Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a wonderful piece of journalism recounting the civil conflicts in Spain prior to WWII.  Detailing the plights of the communists, marxists, fascists, anarchists, nationalists, and the conservative and liberal sub-units each consist of, it provides a fascinating view into how complex political ideologies can be in practice.  The Spanish civil wars something little discussed globally in the years since, they have become almost a footnote to the world war erupting soon after. Another politically complex conflict nearly elided by time is the happenings in the Free State of Fiume in the years directly following the first world war.  Likewise a milieu of anarchists, liberals, fascists, etc., the small region was a hotbed of human political interest for a short period of time, and almost as a natural expansion, military tension.  The 1920s simultaneously blustering for the wonders of the future modernism seemed to promise, it was wild times in Europe.  Satirically glamorous, Bruce Sterling's Pirate Utopia (2016, Tachyon) captures a comically refined view of the proceedings as only Bruce Sterling can.

Pirate Utopia presents a view to the short history of the the Republic of Carnago (stand-in for the Free State of Fiume) through the kaleidoscope of Futurism—capital ‘F’.  The scene motivated by the horrors of WWI and the burgeoning achievements of science, it was a time people dreamed big politically.  Utopia a believable possibility, Carnago is Sterling’s staging ground.  Presented as something of a silent film, the story features intentionally madcap heroes and villains, generals and poets marching toward ‘utopia’.  Lips moving silently as dialogue appears, arms gesticulating overtly, and all moving at 1.5x normal speed—the blips and scratches of light are almost visible on the celluloid, even as subversive films like Buster Keaton’s The General motivate the politics sluicing beneath the surface.

Lorenzo Secondari,is an engineer lately come to Carnago seeking escape from the remains of WWI in Italy.  Seeing the abandoned factories laying in waste, he decides to make something of them, and begins manufacturing flying torpedoes.  His work not without blessing, the anarcho-liberal government of Carnago, headed by the mysterious Prophet and under him the watchful eye of the Ace of Hearts, partner with Secondari and his crack troop of Croatian pirates.  The relationship goes smoothly, that is, until the Woodrow administration, led by the magician Harry Houdini, come knocking on Carnago’s door…

Libertalia in mainland Europe, there is political chaos, an intentional one, happening in Carnago.  An all-for-profit, no-holds-barred approach to business and commerce, Secondari is able to set up his weapons manufacturing with a little ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ coordination.  Sterling seems to reveal his hand with the over-the-top characterization behind this, but beneath his madman’s smile is a deeper understanding of the game being played, and, perhaps most particularly, what the stakes are.  With quotes like: "Tarzan was the American version of a Nietzschean Overman", Pirate Utopia is delightful at the micro-level while being equally engaging at the macro.

A book may ultimately be just words on the page, but Tachyon's investment into the production of Pirate Utopia makes a strong case for books being something more. The story’s ideology rooted in radical Futurism, it’s only appropriate that the art fit the scene.  And the work of John Coulthart is spot on.  The edgy, advertisement/propaganda-style page inserts and chapter breaks, as well as bits of real-world Futurist art, flesh out the story in abstract style.  Emphasizing the era while providing great eye candy, his art makes Pirate Utopia a visual treat.  (See examples here.)  And not only does Coulthart provide art, he also provides a commentary on his work in the book in the reference material.  The novella likewise featuring an Introduction by Warren Ellis and Afterword by Christopher Brown, topping matters off is a lengthy interview with Sterling, himself.  In short, what was a roughly 130 page story becomes almost 200 pages of rich, varied content—art to fiction to non-fiction.*

It is unfortunate when first impressions form final expectations.  For many readers in science fiction, Bruce Sterling, with his novels The Artificial Kid and Islands in the Net, and perhaps most particularly due to editing the Mirrorshades anthology, will forever be tied—anchored, even—to the aesthetic of cyberpunk.  Wary of the artistic limits of the sub-genre, however, Sterling took steps away in the 90s.  Trying new ideas and combining politics and technology in deceivingly satirical fashion, Sterling has since singularized his m.o..  No longer part of a larger wave of sub-genre, there is absolutely nothing like Distraction, The Caryatids, and Love Is Strange: A Paranormal Romance in genre.  A Bruce Sterling story is now identifiable by style alone.  With its idiosyncratic sense of humor, abstracted reality, political depth, and overall peanut-gallery perspective, Pirate Utopia is another perfect example.

*The table of contents for Pirate Utopia is as follows:

Introduction by Warren Ellis
    Cast of Characters
    Chp.1 The Pirate Cinema
    Chp.2 The Ace of Hearts
    Chp.3 The Brave New World
    Chp.4 The Platonic Lovers
    Chp.5 The Man Without Fear
    Chp.6 The Glorious Utopia
To Fiume Station: Afterword by Christopher Brown
Interview with Bruce Sterling by Rick Klaw
Reconstructing the Future: Notes on Design by John Coulhart
Contributor’s Biographies

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