SELECT * FROM uv_BookReviewRollup WHERE recordnum = 581 The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling Book Review |

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The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling
Genre: Cyberpunk
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 2005
Review Posted: 5/21/2005
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: Not Rated

The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling

Book Review by Jack Mangan

Have you read this book?

After the smart but weird and postmodern slipstream of Zeitgeist, I'd thought that Bruce Sterling was headed off toward some zany, Vonnegut-like realm of writing. I couldn't have been more wrong. His next fiction follow-up is a novel that's firmly entrenched in present-day politics and cutting-edge high-tech issues. The Zenith Angle is about as mainstream as Bruce Sterling is ever likely to get, which is not very.

Derek "Van" Vandeveer is a computer security expert of godlike ability. Born into a long line of military intelligence and hardware specialists, his family connections are distant, fractured, and strained at best. Full of suppressed rage and disillusionment, he finds solace only in his work, and in his wife Dottie and their infant son. But these worlds are very separate and incompatible; he speaks most often and most easily to Dottie via e-mail. He works for a corrupt Enron-type corporation at first (unaware of their ethical missteps), but decides to answer to a higher calling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and take a job in national computer security. The dot-com bubble is bursting; the world is changing before Van's very eyes, and so is his perspective. We're along for the subconscious ride as he struggles to define his purpose, struggles to cope with the shifting paradigm.

Sterling's short stories and novels are packed with well-rounded, believable characters, but Van is one of his best. I've known lots of real-world Derek Vandeveers. I've been Van at times. Watch with amazement as he acknowledges his inner rage and his "love of war". Look with wonder as he befriends, finds respect for, and ends up working with men only after he's locked horns with them as adversaries (Hickock is such a juicy secondary character). The key word there is "men". His relationships with women are decidedly distant and awkward -- his connection with Dottie being the only exception. Van and the book both transform into something else, things not entirely pretty, in the last pre-epilogue section, when he discovers and acts against the treacherous bad guy's plans. It's a remarkable transformation, which left me slightly uncertain, though not enough for me to stop rooting for him or enjoying the book.

How is it possible to write such a brilliant book with so many layers and subtleties, full of truths, wisdom, and observations of great depth, yet make it look so easy? I'm sure Mr. Sterling put a lot of work into The Zenith Angle, but it doesn't show at all in the effortless prose and delivery. He takes us inside, above, underneath, and through concepts and places with omniscient powers of insight and understanding. But even more amazing; how did he manage to fit an effective, powerful, completely sensible scene involving a "ray gun" and a big "death ray" into a semi-mainstream political thriller?

In some ways, The Zenith Angle follows the classic Sterling novel structure, employed effectively in just about everything he's done since 1988's Islands in the Net: take a really interesting central character, throw them into a volatile situation surrounded by fascinating concepts, ideas, and gadgets; create some really interesting secondary characters, stir for awhile, then resolve. It's a highly unorthodox model that few writers possess the skill to deliver properly, yet one at which Sterling never fails. About 150 pages into the book (almost halfway), you realize that no tangible plot has yet been defined; you've just been following Van through his interactions in his new life as a government employee. Yet somehow, you still remained hooked, and readily dismiss the lack of "the Ring must be destroyed"-style plotting for the sheer joy of the ideas from one page to the next. The Zenith Angle shares a lot of the best qualities of Neal Stephenson's brilliant Cryptonomicon.

This is good stuff. Sterling's unique methods and style aren't necessarily for everyone, but The Zenith Angle is for anyone who loves intelligent fiction with depth and strong characters. Fans of Bruce Sterling will probably acknowledge that this is his best since Holy Fire -- maybe even better. Highly recommended.
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