The Zenith Angle

The Zenith Angle

2.7 4
by Bruce Sterling

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Like his peers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, bestselling author Bruce Sterling writes cutting-edge speculative fiction firmly rooted in today’s reality. Now in The Zenith Angle, he has created a timely thriller about an information-age security expert caught up in America’s escalating war on terror.

Infowar. Cybercombat. Digital


Like his peers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, bestselling author Bruce Sterling writes cutting-edge speculative fiction firmly rooted in today’s reality. Now in The Zenith Angle, he has created a timely thriller about an information-age security expert caught up in America’s escalating war on terror.

Infowar. Cybercombat. Digital security and techno-terror. It’s how nations and networks secretly battle, now and into the future. And for Derek “Van” Vandeveer, pioneering computer wizard, a new cyberwarrior career begins on the fateful date of September 11, 2001.

Happily married with a new baby, pulling down mind-blowing money as a VP of research and development for a booming Internet company, Van has been living extralarge. Then the devastating attacks on America change everything. And Van must decide if he’s willing to use the talents that built his perfect world in order to defend it.

“It’s our networks versus their death cult,” says the government operative who recruits Van as the key member of an ultraelite federal computer-security team. In a matter of days, Van has traded his cushy life inside the dot-com bubble for the labyrinthine trenches of the Washington intelligence community—where rival agencies must grudgingly abandon decades of distrust and infighting to join forces against chilling new threats. Van’s special genius is needed to make the country’s defense systems hacker-proof. And if he makes headway there, he’ll find himself troubleshooting ultrasecret spy satellites.

America’s most powerful and crucial “eye in the sky,” the KH-13 satellite—capable of detecting terrorist hotbeds worldwide with pinpoint accuracy—is perilously close to becoming an orbiting billion-dollar boondoggle, unless Van can debug the glitch that’s knocked it out of commission. Little does he suspect that the problem has nothing at all to do with software . . . and that what’s really wrong with the KH-13 will force Van to make the unlikely leap from scientist to spy, team up with a ruthlessly resourceful ex–Special Forces commando, and root out an unknown enemy . . . one with access to an undreamed of weapon of untold destructive power.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A darkly comic fable of info-war, the black budget, über-geek idealism, and the politics of Homeland Insecurity. Sterling’s grasp of the surfaces of contemporary reality is deftly prehensile; his understanding of what underlies those surfaces is both compelling and important.”
—WILLIAM GIBSON, author of Pattern Recognition

“Vibrates with fantastic in-jokes and insights . . . Rockets along like a hijacked airliner heading straight at you, like a flash-worm compromising every unpatched Windows box on the net at once. Lots of books are called ‘thrillers,’ but very few are this thrilling.”
—CORY DOCTOROW, author of Eastern Standard Tribe
and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

“[Sterling offers] great insights about the inner workings of government, private industry, and the threats that could disrupt the online world as we know it. The Zenith Angle mixes technology, politics, dry humor, and suspense to provide a first-rate read.”
—HOWARD A. SCHMIDT, former CSO for Microsoft and former Special Adviser for Cyber Security for the Bush Administration

“A Catch-22 for the slashdot generation: a wry, cynical, informed peek at the paranoid world of the post-9/11 cyberspookerati. Buy it, read it, be very afraid.”
—CHARLES STROSS, author of Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise

“Perhaps the sharpest observer of our media-choked culture working today in any genre.”

“Known for putting more interesting ideas on one page than most writers include in an entire novel.”
The Seattle Times

“One of America’s best-known science-fiction writers and perhaps the sharpest observer of our media-choked culture working today in any genre.”

“Bitingly satiric—and quite often brilliant.”
The New York Observer

“Known for putting more interesting ideas on one page than most writers include in an entire novel.”
The Seattle Times

“Nobody knows better than Bruce Sterling how thin the membrane between science fiction and real life has become, a state he correctly depicts as both thrilling and terrifying.”
—KURT ANDERSEN, author of Turn of the Century

“The reigning master of near-future political SF.”
Publishers Weekly

“Sterling [has a] gift for creating sympathetic yet fallible characters.”
Library Journal

Paul Di Filippo
Fueled by bravura hyperbole about the clash of civilizations and genuinely tender domestic insights, The Zenith Angle offers wisdom and solace, thrills and laughter, for a struggling world.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The godfather of cyberpunk abandons SF in this satiric look at the high-tech security industry after 9/11. Dr. Derek Vandeveer gives up his high-paying job in private industry in order to try to help the government plug the nation's most serious computer security leaks. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that many of the worst problems are either too expensive to fix or impossible to deal with for political reasons. Vandeveer finds himself living in a slum in Washington, D.C., up to his ears in red tape and surrounded by a cast of would-be cyber warriors and failed dot-com entrepreneurs. Even worse, he's paying for the equipment he needs out of his own pocket. Worst of all, Vandeveer's wife Dottie, a world-class astronomer, is off on a mountaintop in Colorado. Meanwhile, something or someone is playing games with America's most sophisticated spy satellite and Vandeveer stakes his reputation on solving the mystery. Sterling (Zeitgeist) knows the world of cyber-security inside out, and he does a fine job of talking the talk without losing his readers. The Vandeveers have a convincingly believable geek marriage and their scenes together are particularly well done. Sterling has always been more comfortable with satire than action, however, and the shift near the end to techno-thriller mode isn't entirely successful. Still, this novel should please the author's fans, many of whom will be interested in the latest innovations in computer security. Agent, Merilee Heifetz at Writers House (On sale Apr. 27) Forecast: A six-city author tour should help Sterling break out of genre, in the footsteps of such other SF writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson who have won a wide mainstream readership. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Sterling mixes cyberpunk, politics, irony, and suspense to provide a satiric look at the high-tech security industry post-September 11. After witnessing the Twin Towers destruction on television at breakfast, Dr. Derek "Van" Vandeveer gives up his high-paying job to help the government plug the nation's most serious computer security leaks. Van soon learns that many of the worst problems are either too expensive to fix or politically sacrosanct. Rather than taking time from research to deal with red tape, Van rents an apartment in a Washington, D.C., slum, spending most of his time in a West Virginia bunker with would-be cyber warriors and paying for the equipment he needs out of his own pocket. When Van volunteers to solve the malfunctions of America's most sophisticated spy satellite, he tangles with the Air Force and cyber-security, and must ally himself with two ex-special forces men and a young hacker to defeat the traitor. Sterling's main characters are real people, with all their complications and contradictions, although the supporting players often appear caricatures. Readers interested in the latest innovations in computer security or the inner workings of government and private industry should enjoy this novel of technological espionage. This book is recommended for senior high school and public libraries where there is an interest. VOYA CODES: 4Q 2P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2004, Del Rey, 352p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Marsha Valance
Library Journal
Computer security theorist Derek Vandeveer's life changes utterly after the events of 9/11 awaken the country to a new and urgent need for tighter security. Leaving his cushy job in the private sector for a secret government agency charged with increasing the security of cyberspace, Vandeveer becomes caught up in a seemingly fruitless search to uncover the source of an attack on an ultra classified satellite. Like fellow cyberpunk veteran William Gibson, Sterling (Zeitgeist; Tomorrow Now) turns his attention to the very near future in a tale of one man's persistent struggle to perceive the truth in a world choked by deception and betrayal. Combining up-to-the-minute technology with engaging characters and a clear vision of tomorrow, this highly recommended work belongs in most sf and general fiction collections. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Geeks got muscles: Mainstream yarn about computer security and surveillance, from the leading SF writer and futurologist (Zeitgeist, 2000, etc.). Tom DeFanti, telecommunications mogul, Deep Black budget weapons contractor, and astronomy fiend, is slowly going insane. His chief executive, Tony Carew, tries to interest him in the research of computer genius Derek Vanderveer; but Tom prefers not to know just how bad his, and everybody else's, computer security really is. Then 9/11 changes everything. Derek goes to work for the National Security Council. Forced to live apart from his wife and child-Dottie's a physicist, working on a telescope project sponsored by DeFanti in Colorado-Derek takes up residence in a grungy Washington neighborhood, where he designs Grendel, a revolutionary, unhackable computer system built out of old servers and run by an operating system he wrote himself. Nonetheless, Tony warns Derek, oddly but plausibly, not to get involved with a project to fix a broken spy satellite. Derek can't resist the challenge and finds out why the satellite doesn't work, but then can't interest the military in his solution. Back in Washington, he catches a couple of spooks trying to bug his equipment, and beats one of them to a pulp. He makes a success of another of Tony's weird schemes, seizing control of planes in midair. Much later, Derek will learn why Tony warned him off the satellite project; unfortunately, the explanation involves Dottie's telescope-and a genuine Star Wars death ray. Despite Sterling's usual darkly illuminating undercurrents, this one meanders fitfully and uncomfortably: too much happens offstage, and the geeks don't come alive. Agent: Merrilee Heifetz/WritersHouse

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.15(w) x 6.85(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt



With eager screams of hunger, little Ted Vandeveer drove his parents from their bed.

Dottie slipped a rubber-coated spoon between the infant's lips. Baby Ted blew out his chubby cheeks. Porridge spurted across the table.

Dottie scanned the mess. Her eyelids flicked upward meaningfully.

"Where's the au pair?" Van hedged.

"She didn't come in last night."

Van rose from his white plastic chair, and fetched a white paper towel. With the wisdom of experience, Van tore off a second towel for Ted to use as backup. Van still felt giddy inside his mansion's bright new kitchen. The new kitchen featured deep steel sinks, thick red granite counters, and a chromed fridge the size of a bank vault. When he'd signed up for a house renovation, Van hadn't known that New Jersey contractors were so enthusiastic.

At least, Van thought, Dottie approved of the changes in their house. The mansion's original kitchen had been a nightmare straight out of H. P. Lovecraft. Dottie's new kitchen was now the only place in the Vandeveer home where the plumbing worked properly.

On a corner of the new stove, a small TV played WNBC out of New York City. Van had hooked the set to a pair of rabbit ears. The township of Merwinster, New Jersey, lacked cable television. This was a serious blow to the Vandeveers, who were dedicated fans of Babylon 5, Red Dwarf, and The X-Files. But Mondiale was the little town's biggest employer, and Mondiale was in the broadband Internet business. Mondiale despised all cable TV outfits.

Van toweled up the baby's spew. Baby Ted enjoyed this fatherly attention. He kicked his chubby feet and emitted a joyous string of syllables.

"He said 'dada,' " Van remarked.

Dottie yawned and stirred the baby's porridge, propping her head on one slender hand. "Oh, Derek, he's just babbling."

Van said nothing. As a telecom expert, Van knew definitely that his son's vocalizations had contained the phonemes "dada." Technically speaking, Van was absolutely correct. However, he had learned never to argue with Dottie about such things.

Van dropped the dirty towel into a shiny kick-top wastebasket. He sat again in his plastic picnic chair, which popped and squeaked under his bulk. Van accepted this embarrassment quietly. He knew that it was all his own fault. He, Dr. Derek Vandeveer, famous computer scientist, owned a decaying Victorian mansion that had no proper furniture.

Historical Merwinster, New Jersey, was a gabled, colonial village, woody and surrounded by horse farms. It also boasted the third-biggest clump of fiber optics on America's Eastern Seaboard. Merwinster was a superb place for advancing high-tech research. Van routinely put in sixty-hour weeks inside the Mondiale R&D lab, so he was forced to live in the town.

Dr. Dottie Vandeveer spent her days in Boston, at the Smithsonian Astrophysics Lab. Van had bought the two of them a house in Merwinster because it seemed wrong to Van for his baby, their new third party, to have no home. Besides, Van had to do something practical with his money. Van was making money, and not just a lot of money. Van was the VP for Research and Development at Mondiale. Van was making a weird amount of money.

The TV muttered through a headache commercial, obscuring baby Ted's eager slurps from Dottie's rubber spoon. Van tapped at his trusty ThinkPad and checked the titles of the 117 pieces of e-mail piled up for him behind Mondiale's corporate firewall. With an effort, Van decided to ignore his e-mail, at least until noon. Because Dottie was home with him. Dottie was sleeping with him, and lavishing her sweet attentions on him. Dottie was cooking and cleaning and changing diapers. Dottie was wandering from room to dark decaying room inside the Vandeveer mansion, and wrinkling her brow with a judgmental, wifely look. Today, furnishing the house had priority.

So far, in his rare moments outside of the Mondiale science lab, Van had managed to buy a crib, a playpen, a feeding chair, a Spanish leather couch, a polished walnut table for the breakfast nook, a forty-six-inch flat-screen digital TV with DVD and VCR, and a nice solid marital bed. Van had also installed a sleek, modern Danish bedroom suite upstairs, for Helga the au pair girl. Helga the au pair girl was Swedish and nineteen. Helga had the best-furnished room in the Vandeveer mansion, but she almost never slept in.

According to Dottie, when she and Helga were alone together in Boston, the girl was always gentle, very sweet to the baby, and was never into any trouble with men. But in quiet little Merwinster, Helga went nuts. Helga was hell on wheels with the local computer nerds. She was a man-eater. The geeks were falling for blond Swedish Helga like bowling pins. Van sometimes wondered if he should charge them lane fees.

Dottie put the baby's yellow goop aside and got up to make toast and eggs. Van took rare pleasure in watching Dottie cooking for him. Dottie was not a natural cook. However, she had memorized an efficient routine for the creation of breakfast. Dottie fetched the brown eggs out of their recycled-paper carton and cracked them on the edge of the white blue-striped bowl, hitting the same spot on the rim, precisely, perfectly, every single time.

This sight touched something in Van that he lacked all words for. There was something silent and dark and colossal about the love he had for Dottie, like lake water moving under ice. The pleasure of watching her cooking was much like the secret pleasure he took in watching Dottie dress in the morning. Van loved to watch her, nude, tousled, and bleary, daintily attacking all her feminine rituals until she had fully assembled her public Dottieness. Watching Dottie dressing touched him even more than watching Dottie undressing.

Baby Ted was eleven months old. Ted had some major abandonment issues. Deprived of his mommy and his rubber spoon, Ted jacked his chubby knees in his high chair, with a wild, itchy look. Van watched his baby son intensely. The baby was of deep interest to Van. With his shock of fine fluffy hair and his bulging potbelly, baby Ted looked very much like Van's father-in-law, a solemn electrical engineer who had made a small fortune inventing specialized actuators.

Baby Ted packed a scream that could pierce like an ice pick. However, Ted changed his mind about howling for his mother. Instead, he picked intently at four loose Cheerios with his thumb and forefinger. Van sensed that picking up and eating a Cheerio was a major achievement for Ted. It was the baby equivalent of an adult landing a job.

Van ran his fingers through his thick sandy beard, still wet from the morning shower. He set his ThinkPad firmly aside to confront an unsteady heap of magazines. Junk-mail catalog people had gotten wind of Van's huge paycheck. For them, a computer geek with a new house and new baby was a gold mine.

Van didn't enjoy shopping, generally. Van enjoyed mathematics, tech hardware, cool sci-fi movies, his wife's company, and bowling. However, shopping had one great advantage for Van. Shopping made Van stop thinking about Nash equilibria and latency functions. Van had been thinking about these two computer-science issues for three months, seriously. Then for two weeks very seriously, and then for the last six days very, very seriously. So seriously that even Dottie became invisible to him. So seriously that sometimes Van had trouble walking.

However, Van's network-latency analysis had been successfully completed and written up. The white paper would be widely admired by key members of the IEEE, and cordially ignored by the Mondiale board of directors. So Van had given himself some time off.

Dottie, slim and delicious and barefoot, was silently reading the instructions that came with her new toaster oven. Dottie always read all the instructions for everything. Dottie always studied all the safety disclaimers and even the shrink-wrap contracts on software.

Back at MIT, classmates at the lab had teased Dottie about her compulsive habits. Van, however, had noticed that Dottie never made the dumb beginner's mistakes that everybody else made. Dottie was pleased to have this quality of hers recognized and admired. Eventually Dottie wrote her own vows and then married him.

Van leafed through slick colorful pages and discovered a Fortebraccio task lamp. The designer lamp looked both spoonlike and medical. It had the robust, optimistic feeling of a vintage Gene Roddenberry Star Trek episode. It rocked totally.

Van ripped the lamp's page from the catalog, and dumped the rest into the recycling bin at his elbow. Van's next catalog was chock-full of chairs. Van, his attention fully snagged now, settled deeply into the problem at hand. He was sitting uncomfortably in a lousy plastic picnic chair, one of a set of six that he had bought on a hasty lunch break at the nearest Home Depot. That situation just wouldn't do.

Dottie repeated herself. "Derek! You want seven-grain bread or whole wheat?"

Van came to with a start. "Which loaf has more in the queue?"

"Uhm, the whole wheat loaf has more slices left."

"Give me the other one." Logically, that bread was bound to taste better.

As a serious programmer, Van used an Aeron chair at his work. The Aeron was in some sense the ultimate programmer's working chair. The Aeron was the only chair that a hard-core hacker lifestyle required. Van hunched his thick shoulders thoughtfully. Yet, a family home did require some domestic chairs. For instance, an Aeron lacked the proper parameters for breakfast use. Spattered baby food would stick inside the Aeron's nylon mesh.

Van winced at the memory of the three FBI guys who had shown up at his Merwinster mansion, seeking his computer security advice. The FBI G-men had been forced to sit in Van's white plastic picnic chairs. The Bureau guys hadn't said a word about the plastic chairs-they just drank their instant coffee and took thorough notes on yellow legal pads-but they got that dismissive FBI look in their eyes. They were reclassifying him as a mere informant rather than a fully qualified expert. That wouldn't do, either.

Dottie didn't know about the FBI and their discreet visits to the house. Van hadn't told Dottie about the FBI, for he knew she wouldn't approve. The interested parties from the Treasury Department and the U.S. Navy Office of Special Investigations had also escaped Dottie's notice.

This was some catalog. It had chairs made of black leather and bent chrome tubing. Chairs like baseball mitts. Chairs like bent martini glasses. Chairs cut from single sheets of pale, ripply plywood.

Dottie slid a breakfast plate before him. Dottie's new toaster oven had browned Van's toast to absolute perfection. Van had never before witnessed such perfect toast. It lacked the crude striping effect that toast got from the cheap hot wires in everyday toasters.

"Derek, can you open this?"

Van put his manly grip to an imported black jar of English jam. The enameled lid popped off with a hollow smack. There was a rush of aroma so intense that Van felt five years old. This was very good jam. This black British jam had such royal Buckingham Palace authority that Van wanted to jump right up and salute.

"Honey, this stuff is some jam."

"It's blackberry!" Dottie sang out from behind her copper frying pan. "It's your favorite!"

Even the baby was astounded by the wondrous smell of the jam. Ted's round blue eyes went tense. "Dada!" he said.

"He said 'dada' again." Van spread the happy black jam across his perfect toast.

Ted slapped his spit-shiny mitts on his feeding tray. "Dada!" he screeched. "Dada!"

Dottie stared at her son in awe and delight. "Derek, he did say it!"

She rushed over to praise and caress the baby. Baby Ted grinned up at her. "Dada," he confided. Ted was always good-natured about his mother. He did his best to mellow her out.

Van watched the two of them carrying on. Life was very good for the Dada today. Van wolfed down all eight pieces of his toast. This was a caviar among blackberry jams. "Where on earth did you find this stuff, Dots?"

"Off the Internet."

"That'll work. Can you get a case discount?"

"You want more?"

"You bet. Point, click, and ship."

Van leaned back and slid his toast-crumbed plate aside, increasingly pleased with the universe. Dottie sidled over, bearing a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs. Van lifted his fork, but then his gaze collided with yet another catalog chair. The spectacle unhinged him.

"Holy gosh, Dottie! Look at this thing. Now that's a chair!"

"It looks like a spider."

"No, it's like an elk! Look at those legs!"

"The legs, that's the most spidery part."

"It's made out of cast magnesium!"

Dottie took away Van's jar of jam. "Paging Stanley Kubrick."

No way, thought Van. Kubrick's movie 2001 was all 1968! Now that it really was 2001, all that futuristic stuff was completely old-fashioned. Van sampled his scrambled eggs. They were very tasty indeed. "Magnesium! Wow, no one in the world can tool that stuff, and now it's in chairs!"

Dottie set her own plate down, with dabs of food on it that would scarcely feed a sparrow. She heaved the restless baby from his high chair and propped him on her slender thigh. Ted was a big kid and Dottie was a small woman. Ted flopped back and forth, flinging his solid head at her like a stray cannonball. "How much does it cost?" she said practically.

"Six hundred. Plus shipping."

"Six hundred dollars for one chair, Derek?"

"But it's magnesium and polycarbonate!" Van argued. "They only weigh seven kilograms! You can stack them."

Dottie examined the catalog page, fork halfway to her tender mouth. "But this chair doesn't even have a real back."

"It's got a back!" Van protested. "That thing that grows out of its arms, that is its back, see? I bet it's a lot more fun to sit in than it looks."

Dottie poured Van fresh coffee as Ted yanked at her pageboy brown hair.

"You don't like it," Van realized mournfully.

"That's a very interesting chair, honey, but it's just not very normal."

"We'll be the first on the block to have one."

Dottie only sighed.

Van stared at the awesome chair, trying not to be surly. Six hundred dollars meant nothing much to him. Obviously Mondiale's stock wasn't at the insanely stellar heights it had been when he had bought the mansion, but any guy who bought his wife emeralds for their anniversary wasn't going to whine about a magnesium chair.

Van couldn't bear to turn the catalog page. The astonishing chair was already part of his self-image. The chair gave him the same overwhelming feeling he had about computers: that they were tools. They were serious work tools. Only lamers ever flinched at buying work tools. If you were hard-core you just went out and got them.

Meet the Author

Bruce Sterling is the author of nine novels, three of which were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. The Difference Engine, cowritten with William Gibson, was a national bestseller. He has also published three short-story collections and two nonfiction books. He has written for many magazines, including Newsweek, Fortune, Harper’s, Details, Whole Earth Review, and Wired, where he is a contributing editor. He has won two Hugo Awards for Best Novella. Sterling lives in Austin, Texas.

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Zenith Angle 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Derek Vandeveer is the vice president of research and development at Mondiale in Merwinster News Jersey making a fabulous salary, living in a mini mansion most people would envy and married to an astrophysicist who is his intellectual equal. Van is a very contented person, but that all changes on Sept 11, 2001 when he realizes his priorities need to change. The Federal government recruits him to work as an expert in cyber security enabling him to take an active role in the war on terrorism............................ He creates Grendel, a hack-proof system that is a big success for the agency he is working for but what really interests him is the KH-13 satellite. If working properly, it can pick up images of weapons going off anywhere in the world. However, it is not working the way it is supposed to and Van thinks he has a way of firing it up even though he doesn¿t know the cause of the failure. Unfortunately he can¿t get anybody to listen to him but his time with the Feds has turned the computer nerd into a warrior, one willing to confront a traitor ready to sell out his country............................. Readers who have some background in the sciences and information technology will appreciate THE ZENITH ANGLE better than those people in the audience who have limited understanding of either subject as this tale is highly complex and technical. The protagonist evolves and changes through the course of the exciting story line as he (and the readers) likes the person he becomes. Bruce Sterling has written a compelling work that shows the effects of 9/11 on one computer geek turned cyber warrior.......................... Harriet Klausner
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