Saturday, April 3, 2021

Review of Robot Artists & Black Swans by Bruce Sterling

If science fiction were a tree, Bruce Sterling would be a renegade branch growing outward in spiraling and incongruent direction - of the tree but divorced from it. And it's something that has only become pronounced as time goes on. It's a reason aficionados and connoisseurs love him, and likely much of the mainstream is unaware of him (the view obscured by too many leaves, natch). The latest blossom sprouting from his deviant branch is Robot Artists & Black Swans: The Italian Fantascienza Stories of Bruno Argento from Tachyon (2021).

Despite the label 'Italian', Robots & Swans is not a frame collection. More like a concept album, Sterling plants his tongue firmly in cheek and marches forth into the world—his world—of science fiction through the lens—his lens—of Italy. Wriggling his moustaches, the collection kicks off with “Kill the Moon”, a story taking the shape of a newspaper article whinging on the presence of Italy on the moon—at last . The final great country to do so, but damn didn’t the ship look good.

Switching Alfa Romeo gears, the next story, “Black Swan” takes the reader to familiar territory (parallel realities) but ups the ante, then doubles down by adding Nicolas Sarkozy. Yes, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president of Hungarian descent, in Italy. While opening sedately before becoming a romp, the story has a small bright fire burning inside itself—a fire that shifts from red to purple and green by the conclusion. More specific than in the room, “Elephant on the Table” feels like an Italian daytime tv drama, but with a weirdo sf spin. A wealthy man, attended by his idiosyncratic retinue, ends up having the most bizarre day when elephants show up on the beach. AI pimps, priests on electric wheelchairs, and goggled paparazzi help fill out this delightful comedy of errors—subtlely one of the best in the collection.

So, an Arab, a Jew and a Serb walk into a bar—this is almost the precise note on which “Pilgrims of the Round World” starts. Argento/Sterling adds a few other characters, and before you know it you’ve got a milieu of culture and legend that feels as much as, if not more thespian than sf or fantasy. Short but sweet. In “The Parthenopean Scalpel”, a would-be assassin finds himself on the run after a mix up on killing day. Ending up outside the Vatican in the quiet but shady palazzio of a Count, he there meets an intriguing pair of “sisters” on which his political fate hangs. I feel that people with a more intimate knowledge of Italian history will likely appreciate the metaphors more, but as it stands this pseudo-historical story still tickles the interest nerve. Getting deeper into Italian culture, “Esoteric City” is Divine Comedy by Sterling—the mini version. Starring a modern day Italian businessman, his “business advisor” is a dead Egyptian. I think it's fair to say Dante is not rolling in his grave.

Closing the collection is the best saved for last, “Robot for Roses”.  The centerpiece is a Japanese robot wheelchair, called the Winkler, which roams the world, taking in what it encounters—flowers, architecture, and the like. Followed and shepherded by a group of enthusiasts, the Winkler gets into a spot of trouble in Milan when it comes between a connoisseur and a researcher. The war between art and science kicks off, and what follows is tragedy of the most non-standard variety—thorns, AI, robots and blood. While some may consider Sterling's usage of props cheesy, it's clear their deployment is with full awareness of opera... with a robot wheelchair.

I would be remiss not to mention production value. Robot Artists & Black Swans possesses complementary design of a more modernist, quasi - emphasis on quasi - M.C. Escher flavor. Not only fitting but enhancing the collection, my only wish is that the collection's title was somehow also complementary. While I've put a couple moments' thought into coming up with something better, I've failed. But I still believe there must be something which captures Sterling's futuristic art nouveau better than jamming two of the story titles together.

If you didn’t get Sterling before, you won’t get him now. All aficionados, however, may leave their money on the table; it's vintage Sterling at a frash angle. Only Sterling virgins with a healthy erudition of matters beyond pop culture and mainstream sf AND an appreciation of straight-faced humor should investigate further. This is not your grandpa's sf, nor is it what you find in the NYT's bestseller list. Past, present, future, all with Sterling's unique twist, it's a varied collection that sees Sterling's own branch of science fiction only becoming more unique with each publishing. Deviant branch grow on!!

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