Del Rey, 2004, 306 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-46061-8
Where oh where have all the cyberpunks gone? Bruce Sterling’s newest techno-thriller The Zenith Angle offers a few answers and takes on the post-9/11 environment by the barbed horns.
Is it useful to point out that Bruce Sterling, chairman of what was then the cyberpunk movement, has now joined fellow neuromancer William Gibson in writing techno-thrillers? While Sterling’s been hovering near current-day settings for a while (His previous novel, Zeitgeist (2000), took place in a slightly-fantastic 1999), there’s no denying that this is the sort of emblematic factoid that makes contemporary observers of the SF scene stand up and take notice: Are we climbing the asymptote of progress so quickly that the singularity already looms over us all? Is this yet another sign that SF writers have given up on the future, flummoxed as they are by an increasingly bizarre present?
Well, maybe. But let’s not be so quick to judge, for The Zenith Angle has a number of things to say, and they wouldn’t be as relevant anywhere but in a techno-thriller. The novel begins, after a brief, prologue, on a clear morning day of September 2001. Tes, that morning of September 2001. In a few short minutes, uber-nerd protagonist Derek “Van” Vanderveer sees his whole life change. For reasons soon to become clear (his family is no stranger to dark operations, though not enough is made out of this), he ditches his comfy dot-com job to become one of the government’s top cyber-spooks. His life dominated by a shadowy war, his personal fortune in shambles, his family left behind, his career at the mercy of the vagaries of bureaucracy, he struggles to reach a new personal equilibrium after The Day That Changed Everything TM. From theoretical geek to electro-warrior (in a community where a stupid fist-fight can raise one to demigod status), Vanderveer’s an ideal character through which to study this weird new millenium, and Sterling is the man to do the job.
For he seems to realize that today’s world has a richness that is worth studying with lens polished by the tools of Science Fiction. Sterling, world-weary traveller, techno-prophet and sought-after keynote speaker, understands the world better than most, and The Zenith Angle often feels like an attempt at expressing how weird and wonderful today’s reality has become. Unlike the late nineties, dreams of electronic futures and endless leisure have been replaced by a stark battle for survival against powerful evil forces. Or have they? Because Sterling is too smart to swallow the “War on Terrorism” as anything but an empty slogan used to justify the worst the government can do. Vanderveer’s inherited idealism proves to be no match for the inertia of bureaucracy and the hollowness of the cause. Cyberpunk meets good old power-grab, and in the real world, let’s just say that the good guy doesn’t always win. But neither does he have to lose, and so the conclusion to the novel resorts to an ironic side exit in order to satisfy everyone.
There’s a fiendish plot complete with a death ray laser sandwiched somewhere in the last fifty pages, but readers already familiar with Sterling’s novel-length fiction are right in suspecting that the plot of The Zenith Angle doesn’t have much to do with its intended effect. The real treat of the novel is in the description of the “cyber-security” government efforts, packed with red tape and empty org charts. It’s in how Vanderveer, like most of us, got stuck believing in a sham that was never meant to be more than an exercise in rhetoric. It’s how the glorious days of the dot-com era were slapped around by forces outside any geek’s control.
Oh, it’s not all good. The above summary is likely to be a touch more incisive than the actual novel, which meanders from one situation from another, which has trouble balancing its satiric tone against what it it really means and lame attempts at thrills scarcely bothers to follow-up on promising plot threads. Charles Stross is blurbed as calling it “a Catch-22 for the slashdot generation” and it’s not a bad analogy, except that The Zenith Angle doesn’t (yet) have the required distance to the material to be anything but a quick rant.
But it tells us where the cyberpunks have gone. Out of the private sector and into national security. Out of the future and into the present. Out of technology, even, and maybe into politics. Pick your weapons carefully, but first decide if we’re at war, and if so, against whom.