Zeitgeist, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 293 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10493-4

Reading a new Bruce Sterling book is the closest that SF readers can come to have a “satisfaction-guaranteed” experience. If you’ve liked Sterling in the past, he’s constantly improving himself, and even if you’d don’t really like his stuff, there are usually enough interesting elements to still make it all worthwhile.

In his latest novel Zeitgeist, SF’s premier world-traveller returns to the unclean, exotic edges of Western civilization, sort of a flashback to Europe after the American Distraction. This time, East European technicians meet Middle-eastern mafia meet American promoter meet… well, just about everyone. Leggy Starlitz, from the short story “The Littlest Jackal” in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, returns as the manager of a musical group suddenly faced with the prospect of middle-age when his daughter is dumped on him by one of her mothers.

The time is 1999, but don’t expect anything like SF nor historical fiction, because Zeitgeist might best be assimilated to a magical melting pot when everything ends up as a contemporary world fantasy, with supernatural powers, time-shifting people, literal regurgitation of metaphors and more than a little meta-fictional content. (Sterling says of Zeitgeist that it’s “technological fantasy”) How else to interpret Princess Di in a suitcase?

Parts of the book feature (but never revolve around) a pseudo-musical group named G-7, featuring interchangeable girls from every country of the group. Naturally, as Canadian, I was amused at the references to the “tartan-clad, toque-wearing Canadian One [who] spoke a little French, which naturally endeared her to the French One. [She] was polite, modest, and self-effacing, practically invisible in the group’s affair [and] very pleased to be consulted.” [P.47] Heh, eh? Most of the book is like that, with its self-assured, world-weary hipster style that make it all look effortless.

Not certainly not mindless, because even with this, maybe Sterling’s lesser book since Heavy Weather, it’s still a wonderful read. Obviously, coming from Sterling, it’s all very smart and often devastatingly funny. Leggy Starlitz is obsessed with his place in “the master narrative”, and the only thing funnier than someone obsessing about that is a character obsessing about it. The final “deus ex machina” ending is a sustained howler, one of the most unique moments to be found in recent fiction. (It’s almost as if Chris Carter stepped into a typical X-Files episode and slapped some sense in the characters while saying they’re more right than they can even imagine, just not in the right way.) This Zeitgeist is fluid, and that’s the fun of it.

The flaw of the book is contained in its brilliance; the very danger that this accumulation of smart jokes, witty conversations and this-side-of-weird elements might accumulate to create a future-shock of Wired-speak and promote the moment at the expense of the book’s overall plot. There’s never a dull moment, but there are a few long stretches.

But as you may gather, it doesn’t matter very much. With Zeitgeist, Sterling only solidifies his enviable position as one of the field’s best authors. He gets away with stuff that would doom a lesser writer; the convergence of genres, the throwaway gags and outrageous meta-fictional content are not only a lot of fun, but they also feel included for a reason. Good reading for everyone; check it out at the library.

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