of the Valley on the world at large.

In eight chapters, Bronson explores “the culture” of the Valley through its various inhabitants. There are The Newcomers, The financiers (in The IPO), The Entrepreneurs, The Programmers, The Salespeoples, The Futurist, The Dropout and everyone else in “Is the Revolution Over?” With them, we visit the Valley’s Internet Hub, we go through the nerve-wracking process that leads to an Initial Public Offering, we envision a clock that will still be standing a thousand years from now, we sell software, we cheer for the immigrant-cum-millionaire, we demo hastily-programmed software for a major Internet player, we gaze in the future of the business and peek under the belly of the gleaming techno-beast to see if the dream’s alive for everyone.

It could have been any book, but isn’t thanks to an impeccable writing style. Bronson is used to the magazine crowd, and that’s why his book constantly switches narrative gears, displays an amazing range of techniques and generally makes itself so compelling to read that you’ll read whole chapters in one sitting. There are many impressive moment, whether dramatic (the IPO chapter is a must-read for everyone interested in this type of financial event) or hilarious. (don’t be surprised to laugh aloud during sections of the book, as Bronson’s narration is so amazingly pitch-perfect.)

Best of all is that there doesn’t seem to be any technical mistakes. Bronson gets the details right and doesn’t overly dumb them up for the general audience that his book is trying to reach. Add to that the reams of useful or plainly odd information contained in the book and the witty style and you’ve got yourself a winner. Read it as a time capsule, or as a plain entertainment: Either way, it’s a success.

Useless note for the amusement of the reader: I bought my copy of The Nudist on the Late Shift at a used-book sale in one of the richest neighbourhood of Ottawa. Imagine my surprise at finding, inside the book, a “Review Copy from Random House” note addressed to a book reviewer at the National Post newspaper! The highlighted sections were informative.

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