Creative destruction

With his new novel, "The Zenith Angle," Bruce Sterling abandons the cyborg future for the more terrifying present of amoral terrorists and capitalists

Published April 30, 2004 10:31PM (EDT)

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 Weather," "Distraction" and "Zeitgeist" 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 alike.

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 now?

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 dread.

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.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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