Pirate Utopia Is Alternate History Of Fascism
It is tempting to call a book that requires an extensive afterward to make sense of it a failure. But I have to say that Bruce Sterling's Pirate Utopia kept my attention and kept me talking about it. Sterling created an alternate history between the wars, nesting this in the "diesel punk" genre.
Set in the former Venetian city of Fiume, now known as Rijeka, the novel follows a fictionalized version of the futurist utopia led by Italian Poet Gabrielle d'Annunzio, renamed for the book as The Prophet. Everyone in the real world government of Carnaro has been given a code name.
We spend most of the novel with Lorenzo Secondari, a self-styled nietzschean overman. Secondari is revived after nearly dying in an artillery barrage. The brush with death inspires him to fear nothing, he leads Carnaro's Torpedo Factory. He hints that his factory is able to manufacture a flying torpedo. It isn't clear if it is a bluff, but it helps bolster the reputation of the small state.
The novel captures the feel and look of the fascist era. The novel's chapter headings are spot on recreations of the propaganda style. The novel diverges from history when Hitler and Mussolini are removed from politics. Hitler is killed in a bar fight, and Mussolini is shot in the balls by his mistress.
The biggest problem with this book is that it floats along, without much happening. Secondari is a true believer in Futurism, as well as a true blue pirate. He believes in looting and stealing as much as he can. As well as creating a remote controlled flying torpedo, leading him to be the most feared man in Canaro.
As a meditation on the seduction of fascism, Pirate Utopia doesn't achieve much. If I had to describe it, I would call it a tonal piece. There's a lot of mood and atmosphere in this book, even if not much happens. Invoking the era between the wars is ominous, even if you change the outcome. (It doesn't help there's a nod to the US's own fascist movement.)
Sterling is one of my favorite speakers, I always try and catch YouTube videos of his keynotes. He has a unique point of view on society and the effects of technology. He termed the current era's combination of high technology and massive wealth disparity as "high tech gothic."
According to the afterward, the book shows how seductive fascist ideology is. Its power derives from providing easy answers. Having lived in Serbia for some time, Sterling has a front row seats to the rise of fascism in Europe. Paired with the authoritarianism on the increase in the US, this feels like a novel of the moment.
It's a shame that Pirate a Utopia isn't more fleshed out. Had Sterling fleshed this out it could have been a powerful statement. Instead, this is a well-written piece, but a bit sparse on plot.