Or why you could read Zeitgeist and Holy Fire
by Bruce Sterling
A surprising number of my favourite Science Fiction authors seem to hold Bruce Sterling in very high regard. But oddly, I had never read any of his novels. So when my favourite used bookstore went under I scooped up a stack of Sterling paperbacks to rectify this. The first two I read were Zeitgeist and Holy Fire.
Zeitgeist is a story about the precipice of the Y2K turnover and is about, well, the zeitgeist of that moment in history. The novel stars Leggy Starlitz, a sleazy schemer and brilliant entrepreneur, as he steers the G-7 girls, an international girl pop act designed deliberately as a merchandizing machine more than a musical act. Leggy and the girls, in the final phase of his plan, are touching down in Turkish Cyprus to begin their tour of the Third World, bringing pop music and G7 crop tops to the Middle East and Africa. There are only two rules: everyone gets out alive and the act ends before Y2K. But with the collection of rogues and murders surrounding Leggy and the girls, Starlitz is going to have a struggle keeping everyone alive and controlling the G7 zeitgeist.
Zeitgeist is a brain-injuringly smart novel that bounces between profound cultural observation and inane daftness. It is the kind of novel where characters maybe represent Western Capitalism or National Geopolitics or Emerging Third World Economies but also a novel where the protagonist tries to convince a Japanese popstar that his wife is a goddess. It is absolutely pure madness constructed out of that weirdly optimistic late 90s zeitgeist before our world and culture became suddenly more insular and scary. It's just, an endlessly smart and weird book.
Holy Fire is a novel about rebirth and the cultural forces affecting the young and old. In the novel 94 year old Mia Zieman has done everything right: she has a stable career, generous savings, and a role in a promising new experimental age extending treatment. But when she undergoes the treatment, finding herself in a body in the prime of its life, she suffers a re-life crisis and flees, penniless, to Europe for adventure and passion and creativity. And here Mia tries to find meaning for a life that is suddenly so much longer.
Holy Fire is a novel that runs more on theme than on plot and operates more as a work of speculation than as an enthralling story. The novel deals with a world where wealth and power are firmly held by a longer-lived population and where the young are largely poor and disenfranchised (familiar, eh?). And in this world, the novel explores what it means to be young and to search for meaning in artistic pursuits and about the nature of counter culture. It's yet another really smart book.
From Zeitgeist and Holy Fire I can see why Sterling is so well regarded by his peers. These novels are smart and insightful in a way that very few books I've read are. And if I came up with the kind of gleefully mad concepts in the book, I feel like I would just have a permanent smirk on my face. I can see why people love them. But I can also see how they aren't maybe the most commercial successful or acclaimed novels. They are somewhat arid, the intellectual machinery of the books gives them an altitude and dryness that can make them hard to connect with. It's... a bit like reading a novel by an alien intelligence that is both impressive and just weird.
I would recommend these books to anyone who likes blisteringly smart Science Fiction. The level of speculation in these novels is difficult to match and quite interesting. But they are both a bit arid, and so I feel like they are novels best enjoyed between goofier or more action oriented books. Of the two reviewed here, Zietgeist is my favourite, so I would suggest that you try that one first.
Post by Michael Bround