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Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra Books, 291 pages

Eric Dinyer
Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling was born in 1954 in Brownsville, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin and worked for the Texas Legislative Council in Austin as a proofreader back in the late 70s-early 80s. He edited Mirrorshades, felt by many to be the definitive document of the cyberpunk movement. He writes a popular-science column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a literary-critical column for Science Fiction Eye. He has appeared on ABC's Nightline, BBC's The Late Show, CBC's Morningside, on MTV, and in Newsday, Omni, Whole Earth Review, Details, and Wired. He lives in Austin with his wife and daughter.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Zeitgeist
SF Site Review: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
SF Site Review: Distraction
SF Site Interview: Bruce Sterling

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

I took my daughter to see the theatrical re-release of the 1965 Beatles movie, A Hard Days Night and was a bit amazed how she became so thoroughly enchanted by this black & white, sometimes heavily British accented, mono sound flick.

Still, never having been much of a Beatles fan but seeing the movie through my daughter's 10-year-old sensibilities, I was finally able to understand the attraction in a way I didn't get the first time around. Why were all the girls in my junior high class so infatuated with these guys (and not me)? Well, yes, in large part because they are cute, but also because they personify the desires of those on the adolescent cusp -- they're an innocent, fun-loving bunch, misunderstood by adult authority, who just want to get out from under constant supervision and enjoy themselves. Maybe get kissed.

The fact that they are not only older, but famous, also makes them unattainable, but what object of fantasy isn't?

Subversively innovative for its time, the movie was hardly some altruistic effort to channel girlish fantasies in a positive way (and the fact that A Hard Day's Night is now considered charming indicates how far things have changed), but to push merchandise. Not just sell tickets to the movie but create demand for product, i.e. records (that's what they used to call them, then) and associated licensed memorabilia. All of which went to make those really not-so-innocent lads (and their handlers) filthy rich. The fact that my daughter is now intent upon stocking up her Fab Four collection attests to how well it is still working.

Now I'd rather buy my kid a Beatles album any day over anything named "Britney," "Backstreet," or whatever the pop flavour of the month happens to be. Because even though you can't separate the success of the Beatles then -- not to mention today -- from effective marketing, the fact is that they were bona fide musicians who knew how to play, however primitively, their instruments, not to mention the innovations they brought to pop music during the course of their careers. The difference between the marketing of The Beatles -- as well as such other pop icons as Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra before them -- and today's teen idols is that the business model has not only been highly refined and mechanized, but perfectly dovetailed into multiple and ubiquitous media channels. The machine is so well-oiled, in fact, that it doesn't matter much if there's anything really there to sell.

Thirty five years from now nobody is going to be buying Britney Spears. Hell, most likely not five years from now. But the star-making machine will still be selling product. It doesn't care about the product's inherent abilities, if it even has any. Or that the product changes. As long as there's something that can be palatably packaged to the masses.

All of which brings me to Bruce Sterling's wonderful novel, Zeitgeist. Literally translated from the German as "TimeSpirit," the title is a term used to denote the characteristic taste and outlook of a culture. And Sterling has certainly nailed the Zeitgeist of ours. In spades.

Leggy Starlitz (a riff on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust?) is a cynical, middle-aged, amoral promoter whose latest brainstorm is G-7 -- an all-girl band of interchangeable and easily replaceable personalities known to their adoring fans only by their country of origin, e.g. "The American One" or "The French One." The joke here is that G-7 is the term used to refer to the seven governments that comprise the world's economic powers. The less charitable would describe them as capitalist countries looking to exploit less developed nations.

In promoting G-7 to Third World teenagers brimming with desire for Western music and goods, Starlitz's gimmick to stoke demand by proclaiming that G-7 will cease to exist upon the arrival of Y2K. The fact that the girls aren't really musicians, aren't really talented at all except as manufactured objects of adolescent envy is hardly a shortcoming... indeed, it is the genius behind the marketing plan. Here's how Starlitz describes the operation and his view of himself:

"G-7 is a stone multinational. We got personnel from all over the world. That's the new way to do biz, you know? You gotta stop being picky. You're part of the steamroller or you're part of the road...We got the act started as a bet in Guam... got it incorporated in a brass-plate front in Panama...No, the act's not important. I admit it, it's a scam. But you know something? I like the work. I enjoy it. We make platform shoes in Shenzen. We sell glitter tube-tops in Turkmenistan through the Nakhichevan Corridor. I like making those connections... if I had to pick just one term, I think I'm best described as a 'systems analyst.'"
What Sterling is aiming his considerable satiric aim at is the merchandising of worthless pop culture, the Zeitgeist of our time. Oh, there's a plot about how Starlitz's new-found relationship with a 13-year-old daughter he's never known and how his scam is jeopardized by the vested interests of various criminal types. But it all serves as background for incisive commentary about the shallow times we live in, with the added irony of writing a book in 2000 about a Y2K calamity that, of course, never happened. Worse, though, is the calamity of everyday existence that grows stronger in the new millennium. The book may be subtitled, "A Novel of Metamorphosis," but the moral is that the caterpillar doesn't change into a butterfly, just another ugly, if slightly repackaged, insect. That's the sad realization of this very funny book.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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