If you really want to understand Silicon Valley -- not the venture capital system or the function of a chip's logic gate or even the stickiness of a social network -- but the soul of the place, how it works and what drives the people who come here from all over the world, you could do worse than spending an hour with Michael S. Malone.

You could call him a tech columnist, author, historian or businessman. But what he really is, is the professor emeritus of Silicon Valley, a guy who has made the study of this place his life's work.

"I came here as an Air Force brat when I was 9," Malone was telling me the other day. "I mean, I'm valley. I can't imagine living anywhere else. And I do love this place."

I called Malone recently after reading "Learning Curve," his most recent of many books. Yes, it was about his favorite subject -- Silicon Valley -- but this one was different. It was fiction, Malone's first novel. I've said before that truth in the valley is often stranger than fiction -- and so maybe fiction is the best way to handle it.

"I spent my whole life writing nonfiction about the valley and there are certain things that non-fiction just can't do that you can do in fiction," Malone says. "There's the personal dynamics and the wheeling and dealing and the back-room stuff and the realization that everybody here is plotting. And I wanted to capture some of that."

(How strange is valley truth? Malone tells the story of sending his manuscript to venture capitalist and author Tom Perkins to get a promotional blurb for the book cover: "I had trouble reaching him. He finally got it. Had me send it to him, to his submarine, which he was testing in Tahiti.")

Now, I don't call every author whose books I read. Malone has been a helpful source for years and I regularly call to bounce ideas off him. But in talking to him about his book, which manages to poke fun at the hyper-competitive valley without reducing its characters to cartoonish caricatures, it struck me that Malone has a grip on how the valley works that's tighter than anyone I know.

Michael S. Malone is something of the professor emeritus of Silicon Valley. The journalist, author, historianÉwith an encyclopedic knowledge of the
Michael S. Malone is something of the professor emeritus of Silicon Valley. The journalist, author, historianÉwith an encyclopedic knowledge of the valley...retreats from the technological world at his 19th century home in Sunnyvale, Calif., Wednesday morning, Nov. 13, 2013. (Photo by Karl Mondon) (Karl Mondon)

"He has this real sense of time and decades and the paradigms that have pertained here," says Joe DiNucci, a former SGI executive and a valley veteran who works with Malone on a program to build relations between Silicon Valley and the University of Oxford. "He's a great storyteller."

And why wouldn't he be able to tell the Silicon Valley story? Malone, 59, literally lived through the head-spinning change that transformed the valley from farm land to tomorrow land. He wrote about much of it in books about Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Apple (AAPL), IPOs, the rise of the semiconductor industry and risk-taking entrepreneurs. He was in the right place at the right time as an early stockholder in Siebel Systems and eBay (EBAY). He's networked to the max. And he still lives in the heart of the valley, in an old Sunnyvale farmhouse that is the oldest in town.

Malone is the sort of player that every subculture -- be it Washington D.C., Hollywood, Wall Street -- has and needs. He flits from advising startups, to teaching writing at Santa Clara University, to debating at Oxford, where he's an associate fellow at the Saïd Business School, to work at startup PatientKey, where he is a director. But mostly, he writes, writes, writes. His opinion pieces show up, among other places, in the Wall Street Journal and in Forbes, where he once worked as an editor of ASAP, one of a slew of tech/business magazines that blossomed during the dot-com boom.

He just finished a history of Intel (INTC), which is due out this summer. And "Learning Curve," which charts the collision course of a global company with a bigger-than-life founder and a startup competitor filled with 20-somethings, is the first of what Malone says will be a quartet of Silicon Valley novels. And while the first installment indicates that the series will be highly entertaining, they are likely to come with a heavy dose of Silicon Valley insight.

"There are truths about the valley that we kind of all have internalized, but we don't say them out loud," Malone says. For instance, the truth that "at some point in Silicon Valley you've either worked with, for or against every other person in Silicon Valley." (Marissa Mayer, meet Sergey Brin and Larry Page.)

In fact, the valley, which we think of as the capital of reinvention, reinvents itself over and over again -- semiconductors, PCs, the Internet, dot-coms, social networks. The projects and platforms change, but the underlying stories are the same. (Blockbuster IPO for profitless Twitter, meet blockbuster IPOs for profitless Netscape and Yahoo (YHOO).)

"Everything changes, but nothing changes," Malone says. Sure, he says, the people are different, more diverse now, and the products they are building and who they are selling them to have changed.

"But right at the core, it's the story of the entrepreneur."

It's a riveting story that Malone will no doubt find new ways to tell. And if we're smart, we'll continue to listen.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.



Michael S. Malone
on Silicon Valley

On the IPO wealth effect:
"I've also noticed that when people get really successful in this town, the first thing they do is go out and buy culture. You just know that some of those people at Twitter right now are signing up for charm school classes and how to taste wine and what fork to use and how to order in a five-star restaurant and all that sort of stuff."

On what to watch:
"I've always said the Silicon Valley that matters is the one you can't see. It's the one going on at the third table at the Peet's down the street and not that giant
corporation next door to it. It's always about the startups. It's never about existing companies."

On the future of women in the valley:
"I look around and I see it at Facebook. I see it at Yahoo. I see it at a lot of startups. I'm seeing the presence of a lot of
hard-driving young women. If I were to guess what the future of the face of Silicon Valley is, it's an Indian woman. I really believe that."