The Zenith Angle
by Bruce Sterling
A review by Andrew Leonard
Twenty years ago, Bruce Sterling was writing whacked-out stories of a post-human
future in which cyborg constructs and genetically altered mutants clashed throughout
the solar system in a dazzling pyrotechnic frenzy. When, eight years ago, he gathered
together his earliest work and a novella in the collection Schismatrix
Plus, he noted in the preface that those stories were "the most 'cyberpunk'
works I will ever write."
But did even he know, then, how far his fiction would back away from the future
into the present? Sterling's most recent novels, Heavy
have marched ever closer to the now, but none gets as intimate with our current
reality as his newest, The Zenith Angle. The tale of a computer geek
caught up in the dot-com crash and the fallout from 9/11, it is a novel that
is not so much ripped straight from the headlines as it is an effort to process
the blood, guts and greed of the new millennium. It's an act of self-therapy,
and clearly a necessary one. Because if Sterling is channeling any of his own
emotions through his lead character, Derek Vandeveer, then it is safe to say
that he has not been a happy camper of late. The Zenith Angle is an outburst
of rage -- broiling, tumultuous fury -- directed at terrorists and amoral capitalists
But is it science fiction, or a mere techno-thriller? Or is the question an
attempt to parse a distinction without a difference? Like his colleague William
Gibson, Sterling has been forced to grapple with a future that has caught
up with us much faster than any of us might have guessed, 10, 15 or 20 years
ago. The networked world of The Matrix is here, post-human life is just
around the corner, and who needs to imagine possible dystopias in the not-so-distant
future when suicidal fanatics are crashing jetliners into skyscrapers right
Sept. 11 is a key plot point in The Zenith Angle -- the moment
when the networking specialist geek gets mobilized, the moment when, as the
man who recruits Vandeveer into the bureaucracy notes, it is time to accept
that "that is gonna be the future of this story, Van. It's phones versus
razors. It's our networks versus their death cult. For as long as that takes."
We will, no doubt, see more and more of 9/11 in fiction and nonfiction for
the rest of our lives, as artists, writers and historians strive to evoke that
moment. One wonders whether it will ever lose its creepiness, this attempt to
fictionalize the all too real. Or perhaps the true horror has only begun. When
Vandeveer mulls over how "the size and scale of what had happened ... had
freed him from some complicated doubts and hesitations," one can hear Sterling,
tragically, collapsing a multivalent world into simple black and white, us vs.
them. That kind of freedom is something, one suspects, we will all regret.
But The Zenith Angle is not solely about 9/11. There is as much
rage vented here at the capitalists and greedheads who wrought their own terrorist
acts against the economy as there is against al-Qaida. "What happened to
Mondiale [the company Vandeveer works for, pre-9/11] and their competitors ...
that wasn't a 'bubble.' That was a train wreck on top of an avalanche. He, Derek
Vandeveer, was part of the worst destruction of wealth in human history."
Forget about the plot, a contrivance that barely holds the weight of the passions
Sterling is striving to release. The entire novel is a setup for an extraordinary
rant that reads as if the author had just taken over the podium at a hackers
conference, fueled with tequila, frothing from every pore:
The computer and telecom industries were on their knees. They had lost
legendary, incredible, colossal amounts of money. They had lost diamond-mine,
mountain-of-gold heaps of money.
They had tried to build a commercial-for-profit Internet. There was nothing
commercial about the Internet any more than there was anything national. That
was why it was called Internet instead of Internet Inc..
The Internet belonged to a world of the 1990s, a Digital Revolution. The
people in the 2000s were way over the Digital Revolution. They were deeply
involved in the Digital Terror. The nervous system of global governance, education,
science, culture, and e-commerce, it was all in a spasm. It had all broken
down in a sudden terrible panic in the last mile. The last mile stood between
those great, big fat, global huge, empty, terrifying fiber-optic pipes, and
the planet's general population.
The Net had not just broken. It had been abandoned, cast aside in fear
And on it goes. Napster. Wi-Fi. Open-source software and Microsoft -- there's
room for all of them in this rant:. "Viruses. Worms. Scam artists. Porn.
Spam. Denial-of-service attacks. Organized crime. Industrial espionage. Stalking.
Money Laundering. The specter of infowar attacks on natural gas pipelines, aircraft
control systems, dams, water reservoirs, sewage systems, telephones, and banks.
Black horses snorting and stomping in the stables of the Digital Apocalypse."
And as for fixing it? Well, think again: "'This time we'll really straighten
it all out.' No. No one could ever promise that about computers, because that
was never the truth. It didn't matter how good you were, how smart you were.
Nobody ever 'fixed' computers. You just threw the old computer out and got another
one. Any genuine reform was impossible. The only thing you could do was layer
some fresh mud on top of the cracks..."
For this reviewer, who has spent a decade as a reporter covering the Internet,
Sterling's outburst, his choice of protagonist, his rants about computers and
the Net, all struck so close to home, to my own daily intellectual life, that
it became almost impossible to evaluate, dispassionately, anything so absurdly
binary as whether The Zenith Angle is good or bad. Instead, like
all great rants, it is breathtaking. It is a document of the age, a summing
up by one of the digital revolution's pioneer artists. That such an ex post
facto manifesto would be filled with tears of rage instead of joy is something
few of us would have imagined when first we logged on.