Party Like It’s 1999: Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist
Bruce Sterling is a fairly well known name in science fiction. He can be reasonably credited as one of the founders of the Cyberpunk movement and his novel The Difference Engine (co-written with William Gibson) helped to launch the Steampunk movement. I could talk about a lot of his work (particularly Schizmatrix, which is brilliant and has been discussed at great length by people way better at this than I am) but Zeitgeist is one of those books that defines Appendix X. It doesn’t so much blend genres as create its own. Call it an Alternative Epistemology Fantasy.
It’s available on Kindle, but seems to be out of hardcopy print. (Somehow that seems very fitting, actually.) It was published in 2000 by Spectra, which is part of Bantam, which is part of Random Penguin. It is, however, available as an excellent audiobook on Audible.com, read by Jeff Woodman. From the preview the Kindle version seems to be professionally formatted.
Okay, so what is Zeitgeist about? On one level it’s about a smooth operator named Leggy Starlitz who is running a band called G7 on their tour of Asia in 1999. G7 is a girl band that is all gimmick—the members aren’t even known by name, they are just the American one, the French one, the German one, the Canadian one, the Japanese one, the British one, and the Italian one. They don’t release albums. They don’t actually make music, although they preform concerts where they dance and lipsynch to remixes of other people’s music. G7 exists to sell G7 merchandise, and business is booming among the teenage girls of recently Westernized nations.
On another level, though, it’s about The Narrative. Starlitz moves through a world made of language, a world in which reality is created by media perception. He is something both more and less than human, he is a part of the world’s story, both being shaped by it and helping it to solidify into its new form.
Because on Y2K, New Years Day, 2000, everything is going to change. Forget the official calendar, the 20th Century is ending with 1999 and Starlitz is a product of the 20th Century. He is the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. He doesn’t know what is going to happen to him when the world moves into a new age, but it can’t be good.
This book is surreal, in the classical sense. The fantastic elements serve to ask some disturbing questions about the world we live in—if everyone knows that something is true, then is it true? If events occur that can never be admitted to have occurred, are they real? Is reality manufactured by our perceptions? Are human lives the product of the consensus narrative, with all of us just playing parts written for us by humanity as a whole?
Now, for my own part, I believe in objective reality. A is A, and it doesn’t matter if everyone in the world believes that A is B—it’s still A, damnit. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying Sterling’s multi-leveled thought exercise. Leggy Starlitz is an engaging protagonist, and the story is told with compassion and humor.
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.