Zeitgeist, by Bruce Sterling

zeitgeist-by-bruce-sterlingGenre: Cyberpunk
Publisher: Bantam
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: threehalfstars
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan

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Leggy Starlitz, the pragmatic, overweight, harried protagonist of Zeitgeist, living out the tail-end of the 90’s in a dizzying succession of escapades ranging from the outlandish to the merely prosaic, is the Twentieth Century in the flesh.

No, really. That’s not a turn of speech. As this strange, beautiful book unfolds, that’s exactly the way it goes. Leggy Starlitz is the American Century incarnate, and what happens to him is What Happened to Us. Zeitgeist doesn’t feel like an sf novel. This book reads more like magical realism, like something penned by an American Salman Rushdie.

Leggy (a repeating character in many a Sterling tale) is the manager of a multinational Spice-Girls clone called the G-7. G-7 is currently touring in the heart of the world, at the edge of the liquid history of the Mediterranean, the tinderbox where Persians rub against Greeks, where Turks mingle with Russians. The group is poised to go over big in Turkey and Iran if Leggy can make All the Right Moves. But Leggy’s got big headaches.

For one thing, he has to keep reminding his talent and his business associates alike that the G-7 has nothing to do with music and everything to do with marketing and spin. Also, his act is made up of seven adolescent girls, and all the attendant problems that implies. The Japanese One is depressed and the French One has a low-life boyfriend. Worst of all, the American One is a spoiled brat and has got it in her head that she’s The Star. Leggy Starlitz, Human Incarnation of the Twentieth Century, will have to put the American One in her place.

But despite his skillful management, things fall apart for Leggy, as old chickens come home to roost. He runs into trouble with Russians and Muslims in the former Soviet Republics. And he gets his tit caught in a wringer when he becomes overly involved in the machinations of Turkish politics. Worst of all, his ex-wife, a counterculture feminist quasi-lesbo hippie flake, pops up to dump Leggy’s estranged daughter in his lap. America’s Karma has come to Leggy’s doorstep.

And so now the player Leggy Starlitz, entrepeneur, bon vivant, jet-setter, cosmopolitan, man of action, the American Century In The Flesh, has to think about parenthood, about making the world safer and cleaner and more stable, about the responsibility of preparing the future for the future. There are gritty realities to confront. Old debts to be paid.

Leggy’s response to these challenges is quirky and deeply touching, grounded in the domestic experience of any single middle-class American parent with a mortgage and a weight problem. But Sterling throws in plenty of bizarre adventure, exotic locales and quirky characters along the way. The larger world still seethes with danger and vitality and violence, and Leggy cannot escape it completely. In a strange and eerily beautiful sequence, Leggy introduces his daughter Zeta to Grandpa Joe, the Everyday American who found himself smeared across the twentieth century world when the first atom bomb went off.

So Leggy still has some sweeping up to do in the dustbin of history. He has to give an accounting of why he let the G7 crash and burn. He still has to deal with Russian mafia and Turkish politicos. And he has to make sure Zeta is prepared for anything. Things are still a mess out there. But Sterling’s strange little fable gives us hope that, if those of us coming out of the old century stay grounded, pay our debts, look past the bullshit and remember what’s really important, perhaps we can get the new century off on the right foot. It could happen.

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