Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Speaking in Palindromes

ZEITGEIST
By Bruce Sterling
Bantam

Since novelists are even worse at making up rock stars than record executives, I wasn't encouraged to learn that the great Bruce Sterling had essayed a Spice Girls satire. What imagined amalgam of cynical music bizzers, low-talent bimbos, and hot-to-trot fans could equal the real story? But sci-fi polymath Sterling has always grasped pop, and he always does his research. So though details remain murky, his G-7 girls are a scam that could happen. By the time Zeitgeist begins, the group's manager (and the novel's protagonist), Leggy Starlitz, is operating solely in cultural backwaters, buying cut-rate publicity as he rakes in merchandising "from Taiwan to Slovakia."

Anyway, G-7 are more premise than focus in a novel that addresses what its title suggests--the spirit of, not the times, but time itself, its essential nature. You have to love how audaciously Sterling juxtaposes this grand abstraction against the cheap ephemerality of the G-7 idea. Compared to 1995's Holy Fire, a deft, visionary takeoff on generational politics set in a 2095 ruled by people who are alive today, or 1998's Distraction, which posits a noble end to the seemingly inexorable power of science while negotiating the crazed electoral politics of the 2040s, Zeitgeist may appear a mite sloppy. But only if you stop to think about it.

With Sterling, unlike such quality sci-fi novelists as Samuel Delany and Ursula LeGuin, that's hard to do, because he's an irresistible storyteller. Longer though they are on narrative detail than well-made plot, his books crest forward on swell after swell of tech-spec fantasia and social nitty-grit. Although no previous Sterling novel has been set in the here-and-now (1999, actually), Zeitgeist is hardly the first to give us the lowdown on such arcana as synthetic building materials or Turkish politics, because Sterling's specialty is futures that proceed from obscure corners of a present whose vastness is both unimaginable and wondrous.

And while it's way corny to make Leggy's dad a Los Alamos survivor whose ability to materialize out of thin air and/or the fifth dimension will end with Y2K, Dad's preferred rhetorical mode--he speaks in palindromes when he speaks at all--perfectly encapsulates the problematic march of history that is the deep message of all Sterling's fictions. They turn back on themselves, exploring plausible futures in order to provide both admonitory critiques of and inspiriting refuges from the present. "Are we not drawn onward, we few--drawn onward to a new era?" Dad asks in a palindrome touched by a reassuring whisper of imperfection. Zeitgeist hopes so.

Austin Statesman-American, 2000