Pirate Utopia

Written by Bruce Sterling
Review by Kristen McDermott

In this fantastical alternate history novella, Sterling, better known for his pioneering work in science fiction, imagines what would happen if the artistic/philosophical post-WWI movement known as Futurism were to get its hands prematurely on later innovations in military and communications technology. He introduces historical figures like Gabriele D’Annunzio, founder in 1919 of the anarchist Regency of Carnaro, through the eyes of a fictional war hero devoted to a mishmash of modernist causes including fascism, spiritualism, and free love. The protagonist, engineering genius Lorenzo Secondari, lends his skill in designing ever more deadly war machines for the free Futurist state; he’s a symbol rather than a character. The author calls the novella’s genre “Dieselpunk” (winking at his role in helping create the cyberpunk genre of SF), and it’s essentially a thought experiment about the intersection of art, war, and politics. Sterling fictionally introduces figures like Harry Houdini and H. P. Lovecraft, and ends abruptly with a hint that no political philosophy, however idealistic, is a match for American cynicism and PR. The slim volume is plumped up with futurist-style illustrations, a foreword, an afterword, and an interview with the author, and therefore seems to be little more than a sketch for future collaborative projects among the team that produced it. The history is solid and might appeal to students of the political turmoil that led up to the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany, but as a narrative, it is more a scenario than a story.