It's interesting how, as they enter the third decades of their careers, veterans of the '80s cyberpunk craze are turning their attention to the here-and-now rather than any wildly speculative future to hone the cutting edge of their storytelling. Like William Gibson in Pattern Recognition, Bruce Sterling is all too aware that real life — particularly since 9/11 — has taken so many bizarre turns in recent years that the idea of guys walking around in cheap sunglasses and spiky haircuts with SCSI ports in their necks is so 20 years ago. And tapping into the zeitgeist has always been a hobby of Sterling's, who's even used the hip Teutonic catchphrase as the title of one of his books. As his nonfiction bestseller The Hacker Crackdown has made clear, Sterling fully understands that the omnipresence of computers in our society today has had a cultural and political significance far beyond spotty schoolkids downloading porn and pirated MP3s all day. And it's this that lies at the core of The Zenith Angle, a briskly paced slipstream thriller that will be the summer beach novel — assuming they go to beaches — for the geek elite.
The Zenith Angle opens on 9/11 and proceeds pell-mell through the subsequent six months as we follow the life of Derek "Van" Vandeveer, an ace cybersecurity expert who is persuaded to give up his cushy job at a thriving (for the moment, anyway) telecom firm to come and work for the government, patching up major computer security holes that no one, up until now, has taken as seriously as they should. Once he is firmly entrenched in the machinery of politics, Van becomes all too aware that folks like him aren't really meant to fix things at all, but are either meant to be fall guys to cover the asses of higher-ups, or are simply meant to bury serious problems under heaps of bureaucratic red tape and paperwork. This is made abundantly clear when Van comes up with a workable solution to fix an ailing, $16 billion spy satellite that is turning into one of the nation's biggest boondoggles. The career-minded general in charge of the situation refuses to entertain anything Van has to say once he learns about Van's former employer, now a major dot-bomb casualty with a tarnished reputation. Politics rules the day over actually getting worthwhile things done every time.
It's satisfying to see a post-9/11 novel dealing, in frank and unflattering terms (though there are hints that Sterling has more respect for the Bush administration than I think they deserve), with the political muddles that follow in the wake of major global events. Sterling makes the point that fighting a "war on terror" is an exercise in futility, because the whole point of terror is to throw out such concepts as rules of engagement or any other practice associated with conventional warfare, favoring hopelessly maniacal acts of lunacy designed to throw governments and populations into blind panic. Terrorists are desperate men, and all they want is to make the ordered and sane world as desperate as they are.
The novel also reflects Sterling's conviction that the entire global landscape in the 21st century is changing, with the Internet as the #1 culprit. The Internet has truly demolished boundaries and borders. Never before could a disenfranchised hacker in some foreign land potentially disable the workings of multinational corporations. Cyberterror stands poised to become a real problem, far beyond spam and pirated music, and it's only fortunate that, so far, gangs like al Qaeda are not sophisticated enough to employ it. But someone out there is...
From a storytelling standpoint, The Zenith Angle is a cracking thriller about which I have only minor reservations. Van becomes a sympathetic hero as Sterling takes the time to explore feelings of failure and futility that plague him in the wake of numerous life changes brought on by 9/11. But true to form, Sterling infuses even the book's tensest scenes with an off-kilter sense of humor. (He seems to have a thing for Bollywood.) On the other hand, I did find the book's climax to be a tad on the abrupt side. Van comes to a revelation about the actions of an apparent ally with a suddenness that had me re-reading several pages to make sure I hadn't missed anything. The final chapter resorts, I thought, to a bit of thriller-novel convention to wrap everything up — not devastating, but still a little disappointing given the way we like to picture Bruce as SF's top convention-defying rebel storyteller.
While The Zenith Angle might not, in the final analysis, be a Bruce Sterling novel for the ages, it is most definitely a novel for this paranoid, helter-skelter age.