Review: Fake Steve Jobs' 'Options' is funny, but optional
If you're a Silicon Valley insider, expect to laugh mightily at this send-up of Northern California's movers and shakers. Others might not get the joke.
The problem with insidery satire is that you're leaving a good portion of your audience in the dark. Almost anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley over the past 15 years, however, will find something to laugh at in Options, the debut novel from Fake Steve Jobs due out November 1.
It's not The Bonfire of the Vanities or anything, but Daniel Lyons--the Forbes reporter behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog--has produced a delightful send-up of Valley culture, celebrity CEOs and the inscrutable mix of enlightenment and paranoia that's thought to inhabit the brain of the real Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple. If you're Web 2.0, or, as FSJ puts it, "the guys (who) are wearing T-shirts and ripped-up jeans, and they've got those haircuts where you pay two hundred bucks to make it look like you just got out of bed," this book may not be for you. Of course, lots of people would laugh at a description of a drunken Bono trying to convince Jobs to hit San Francisco's infamous Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell adult theater.
Options is a fictional, behind-the-scenes chronicle of the six months or so in 2006 between the discovery of stock options backdating at Apple and the company's disclosure that executives falsified minutes of a board meeting in which Jobs was given backdated options. In the book, Jobs and his best friend, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison (trust me, it works) ponder the mysteries of life and the inherent unfairness of a stock options witch hunt undertaken by a politically motivated prosecutor. The fictional interplay between Jobs and Ellison, usually over a few buds of the finest marijuana the earth has ever produced, generates some of the book's funniest moments and most outrageous anecdotes.
When Apple receives a inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the company's stock backdating practices, Jobs enters the most stressful period of his life, at least since he wandered in the wilderness following his ouster from Apple by CEO John Sculley. In Options, Jobs is depicted as a spiritually enlightened health-obsessed creative genius with a messianic complex and a quick trigger finger when it comes to dispatching employees. But Options' Jobs is also prone to bouts of self-doubt and loathing--although no one but Ellison and Mrs. Jobs get to see that side of Steve.
The book meanders through the escalating investigation, which happens to coincide with the development of the iPhone. The opening scene depicts Jobs meditating in the Tassajara conference room at Apple headquarters over the circuit board of the iPhone, which won't be released for at least another year. Jobs insists that the circuit board of the iPhone must be as aesthetically pleasing as the exterior, even though no one will ever see it. But while it's fun to imagine the product development process at Apple, the book's comic genius is the people who inhabit Jobs' life, from real celebrities to Valley celebrities to a stereotypical Northern California acid-dropper named Breezeann who makes a killer fruit smoothie.
I laughed out loud several times, such as when Lyons describes Ellison and Jobs driving around San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin district playing a game where the object is to score points by shooting transvestite hookers with a water gun, a Godfather-like meeting of the Valley elite with Hillary Clinton, and a dramatic scene between Jobs and Yoko Ono that almost manages to evoke sympathy for Ono. Lyons treads carefully with his satire, because while some celebrities, (Ellison, Bono, Al Gore, Richard Branson) are identified with their real names, other well-known players are not, but are clearly identifiable (current and former Apple employees Fred Anderson, Nancy Heinen, Tim Cook and a hilarious version of Intel's Andy Grove).
Unfortunately, Options is a novel, and must therefore have a story arc--in this case, the arc doesn't quite work. It loosely tracks the real-world progression of events during the second half of 2006, culiminating with the run-up to Macworld 2007. I shouldn't give away the ending, but it's just weird, and probably was written assuming that Fake Steve would have kept his identity secret as the book was released. Lyons waswhile the book was in production.
Lyons preserves some of the hilarious writing style from the blog that kept the tech media world amused during the last year, but a novel is the wrong outlet for Fake Steve. The plot exists seemingly to kill pages between the funny anecdotes, and it steers clear of the skewering of Valley executives like Google's Eric Schmidt (known as Squirrel Boy to FSJ's readers) and Sun's Jonathan Schwartz (My Little Pony) to focus more on Steve's internal angst.
Still, it's an entertaining read for the tech industry veteran and a quick one, perfect for your next "nerd bird" flight between San Jose and Austin. This is one of those books that will sell inside a self-contained unit of insiders who will read it, have a few good laughs and then get back to the infinitely more interesting real world.