Tachyon Publications, 2016
192 pp., 19.95
It CAN Happen Here
Two questions jump out from Bruce Sterling's intriguing short novel Pirate Utopia. Why did he write it? And does he really mean it? One would like to answer "no" to the second question, but Sterling's track record, not just in science fiction but as a predictor of the future, means he has to be taken seriously. Of all the many science fiction writers now active, he is the one whose commentary on the modern world comes closest to the fictional surface.
Sterling made his name as the anthologist of Mirrorshades (1986), the collection which defined "cyberpunk": science fiction about hackers, the 1980s wave of the future. Cyberpunk mutated into "steampunk," a kind of "alternate history" which imagined what might have happened if the dead-ends of Victorian and Wellsian science (zeppelins, steam-powered airliners, clockwork computers) had proved productive. Once again, Sterling was a field-definer through his collaboration with William Gibson, The Difference Engine (1990).
His science fiction has continued, but he also branched out into nonfiction with The Hacker Crackdown (1992), Tomorrow Now (2002), and Shaping Things (2005), all books considering the impact of technology. Many see him as the go-to man on what's going to happen next. He has been "Visionary in Residence" at several institutes in the US and Europe; and he is now based in Turin, publishing in Italian under the name of "Bruno Argenti" and in Serbia as "Boris Srebro." He's a very cosmopolitan kind of guy.
He reckons that to predict the future you need to understand the past. Pirate Utopia is about the appeal of Futurism, a movement founded by F. T. Marinetti in 1909, dedicated to speed, machinery, and youth, and also of Fascism, the invention, originally, of Benito Mussolini. The two came together, Sterling notes—and this is well-grounded, though disentangling fact from fiction in his work gets harder and harder—in the short-lived independent state of Carnaro, centered on the city of Fiume, now Rijeka in Croatia.
After the collapse of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Central Europe broke up, just as "the former Yugoslavia" has done in recent times. All break-ups create boundary disputes. Woodrow Wilson's well-intentioned but stratospheric policies did not work well on the ground, and negotiations over the future of Italian/Croat Fiume were terminated by an armed takeover led by the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. (Are you lost already? Hang on.)
Fiume became a kind of Batista Cuba before the fact, where everything was legal, under an umbrella of Anarcho-Syndicalism, with strong elements of Futurism and Fascism mixed in. It became a sanctuary for dissidents and dreamers of every description, and, of course, it didn't work. But Sterling asks, what if it had? What was the appeal? And what did it need to become a success?
Short answer to the last question: more science fiction, development of those technological dead-ends. Fiume had a torpedo factory, left over from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a navy on the Adriatic Sea. Could they have built that up, in 1920—D'Annunzio was a former fighter pilot and accredited ace—into radio-controlled flying torpedoes, something like the later German "glider bombs" or even cruise missiles? And then there were the F-Rays of Giulio Ulivi, which were taken seriously back in 1913: they were supposed to be able to detonate explosives from a distance. Technological dead-ends in our world, but might they have been developed into something in an alternate one?
Going on to the question of what was the appeal, this is where the alternate history starts preying on the nerves of those who remember real history. Few words are more abusive these days than "fascist." But Fascism, as represented by Mussolini, whom Sterling presents as there in Fiume (true? I'm not sure), had in it something "lofty and spiritual," as well as being, on ground level and away from the massive rallies, grimy and shabby and pathetic. Both elements, the lofty and the shabby, are present in the Free State or Regency of Carnaro. People were nevertheless drawn to Fascism just as they were to Futurism—and indeed, though this is a parallel which won't go down well with its fans, as they are to science fiction, all "speed and machinery" and barely imaginable promise.
Things get worse, or shall we say more challenging. The hero of the novel is "the Pirate Engineer," Lorenzo Secondari, and his title in the Free State is "Minister of Vengeance Weapons." That's what Hitler called his V1 and V2 rockets, the V standing for Vergeltung, "vengeance" or "payback" (for the Allied bomber raids, that is). At one point a woman, lamenting the arrest of her husband in Berlin, bursts into tears at the death of a Brownshirt who took a bullet to save her husband. His name was "Adolf from Linz," "the best of them all … . What a talker that man was, and what eyes he had." And his friend, "who wrote me this nice letter from the jail," Herr Goebbels. Frau Piffer is presented as a sympathetic character, but her judgments on other characters are frankly unthinkable, to us. It takes more than an effort to imagine how they might have seemed back in alternate-1920.
Then there's the American involvement, which once again draws in (for those who recognize it) the history of fantasy. One of the entertainers who comes to the Free State is Harry Houdini, who was, Sterling insists, a right-wing political activist (true), a spy (could be), and a practitioner of black arts of magic (surely not). In his entourage are none other than H. P. Lovecraft, acting as secretary, and—assisting the magician on stage—a Texan in cowboy dress who turns out to be Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan stories.
Their plan is to take advantage of the crippling stroke suffered by Woodrow Wilson (the villain of the piece to the conspirators at Fiume, for airily discarding them at the Versailles peace conference) and put in his place General John J. ("Black Jack") Pershing, all this abetted by the effective head of the US government during Wilson's incapacity (and this seems to be true as well), "Colonel" E. M. House, another Texan.
Furthermore, and here the alternate world is really taking off into realms of fantasy, Lovecraft's idea is to go home and start a "Manhattan Project," aided and furthered by the mysterious flying torpedoes of Secondari. No, it couldn't have happened, couldn't possibly have happened! A military coup in the USA, backed by nuclear missiles, in the 1920s: you have to be kidding, Mr. Sterling! Yet the last words of the novel, spoken by Lovecraft to Secondari, are "Imagine what we might achieve!" That's a Wellsian sentence if ever there was one.
Sterling's fairly short novel, or novella, is buttressed by an introduction, an afterword, an interview with Sterling, old newspaper reports faithfully reproduced, and notes on the futurist style of the illustrations. Which is good because, frankly, the story is so complex in its alternations between real-world and fantasy that readers need all the help they can get. But reverting to the questions posed at the start, there's at least no doubt about the second one. Sterling notes the title of the old story about American fascism by Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here (1935). Only he remembers it, no doubt deliberately, as "it can happen here."
Yes, but do we really need warnings about fascism in the 21st century? Of course, it wouldn't be called fascism, "it would arrive wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." And make no mistake, it would have popular appeal. What would power it, what has made room for it? The afterword, "To the Fiume Station," by Sterling supporter Christopher Brown and the accompanying interview with Bruce Sterling by Rick Klaw are quite direct about that: Brown says what we now have is "politics practiced as a branch of advertising," and Sterling says "our politics have lost touch with conventional reality." Right now in 2016, one can at least see what they mean.
Pirate Utopia is a warning. But not a horrible warning; it's actually a rather seductive warning. The Anarcho-Syndicalism of the Free State of Carnaro sounds quite a good idea, and good fun, with all its uniforms and knives in sashes and factory-girls paid in the single-shot derringers their factories turn out. But keep it up and you'll find yourself weeping tears for good old Adolf from Linz.
What some will find especially charming is the deep vein of real-world history constantly exploited. This reviewer regards himself as well-informed—and he picked up on Robert E. Howard as soon as Howard mentioned his mom—but he still had to look up six named characters (as well as the history of Fiume itself) to know what was going on. Oh, and the hero, Secondari (who seems to be pure fiction)? He's dead all along. Killed in action, brought back to life by a pupil of Lombroso, the crazy craniologist. Lombroso practiced séance-techniques? They couldn't work, surely? Like F-rays, and the other dead-ends of history.
Two things at least are clear. Reading Sterling is a fair old education. And he certainly makes you think. Sterling is as challenging as Vonnegut was, and he writes the same kind of limpid prose. The content is difficult enough that there's no need for long sentences and tricks of style as well.
Tom Shippey is the author most recently of Hard Reading: Learning from Science Fiction (Liverpool Univ. Press), which includes an essay on Bruce Sterling.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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