If there’s one thing Sterling does superbly, it’s extrapolate a plausible near-future out of today’s cutting-edge. Which means Zeitgeist must be a piss-take. Not only is it set in 1999 — and the plot leads up to the Millennium — but it features all the neat gizmos that did not exist then but might well exist ten years from now.
Further, the novel begins with the sort of idea that occurs to a pair of bar-flies at a convention two sheets to the wind. (And just to make sure you catch this, Sterling mentions that the idea came about during a drunken conversation between two of the characters.) Leggy Starlitz is talent management, except he doesn’t manage talent. Not only does he recognise this, he’s proud of it. The idea of managing not-talent is what starts the plot. Starlitz runs a pop group called G7, comprising a teenage girl from each of the G7 countries. The band is wholly manufactured: they lipsynch and mime to tunes written by professionals. They can’t sing, they can’t dance... but no one cares. G7 are simply walking, talking adverts for G7 merchandising. It’s the Spice Girls without even the suspicion of talent. Or a handy sound-bite manifesto like "Girl Power". It’s the sort of concept dreamt up over numerous bottles of Budweiser — as is the whole idea of basing a novel on the idea.
But Sterling takes the ball, and he runs. And, to slip further into American Football vernacular, he makes a hell of a lot of yardage. But does he score a touchdown? Starlitz is concentrating on the developing markets of Central Asia, the ex-Soviet republics where, he feels, there is money to be made peddling Western dreams to consumer-icon-starved and disaffected post-industrial youth. He and G7 are in Turkish Cyprus, readying themselves for their launch onto an unsuspecting Turkish public. Well, perhaps not "unsuspecting", given that the launch involves a carefully-managed campaign of gossip and tabloid journalism. To ease G7’s way into Turkish stardom, Starlitz has hooked up with Istanbul mover and shaker Mehmet Ozbey.
Ozbey has lots of powerful contacts; Ozbey has lots of shady contacts. He also wants G7 for himself. When Starlitz’s young daughter arrives with her mother, and said daughter is foisted on Starlitz, he decides it’s time to bow out — Ozbey can have G7, if he promises to look after them. Ozbey does. Starlitz takes his daughter to the US to find his father, a temporal casualty of a disintegrating Native American identity and the somewhat unfortunate decision to steal a hunk of uranium from a test atom bomb at Alamogordo seconds before detonation. As Starlitz and daughter drift further and further away from G7, nearer and nearer to the consensus reality of consumer society, the world begins to unravel about them. As does the plot a little.
Word reaches Starlitz that G7 is in trouble: girls have died and had to be replaced (which is only bad in as much as it means someone has died — the actual members are pretty much interchangeable). He hotfoots it to the Bosphorus. Ozbey has succumbed to his dark side — he is now more in tune with his shady contacts than his powerful contacts. This leads to an incident of bizarrely-cartoon violence, which Starlitz does not witness but only finds the aftermath. It’s as if Roger Rabbit’s world leaked into the peculiar world of the Zeitgeist.
Since the substrate-concept — G7 — has passed its sell-by date, Starlitz ends up pottering about Central Asia… until events come to a head. Zeitgeist is an odd book: it feels like science fiction without actually being science fiction. It’s not quite post-modern mainstream, more sort of techno-magical realism. It’s also an amusing satire. It would be nice to think that G7 the band is a sort of Moebius pun on the G7 group of countries, that Zeitgeist charts their cresting the Millennium as much as it recounts the misadventures of Starlitz and sprog. But I can’t quite see it. Zeitgeist is without a doubt Sterling’s funniest novel, but it’s not his most satisfying. Perhaps because it’s trying to be too many things at the same time.
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