If William Gibson is the Wordsworth of cyberpunk fiction, Bruce Sterling is the Coleridge.¹ It was in fact Sterling who coined the term cyberpunk, some years back & it’s clear that he remains the phenomenon’s most serious intellectual thinker. Given the traditional atomization of novelists by the trade publishing industry, the idea of something akin to a movement of same – even if it amounted only acknowledging mutual interest in one another’s work – was an effective means of focusing attention on what makes this group of writers different. Tho they often use the speculative devices associated with sci-fi, they aren’t sci-fi writers in the traditional sense at all. Rather, they’re interested in exploring the possibilities of society, history & technology, broad categories of concern that can go in a lot of different directions. Sterling’s Islands in the Net remains my favorite example of the phenomenon, set as it is amid a world in which voracious pirate corporations operate in a post-state world.
Zeitgeist is the most recent Sterling book I’ve read & it’s pretty indicative of what’s often great, but also often frustrating, about his projects. The novel was published originally in hardback in November of 2000, with the paperback having been issued in August 2001. Zeitgeist probably should have been published even earlier than that – aspects of the reading experience would have been heightened, if not actually different, if this book were read, say, mid-1999. As it is, it’s a sign of Sterling’s general attention to the world that even having missed the Millennium & having gotten into print in advance of the 9/11 attacks, this is a book that actually includes Osama bin Laden (complete with calypso jokes about the Taliban), albeit at its periphery. One premise overall is that the new century will be radically different from the old, and that the “American century” just past will be supplanted by something quite different, fairly deadly, & far more apt to be centered not in New York or Washington, but in that swath of landscape that stretches from the Middle East to South Asia & reaches northward in to the peripheral republics of the late, unlamented U.S.S.R. In this sense, Zeitgeist joins James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage as an example of prophetic writing – the difference being that Sherry saw this a dozen years ahead of the attack on the Trade Center & Pentagon, while Sterling got his in just under the wire.
The story, such as it is, concerns one Leggy Starlitz, a cheesy hustler who manages a Spice-girls knock-off band called G-7, which has one girl from each country then participating in the economic cartel. Singing & dancing skills not required. The plan is to have the group tour through a series of countries starting with Cyprus & heading east. This gets complicated when the band gets basically taken over by rogue Turkish intelligence agents & Starlitz ex-wife, now a lesbian hippie beansprout communard in Oregon, shows up to drop off the 11-year-old daughter, Zeta, whom Starlitz has never met. But along the way more things happen than one might imagine, including a narrative interlude in Hawaii & a trip across the Mexican-US border to conjure up a sort-of-virtual grandfather who speaks only in palindromes.
As is so often the case in life, Sterling’s greatest strength – his rapid-fire, free-associating imagination – is the book’s primary weakness as well. The plot roars right along, but not so much in any one direction. It ends, but to call the conclusion satisfying or even a conclusion is overstating the case. In that sense, Sterling is not unlike Pynchon’s later work, filled with the devices of narrative motion but absent any strong sense of direction.
Sterling likes to complicate these narratives by having the characters struggle with ordinary aspects of family living, even as assassins are showing up & the body-count starts to mount. In this book, it’s the relationship with Zeta, who’s constant refrain, “Hey Dad,” virtually sets up the syncopation of the book. In Islands of the Net, one of the key characters had to do her thing while pregnant (not unlike the sheriff in Fargo).
It’s fun, fast, furious, full of things to think about with regards to the future configuration of forces in this world, and yet in the end it’s a literary cookie as well, digestible more than memorable. Oddly enough, given all its dystopic warnings & quick shoot-from-the-hip sociology, it’s both accurate in one sense – this century is already patently different from the previous one – and far more optimistic than events since 9/11 would lead anyone to believe.
¹ It’s easy to push this analogy too far. Lucius Shepard becomes the Blake & Neal Stephenson becomes what? The Shelley?