European History is full of wonderful (and sometimes horrific) little pockets of oddness, forgotten corners, and attempts at societies and developments which did not stand the test of time, or were extinguished before they could prove themselves. Pirate Utopia deals with one of those by telling a story set in it, and using it as a sketched-in jumping-off point into a different future than the one we ended up in.
I found it rather fascinating to read up on the Regency of Carnaro, and the Free State of Fiume, which is the reality, as fantastic as it is messy, that this story is set in/based on. Not a chapter of post WW1 European History I was aware of previously…Sterling labels it as “one of the strangest episodes of political extremism in European History”.
Bruce Sterling himself is an old hand at this fiction game - he came to prominence as part of the Cyberpunk movement (I still wish he had written more in his Shaper universe before the world, and himself with it, moved on!), and the preface of this book lists 12 novels, 7 collections, 2 edited works, and 4 non-fiction books in his name. Good going, I would say, all the more so as several of these are considered genre-defining classics. These days he splits his time between Austin, Turin, and Belgrade, and knows the setting of this story first-hand.
The book kicks off in style, with an introduction to the topic by Warren Ellis: “Futurism, the business of the future, is the act of telling stories of about what’s next”. Of course, the Futurists had their own slant to how they saw things develop, being “drunk on speed, technology, youth, violence, war - the car, the aeroplane, the industrial city”. And, incidentally, being a precursor/influence on Fascism.
This is followed by a Cast of Characters (most of them historically correct), the actual story in 6 chapters, an Afterword by Christopher Brown, an Interview with the Author by Rick Klaw (loads of interesting background in this!), Notes on the the Design by the John Coulthart, and Biographies of all involved (and no, Warren does NOT live in London).
The book is covered in Coulthart’s (himself a World Fantasy Award winner) illustrations - proto communist propaganda/futurist graphics, most of them full page. He references both the futurist artist Fortunato Depero as well as Soviet Constructivism as influences; I found his work impressive and worth savouring - it gives the book a further dimension, and I think that number of those pieces would make rather magnificent wall pieces.
But what is the book about, I hear you ask? It’s tricky to describe this without giving away too much, but in a nutshell it plays in Fiume, which was a free state for four years after the end of WW1, due to some political SNAFUs and independent maneuvering by people like Gabriele D’Annunzio, the renowned poet and ‘Prophet’ of the futurist movement (there appear to be wide variations in regards to the written history of the period - a feast for a writer of alternate history, I’m sure!). The story itself follows Lorenzo Secondary, known as the Pirate Engineer, a WW1 veteran and dab hand with electronics, radio, and general technology (torpedoes, flying and otherwise, play a role in the setting as well as the artwork) as he witnesses the changes brought to Fiume by the futurist regime, whilst trying to find his own place in this regime as well as society.
Sterling himself sees this as partly an alternate history of this futuristic enclave (a “speculative counterfactual”), but also as Dieselpunk, or ‘Military Engineering Fiction’.
The whole story really took me back to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day - this feels like it is filling a minor, outrageous, and transfixing gap in that larger setting and story. Which I’m loving, of course.
Do I have to mention that this is a strong recommendation?
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
More Bruce Sterling
Title: Pirate Utopia
Author: Bruce Sterling
Artist: John Coulthart
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publisher URL: http://www.tachyonpublications.com
Publication Date: 15 Nov 2016
Review Date: 161103
Price: GBP 19.95
Topic: Alternate History