Bruce Sterling is an idea-and-gadget man; fiction is just his wobbly forum. In The Zenith Angle (Ballantine), his latest high-tech novel, a sentence like “As a telecom expert, Van knew definitely that his son’s vocalizations had contained the phonemes ‘dada'” is what passes for character development. But his rendering of the world and human activity as basically mechanical, and therefore understandable, can make the wade through shallow characterization and murky plot interesting, however wrong his basic notion. The “posthuman” future he explored in stories through the 80s (collected in 1989 as Crystal Express) bent science fiction at an angle sharply at odds with the hopeful humanism prevalent at the time. His catalog of “dead media” (smoke signals, Teletype), a side project he compiles online, throws a shadow over e-mail, cable, and whatever’s coming next, as if he sees the present as already dead and he’s gearing up to kill the future. His nonfiction endeavors–like The Hacker Crackdown, which explores the Internet and the law, and his work as a contributing editor at Wired magazine–are certainly useful to those sniffing at the cutting edge and should probably be required reading before tackling his fiction. But if The Zenith Angle is never much more than a muddled adventure tale of cybersecurity in the war on terror, its meditation on the twin natures of the Internet and Al Qaeda (nationless and nebulous, thus so posthuman) is certainly neat enough. And did you know you could hijack a jet with a fifth of Jack Daniels? I never would’ve thought of that. Sterling reads at 7:30 PM Thursday, April 29, at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake, Oak Park, 708-848-9140.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Comunale.