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.

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

  1. Erik Miller says:

    I purchased and read and greatly enjoyed the first two editions; I’ve given several copies of the second edition as gifts.

    Swaine and Freiberger know what they are writing about, they were there for most of it, founding editors and writers of InfoWorld magazine, back when it aspired to be “the Rolling Stone of the personal computer revolution.”

    Yours is not the first review I have read that mentions the similarity Levy’s Hackers has to this earlier book. I read his book when it came out and was….taken aback at the similarities to say the least.

    While I would not go as far as accusing Mr. Levy of anything worse than being a blander writer than Swaine and Freiberger, I think of him as perhaps the Herman’s Hermits to their Beatles.

    There would still have been a band called Herman’s Hermits had there been no Beatles. But that band would have likely sounded rather different. ;-)

  2. joel says:

    Thanks for the note, Erik. While (obviously) I thought the similarities were worth mentioning, I really didn’t (and don’t) find them troubling. To some extent they’re the inevitable result of writing books about the same subject at the same time. The difference in perspective is valuable, in my view; the stylistic differences are pretty unimportant to folks reading this stuff as history. At this point, everyone is.

    I still think everyone should read both.

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