Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine: a review

Another pleasant reread of a personal computing history book I originally read in the 1980s.

The authors–both of whom edited computer publications as the stories developed–tell the story of the beginnings of the PC revolution from the perspective of Silicon Valley. Their version heavily overlaps Stephen Levy’s Hackers, which was published a few months later, but it’s a very different tale in style and substance.

For one thing, this is a less literary effort. It’s also differently focused, as these guys care more about technical details than Levy does. And the largely west-coast perspective lets this book examine relationships in ways Hackers’ structure didn’t permit.

The book consists of many short sections, organized into eight thematic (and roughly chronological) chapters. While the sections are related, they’re essentially independent. It’s pretty common to find more than one version of a story/encounter within the book, often in widely separated places. This in no way harms the narrative; it’s just a quirk of the book’s organization.

Because the book’s nearly three decades old, some of the context seems a little odd. In particular, a pervasive fear of IBM dates the book–not to say the fears weren’t real, but we now know IBM had a significantly different impact than the PC industry expected. Similarly, there’s essentially no recognition of the immense power Microsoft would come to yield in the industry, and (of course) no clue about Apple’s long stagnation, and resurrection. And the Internet has no presence in this book whatever.

A very worthwhile effort. If you’re interested in this era’s history, you should read both this book and Levy’s; their differences and their similarities are both instructive.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.