April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

by Po Branson

Some Silicon Valley insiders are treating this black comedy as their own Primary Colors, spotting in its cast of characters stand-ins for such high-tech honchos as Apple cofounder Steve Jobs and Netscape CEO Jim Clark. They might do better to regard it as a cautionary tale.

The novel’s villain is the brilliant and ruthless Francois Benoit, alpha geek at the elite La Honda research center in Silicon Valley; the hero is Andy Caspar, a brilliant, idealistic (and semiruthless) young programmer whose mission to design a $300 personal computer pits him against Benoit and the interests of the entire PC industry. Caspar’s scrappy team endures the hardships of ’90s entrepreneurism—at one point, Andy even staves off his company’s bankruptcy by returning years-old used clothing to L.L. Bean for its unconditional refund.

Meanwhile, Bronson, who skewered Wall Street bond traders in 1995’s Bombardiers, deftly leads his adversaries through ever more dastardly double-crossings. The result is often hilarious. But it would take a microscope to make out the moral differences between the good guys and bad guys, and the message is that old ’80s tenet: Greed is good. The First $20 Million winds up offering plenty of vanities, but no bonfire. (Random House, $23)

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