Zeitgeist - Bruce Sterling (2000)

The best science fiction books sometimes seem prescient, such as the moment in Zeitgeist where Bruce Sterling name checks Osama bin Laden. In a book published in 2000. (Not that he's predicting 9/11 or anything, but it's still jarring to read and it made me double check the publication date.) Zeitgeist is full of odd little moments like that as the narrative careens across the world, mostly in Turkey and Hawaii but with sidetrips through Mexico and the US Southwest. The book is a complex, slightly hallucinatory, and obscure meditation on the nature of life and history as understood by the twentieth century on the eve of Y2K. It works surprisingly well given what sounds at first blush like an unwieldy premise.

Our protagonist, Leggy Starlitz, is running a scam in Turkey, pushing a Spice Girls ripoff called G-7. Step by step, Sterling shifts his setting from what seems to be a rather tawdry part of the real world, into an even more tawdry alternative history. Things get stranger in minute increments and it's hard to tell exactly where reality runs off the rails. It reads like a caper novel on acid. French philosophy starts to make an appearance along with discussions about the consensual nature of reality and the lack of any objective reality.

In many ways, the book is sort of a hard science version of Jasper Fford's "Bookworld" series (one of which I reviewed here), asking questions about the nature of reality and fiction. "History is written by the winners" is not just a pithy aphorism in this book, it's literal truth.

As usual, Sterling writes well and manages to pack these ideas into a rollicking good read. Zeitgeist is one of his best books, pulling you seductively into a world which is just not quite right ...

Overall Grade: A-

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