Bruce Sterling,
The Zenith Angle
(Del Rey, 2004)

Bruce Sterling has captured the emotional essence of post-9/11 government paranoia and the confusion of the United States in The Zenith Angle.

Derek Vanderveer, affectionately known as Van to his friends and colleagues, is a certified computer genius working in the private sector when the Sept. 11 attacks shock the world. He watches, with his wife and the rest of the country, as the towers fall. Jeb, an old friend who works for the government, recruits him to perform computer security, and Van steps into the scary world of government work.

Van moves to Washington, away from Dottie, his astronomer wife, and their adorable son Ted. Though he worries about them, his own sense of responsibility keeps him on the job. He creates the Grendel supercluster, a supercomputer made up of obsolete PCs that traps any hackers who try to sneak into it. Impressively enough, Van does this quickly and under budget, which pleases the government bean counters who oversee the tiny agency that he has joined. He is brought into the fold of the federal government and even spends time at the "undisclosed location" of Dick Cheney fame, where he meets Mike Hickock, a large, scary Marine assassin. Surprisingly, the two become friends, and Van finds more problems to solve as an Indiana Jones of the computer age.

Still, those in charge do not take most of his suggestions seriously, primarily because they will cost a great deal of money. Everyone talks a good deal about security, but it's made completely clear that those in the upper echelons care more about poll numbers than actual security. Problems outside of the government also arise, including a new twist on the stereotypical Mad Scientist plot. Despite his successes and creativity, Van is eventually fired, though not before preventing an attack from within -- one that surprised me completely.

This is an extremely simplified description of the plot, so for the real deal you need to read the book itself.

I was lucky enough to hear Bruce Sterling speak in New York in May, and his knowledge and contacts are astounding. While researching this book, Sterling talked to many computer security people, both in the government and in the private sector, and he distills much of their information into this techno-thriller. The technology he describes is believable -- something just barely out of reach of the public.

I highly recommend this book. I'm not much of a scientist, but I had no problem following the science and jargon in this book. If you enjoy a good thriller with a highly sympathetic character and a complex, convincing plot, you will enjoy The Zenith Angle.

- Rambles
written by Beth Derochea
published 17 July 2004

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