Book Review: Readings

Bruce Sterling


Zeitgeist: A Novel of Metamorphosis

by Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 293 pp., $24.95

You'd never take Bruce Sterling, Austin's homegrown futurist, for a fan of the Spice Girls, but just in case you had, his latest lobs an irony-grenade amidst the Spices and their ilk and renders pre-fab pop defects like Boyzone et al. null and void -- and has a blast while doing it. Zeitgeist differs from Sterling's previous work in several ways, though. It's the only one of his novels set in the present (1999 -- close enough to rock & roll), it's not as charged with the bedrock-deep, pause 'n' think ideologues of, say, Holy Fire (which left Sterling's crisp, prescient mindset overlapping yours for weeks, months after you put it down), and it never seems to jell as well as you'd like. That said, if the genre of speculative fiction on its best days were half as enjoyable and intelligent as Sterling on his worst, we'd all be a lot better off.

Along with such post-cyberpunk cronies as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, Sterling must find himself in a fairly surreal position in these days of wild, onrushing, technological great-leaps-forward. It used to be that sci-fi would be fi for at least a decade or two; now the fictions leapfrog into reality literally overnight, and the folks behind the daily advances are more often than not bedroom closet hackers and phreaks, aged 18 on down. It's a Sterling world; we just live in it. In Zeitgeist, Sterling resurrects Leggy Starlitz, a character from several of the author's shorts stories ("Hollywood Kremlin," "The Littlest Jackal"), and fleshes out an entire novel around him. Leggy's a weasely little fellow, a vaguely mysterious bottom-feeder who's currently managing a Spice Girls-style pop-music abomination called G7, a musical construct so obviously flimsy that the girls are referred to not by name but as "the American one," "the Italian one," etc. The gag's pretty funny until you start to realize just how on-target Sterling's little jibe probably is.

Starlitz, who's determined to dissolve G7 by New Year's Eve 1999, rakes in the cash crop and lets the girls strut their way to oblivion via pre-recorded music while he consorts with wasted Russian bodyguards and as disreputable a cast of characters as you'd expect. More so, even. Sterling's riff on these faceless, pre-commodified pop-tarts is a zinger, and his prose is as sharp and electric as ever, but when Leggy's illegitimate daughter Zeta shows up, and Starlitz himself begins exhibiting otherworldly abilities, the novel takes off in a whole new, totally unpredictable direction. More an indictment of out of control, fin de siècle capitalism than a patented Sterling mind-expander, Zeitgeist is nonetheless a wonky, adrenalized novel. It's just not Sterling's best.

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