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Review: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

By / March 17, 2017 / no comments

In September 1919, the Paris Peace Conference had granted the city of Fiume and its surrounding territory on the north-east coast of the Adriatic to the new kingdom of what would become Yugoslavia. But the population of the city was largely Italian, leading to disagreements about the ultimate fate of Fiume. Taking advantage of the confusion, the Italian poet and war hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio, led a proto-fascist military force into the city and proclaimed it the Italian Regency of Carnaro. In fact, Italy didn’t want Fiume, at least not under these circumstances, and after fifteen months of not particularly competent government, D’Annunzio was driven out by the Italian army. Thereafter, the status of Fiume remained somewhat confused until the fascist takeover of Italy, whereupon the province was officially incorporated into the country.

Pirate UtopiaOutside of Italy, the brief history of Carnaro is probably one of the least widely known episodes in twentieth century European history, but this is the setting for Bruce Sterling’s curious alternate history novella, Pirate Utopia.

Actually, to call it an alternate history is perhaps misleading. The story takes place between January and September 1920, pretty much the height of D’Annunzio’s rule in Carnaro, and, allowing for the odd invented character, what takes place within the city isn’t too far from what was actually happening at this time. But outside Carnaro, there are massive changes in the personnel occupying the global stage, with no indication of what might have brought those changes about, and even less interest in what the consequence of those changes might be. Thus, in this world Benito Mussolini is a newspaper editor who is shot and incapacitated by a former mistress. Adolf Hitler has been shot and killed protecting one of his comrades. Woodrow Wilson, the American President, has suffered a stroke, and all of his official duties have been taken over by his chief advisor, Colonel House (a curious and illegal abrogation of the constitutional order of succession which Wilson, a stickler for such niceties, would never have countenanced). Guglielmo Marconi, the radio pioneer, has become the head of the Italian government. And, most curious of all, Harry Houdini is an agent of the American Secret Service assisted by his publicist, H.P. Lovecraft, and a secretary, Robert E. Howard. That is an extraordinary alignment of talents which, if it was at all likely, would surely be worthy of an entire book; but here they crop up, almost in passing, only in the last chapter of the novella, and Sterling shows absolutely no interest in how these very different men might have come together, might have taken on this very unlikely role, or how their differences could have allowed them to work together. H.P. Lovecraft as a spy? To be honest, the idea beggars belief.

Alternate histories usually have a fairly clear focus. They demonstrate how fragile our world is, and how readily events might have taken a radically different path. They show how the course of history might have put familiar figures into unfamiliar situations, and how what is consistent about individual characters might have shaped the way they dealt with that situation. And they reflect upon the course of our actual history by showing it through a distorted mirror.

None of that has anything to do, except, perhaps, accidentally, with the events of Pirate Utopia.

So what was Sterling’s intention in writing this story? The clue, perhaps, is in the title: he has written a utopian story about hackers. It is probably no coincidence that the grinning figure clutching a torpedo on the cover bears a striking resemblance to the Guy Fawkes mask favoured by Anonymous. Sterling’s central figure, Lorenzo Secondari, is a military engineer who describes himself as a pirate, describes his ragtag band of Croatian irregulars as pirates, and ascribes the word “pirate” to everything he wants to praise. Substitute “hacker” for “pirate” and you have a hymn of praise to the notion that an individual sense of morality and mischief outweighs all national and international laws.

Why Secondari, whose answer to everything is to blow it up, fits so readily into Carnaro is because D’Annunzio’s guiding principle was Futurism, an early twentieth century art movement that gloried in speed and war. Politically, what this resulted in was a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas and oddball principles: music was declared to be one of the fundamental principles of the state, Carnaro was the first place to give international recognition to the Soviet Union, and it attempted to create a league of non-aligned nations in opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations. The Regency of Carnaro was governed according to a mixture of anarchist, fascist, communist, syndicalist and democratic lines, and Sterling actually does a good job of showing the resulting mess. People wear garish, angular, Futurist-designed uniforms that seem ill-suited to normal wear; workers are told that they are now members of a syndicate that runs their factory, except they have no idea how to run a factory.

The story isn’t much: we simply follow Secondari as he goes from managing a torpedo factory (mostly using stolen plans, because that’s what pirates do), to blowing things up, to becoming the most feared member of the Carnaro government (while still being dreadfully sentimental about his girlfriend’s young daughter, because hard men always are closet sentimentalists), to being poached by Houdini and Co to take his freewheeling style to America.

And that’s it, it’s a slim book that in the end doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. Its chiefs joys are in the incidental details along the way, as if Sterling keeps being distracted by what is going on around the edges of the frame. But there are joys indeed around the edges of the story, principal among them being some superb Futurist-style illustrations by John Coulthart, and the volume is bulked out with an introduction by Warren Ellis, an essay about Fiume by Christopher Brown, an interview with Sterling by Rick Klaw, and a piece about his design by John Coulthart. The supporting material makes for a rather more interesting book than the story on its own.

Buy Pirate Utopia at Amazon.


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