Father Time

If the real subject of science fiction isn't science, but history, the history in Zeitgeist (Bantam Books), Bruce Sterling's 12th book of fiction, is the kind usually meant by "in the making"--current events. Global capitalism, neofascism, the aftermath of Soviet Communism--eat your heart out, War of the Worlds, the future is now. Or then. Because this "novel of metamorphosis" takes place in that year about which the single most important fact will always remain that it ended: 1999. At the same time, to keep things postmodern, we're led on an expedition to the weird heart of another kind of history--narrative proper.

Zeitgeist's protagonist, the tubby, Mr. Natural-ish Leggy Starlitz, is a facilitator of obscure international crimes, a character we've seen before in Sterling's oeuvre. Leggy has dreamed up the fabulous pop scam "G-7": sub-Spice Girls with a world hook (there's the American one, the French one, etc.) who take their profits selling merchandise--backpacks, dolls, anything but records--in Asia and Eastern Europe. Although the book's preliminaries, set in Cyprus, showcase Sterling's erudition about back-page global politics, they're upstaged by his coolest trick: He can write about pop. Celine Dion, third-world heavy metal, it doesn't matter if it doesn't matter--and Sterling knows it. In fiction, nailing pop's tone is such a feat that for a while you barely register the plot, partly because it's hard to believe all this terrific groundwork will be wasted on a non-event like Y2K.

Sterling himself seems to have taken the millennial transition pretty seriously. His "Viridian Manifesto" calls for devising a responsible global lifestyle and geopolitical order so cool and harmonious no one can resist it. In Zeitgeist, Y2K functions as something between the end of the world and a midlife crisis. Leggy calls it "a crisis in the master narrative," using the lingo that recurs in his personal slang. A "good strong narrative" works for you, or else it's just "not in the storyline." "No sequel possible" means someone is good and dead. This phrase carries special weight as history seems to be catching up with Leggy's narrative, both metaphysically and personally. And personal is what his narrative gets when an old flame, Vanna, appears in his hotel bar.

Famed for bringing science fiction up to date with his prog smarts and hip cultural references, Sterling also writes very well about sex. The real/ideal interfacer in him knows the ins and outs of fucks that start like nothing but end up blowing circuits. The "middle-aged sexual intercourse" that these exes share shrinks the formula to the dimensions of angstroms (and not the Rabbit kind). The interlude may seem like nothing, but from the minute it's over, the narrative energy has changed, even before Leggy learns that his life has, too. He's been a biological father for 11 years and now a custody transfer is about to make him a real dad. That means he has to start thinking about the future, and that means dipping into the past to find his own dad, which in turn means, for reasons that remain murky, stepping outside "the consensus narrative"--a term we're going to hear quite a lot of.

The consensus narrative is something like conventional wisdom: hegemony, but not necessarily the majority view. When Leggy and daughter Zeta go nonconsensus to find Leggy's dad, dropping passports, cash, and identity, the act feels strangely normal because, Leggy explains, it is: Most of the world lives like this. It's "the great untold back-story." In some sense the consensus narrative is, literally, documentation, printed words that take on particular significance when it comes to Leggy's new story line--raising a child.

Sterling's romans aren't easy to stick a clef into, but if Zeitgeist invites speculation, that's partly because so much of it concerns something the guy in the author bio actually is: a father. The crash course on structuralism that Starlitz throws Zeta is perfectly in character, but in other lessons, a little St*rli** leaks into the notion of consensus narrative at its most heroic--ordinary parenting. For the purposes of Zeitgeist, though, the most personal thing we know about Sterling is that he wrote it. Because in this narrative, the "narrative" that is an ongoing motif isn't about art or truth but a person's most profound connection with the historical moment, a place in the world, and it's something a person doesn't so much create as join--even, by inference, the person who wrote the book.

When the 20th Century morphs into the next, at the pre-Y2K reunion of Zeta and Leggy with his father, the adventures of narrative are the main event. Old Joe starts saying things like, "Man. Eve let an idiot--a retromastoid idiot, Sam, or teratoid--in at eleven A.M." Or, more to the point: "No darn radon!" The father represents the 20th Century's key fact that made clear that history might end: the atomic bomb. So Leggy's pop's narratives end and begin in the same place. That's his story line--palindromes. And when you think about it, a similar specter was haunting 20th-century narrative from James Joyce to Samuel R. Delany--the circle. Nonlinear narrative--it seemed like a good idea at the time, but did it go anywhere? Was it the sort of story line that could make it straight through Y2K?

Sterling's narratives, picaresque sometimes to the point of bagginess, don't necessarily lead anywhere either. After the palindrome climax, Y2K itself passes with the merest ripple, and Zeitgeist's resolutions--generational sequence and how it could matter if pop did matter--are so subtle that for all the buildup, the new century's Zeitgeist seems less butterfly than winged caterpillar. That's Sterling's real/ideal interface again. But there's another punch line here. Like we used to say in the 20th Century, the medium is the message. And Sterling's messages translate through the medium of pop, which, like Joe's palindromes, can signify even when its head is up its ass. It doesn't matter if it doesn't matter, but it does matter if it does, because we share this narrative with a crowd.

So we don't have to be as exclusive as old Grandpa Joe, who queried, "Are we not drawn onward, we few--drawn onward to a new era?" We can jump right to the medium's message, which reads like this: If you have to end somewhere, it's a good place to start.

City Pages, Nov. 22, 2000