The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling
Del Rey /Ballantine/ Random House HCVR: ISBN 0345460618 PubDate: 04/01/04
Review by Ernest Lilley
320 pgs. List price $ 24.95
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We come from a generation that grew up with Pogo's truism, "We have met the enemy and he is us." and we can live with that. But Bruce Sterling's new cyber-techno-terrorism thriller presents a scarier truth. We're also the new establishment. Growing up means taking on the mantle of responsibility, and the adolescent-genius-hacker-dot-com-anti-hero-entrepreneurs that we fancied ourselves in the 90s are giving way to the next generation of scared and spooky guys out to save the world, or at least enough of it for their kids. Starting with the events of 9/11, Sterling's new book follows a super-geek computer whiz's evolution from happy nerd boy to government security guru and beyond until we reach the midnight of his self. A lot of this story rings weirdly true, from the obsessive nature of hackers to the vicious infighting between agencies, and though it's set in the present, using real technology and threats, you only have to think back a few years for this to be a wild cyberpunk tale, told by the best in the business. Unfortunately, it's not a few years back, and that leaves this tale feeling a bit dated.
This is oddly enough, a character driven novel, masquerading as a an techno-action story. I suspect that Sterling is trying to serve multiple gods here, on the one hand making an accessible novel for everyman full of fight scenes and covert ops stuff, while actually writing the story he really wants to, about the disintegration of a personality, and possibly about its resurrection.
Van, the character in question, is your standard cyber-genius who has found a home, thanks to hanging with the right entrepreneur college buddy, as the CIO of a megacorporation. He doesn't really do anything CIO-like in the book, and its pretty clear that all he ever wanted to do was hang out in a room full of computers writing code and figuring out intricate network analysis, but come 9/11/2001, which starts out for him as a perfect day, he knows that's not going to be his destiny. Instead, he's going into the family business. A business he could tell you about, but then of course, he'd have to kill you.
Yes, our boy turns out to be a third generation black ops scion. His grandfather wasn't actually an operative, but a Skunk Works engineer. His father, on the other hand, did work in the field, and did something in South America that he never got over.
So he leaves corporate life to work on homeland security issues. Leaves his obsessive compulsive astronomer wife and their infant child. Leaves the sunlight and fresh air, and takes up residence in an underground bunker at an undisclosed location, and furiously develops secure computing concepts for the government. He does everything furiously, including working out, which he discovers when he takes an apartment sight unseen and finds the previous owner has left his weight set. He starts hanging out with a spooky special ops guy and gets addicted to shooting off guns. He doesn't see it, but page by page he's becoming a scarier and scarier dude.
He's even getting politically savvy. Thanks to the advice of his college buddy, described as "the dot-commie", who warns him not to get involved in trying to fix a spy satellite that seems to have developed and attitude problem. Not to get involved because it can't be fixed, and the last man to touch the project is the one that goes down in history as the one who failed. Like that's the sort of challenge our boy could resist.
Like I said, things get darker for him, and by the climax of the book, he's pretty deeply cooked, though the casual reader might not notice, since all covert ops types must seem a bit odd. But interesting things happen, life goes on, and the story definitely keeps you going. There's plenty of violence, both mano-a-mano and death ray mad scientist violence, though it's a toss up as to whether the mad scientist is the good guy or not, and there's even some sex. Though the latter takes place off stage, or in the background, or something.
Sterling is one of the best short story writers in the world. He's only about two thirds that good as a novelist, but that's still head an shoulders above most. The Zenith Angle suffers from two problems, though probably both are just what the author had in mind. Firstly, Van isn't all that likeable. In fact, nobody in the book is all that likeable. They're too much like real people, or at least people I know. High end geeks, venture capitalist dot commers, really anal scientists, all very real, and not very likeable. The other problem for the book is that it takes place fifteen minutes, not into the future like a lot of techno fiction, but into the past and leading up to the present, or five minutes into the past, anyway. And through it all, lots of stuff happens, but nothing ever matters. Nothing changes the world, which we already knew because we're already living in the book's future.
Ultimately, I think fans of Sterling will be pleased, but not thrilled. Drawn along, but not with baited breath. As for the rest of the world, I expect The Zenith Angle to reach the broader audience that it's aimed at, but to leave them wondering what happened and why.