by Bruce Sterling

Tachyon Publications


187pp/$19.95/October 2016

Pirate Utopia

John Coulthart

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

There are numerous alternate histories which deal with the American Civil War or the outcome of World War II, both of which tend to be overplayed. Authors who explore other places and times are welcome, and the more esoteric the period and place they deign to write about, the more interesting. Bruce Sterling has found an intriguing part of European history in which to set his Pirate Utopia, the Free State of Fiume, which flourished between 1920 and 1924. Sterling has introduced historical changes to his world with hints of a much different twentieth century to follow.

After removing US President Woodrow Wilson and future German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler from his timeline, Sterling turns his attention to the Regency of Carnaro, a free city which is led by “The Prophet,” Gabriele D’Annunzio, a poet who has futuristic visions for his small Regency. The story is told from the point of view of his spy chief, Lorenzo Secondari, who, while supporting the aims of Carnaro and its ministers, stands apart from all of them, a loner whose sole task is to work for the glory of the state. Although Secondari does not feel the need to connect with other humans on an emotional level, he does build a physical relationship with Blanka Piffer, his business manager, who clearly is in love with Secondari.

Sterling’s Fiume is a mix of artistic achievement, ruled over by an odd mix of poets, artists, and actors, and a model for fascism and corporatism. The small nation state is shown as a melting pot of political ideologies, although the impact of its totalitarian structure of the citizens is glossed over as Secondari provides the viewpoint of a true believer as well as an unreliable narrator. In fact, while Secondari would have his superiors (and the reader) think he is a true believer in the Carnaro experiment, in fact he is something of a realist, who will support anything to gain power and not realizing that his acceptance of a role that vilifies him even as it provides him with the power he craves may not be the most successful way to hold that power.

Pirate Utopia can be read as a cautionary, almost Luddite, tale. The Regency of Carnaro exalts technological advancement above all else, including art, because the leaders of Carnaro perceive technological achievement as a means of attaining their deserved stature in the world. The goal blinds them to the evils that they are willing to inflict on their route to their goal and even blinds them to the nature of their goal as they seek to development a missile which can be guided by radio waves.

Part of the fun of any alternate history is spotting the real world analogs. While Sterling mostly makes use of relatively obscure European historical figures in Pirate Utopia, he eventually does introduce some people his readers will be familiar with, although in radically different roles. Their interaction with Secondari provides the climax of the novel and also provides structure for the plot which is not always evident.

Although the book is relatively short, Sterling fills it not only with the intriguing setting of a fascist-futuristic state in post-war Europe, but also uses the book to make statements about growing corporatism in the modern world and warns against technophilia without concern for where it may lead.

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