Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling

I'd never read anything by Bruce Sterling, although I knew that people talk about him in the same breath as Neal Stephenson and William Gibson - in fact, both are name checked in this novel's blurb. I've read and enjoyed novels from both, and should probably put Douglas Coupland in as another referent. They're all in this category of writing known as speculative fiction, where we take reality as we know it and add in a couple of "what if" elements, and generally raise some big questions. Sterling is "visionary in residence" at some Californian Design School and, according to his Wikipedia entry, top dog in the earl;y days of cyberpunk.

So, I was looking forward to reading The Zenith Angle (this, by the way, is the angle between the point in the sky directly overhead and any object seen in the sky) after finding it in the library the other day. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be as close to rubbish as anything I've read in a long time, messy and with its big idea really rather silly.

For the first 263 pages (out of a total of 306), the book is focussed on the need for internet and general computer security in the months and years after September 11. The central character is one Dr Derek Vandeveer, who is a computer security genius: we see him in context with his family. He's a bit of a geek, so family conflict revolves around his choice of furniture (a $600 magnesium chair), maybe a bit like this one (a Ross Lovegrove Go Chair):
He's not good at face to face communicating, to the point that:
He loved Dottie [his wife], but he and Dottie always got along best by e-mail. E-mail was how he had first asked her out. E-mail was how they carried out their professional lives and co-ordinated their schedules. They often sent each other e-mail over the breakfast table when they were living inside the same house. They'd decided to have a child by e-mail. They'd been talking over e-mail about having another one.
We learn a lot about his working life - he had been a technical whizz in "Mondiale", a telecommunications company (since Enron and various dot.com failures are named, this is obviously world.com) but has been recruited to work for some central government computer security outfit targeting a so-called cyberwar, one outfit among many, with all sorts of hierarchical tensions between them. He develops a particular style of running a large number of computers together to provide massive computing power and redundancy (called a Grendel cluster). The point is that all of the technology talked about was of the here and now, can be googled to find details. He also develops a sort of fight-club ethic to how to do things - be quick, be quiet and be on time is a mantra often repeated.

So, the bulk of the book is all about this possible cyberwar he's fighting, and the infighting and politicking with the other computer security government departments. This all culminates in a long internal muse on his part about the internet, ostensibly while looking at a list of conference topics and holding his child in his arms.

That was odd enough, but then a few pages later, he reads some science-geek paper and has a brainwave: the telescope in his wife's observatory is more than it appears, it is in fact a laser gun which can, very slowly, shoot down satellites. One of his school buddies is getting ready to sell the technology to the Chinese. Or maybe the Indians. This is the "thriller" element adverted to in the blurb! Random - pretty much nothing to do with anything that's gone before (unless you count the fact that the buddy has been going out with a Bollywood film star and a few dazed elks we've been told about). Worse, the "big idea" is that instead of the lazer being a light beam, he's beaming Internet traffic, spam to be exact. I had to laugh at the ridiculousness of the concept when I first read it: now I want to cry.

A reviewer on the sfreviews.net site says this end was a "tad abrupt"! He's not kidding. Of course, if the novel was to be a satire on the goings on of the security industry, that's fine, but he really should have stuck to that all the way to the end, rather than this incongruity.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Leo said...

And was The Zenith Angle idea in the book at all or just a catchy title? Really good review. When you first said that he is linked to Gibson and Stephenson I was happy to discover another author in the genre. Now however, I may forget I ever heard his name..

1:30 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

I refuse to believe he is all bad: I do know he co-wrote a very well regarded novel with William Gibson called the Difference Engine. I suspect/hope it is more a case of waning powers, rather than a complete absence, so will go back and read something earlier.

11:27 PM  

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