It appears to have accidentally turned into Jackboot Month here in the Dolmen. Today’s subject, Bruce Sterling’s 2016 novella Pirate Utopia, is something I literally found out about yesterday and spent a few hours reading cover to cover. I’ve never been a big fan of Sterling, so I half-expected the story to set my teeth on edge. Much to my surprise, however, I actually found it to be a rather amusing little romp.
Pirate Nation is an alternate history built on a bit of semi-forgotten actual history: the Free State of Fiume, child of the chaos following the end of the First World War. During the negotiations over the Versailles Treaty, the Adriatic port city of Fiume became the center of a dispute between Italy and the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. When attempts to negotiate a favorable settlement (for Italy) stalled out, a group of veterans and freebooters, led by the poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio, decided to settle matters by seizing control of the city in September of 1919. For the next fifteen months, Fiume became this sort of strange carnivalesque no-man’s land. Artists, poets, desperados, mercenaries, and political agitators of all stripes flocked to the city, enthralled by D’Annunzio’s speechmaking and the variety of pleasures at hand. It didn’t last; a treaty in November 1920 settled the dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia, and a month later D’Annunzio was chased from power after declaring war on Italy. Naturally, in Pirate Utopia, things don’t quite go that way.
The man of destiny here is Lorenzo Secondari, an Italian veteran of the Alpine campaign against Austria, a committed Futurist, and a professional hard case. Not one for the arts, Secondari finds himself managing one of Fiume’s run-down torpedo factories, contriving to develop a “flying torpedo” that will make Fiume a power to be reckoned with on the Adriatic. As Fiume’s star waxes, D’Annunzio’s combination of charismatic personal leadership, secret police squads, and corporatist control of the economy gains admirers from abroad, including a trio of rather unexpected Americans…
As you may have guessed, Pirate Utopia is a novella about futurism, fascism, science fiction, and all the connections between the three. As Secondari rises higher in D’Annunzio’s “Regency of Carnaro” (historically displacing both Mussolini and Hitler as he does so), we start to see the familiar trappings of historical fascism ooze in through in-jokes, and the celebratory atmosphere of futurism in power gives way to the compromises of everyday life and international politics. Secondari is a great devotee of Popular Mechanics and the sorts of magazine Hugo Gernsbeck made, but there’s always a touch of ambiguity around the science-fictional elements of the story. Séances, flying torpedoes, and F-rays abound, but none of them are ever actually seen by the reader.
Now, as for why I liked this book, I found Sterling did a marvelous job of depicting the hurly-burly of those revolutionary times, depicting the swagger and the bold personalities of the age with gusto while never failing to remind the reader of their darker sides. It also seemed to be a rather appropriate book to be reading in 2016, when so much of our politics in the West are no longer working as expected, and people from the margins are calling for new solutions to old problems (even though today’s radicals and reactionaries are hardly a patch on those of our great-grandfather’s generation). Finally and most importantly, he had the good sense to end it before the joke ran out of steam or turned into something radically different. It’s a rare skill to have, and an even rarer skill to deploy successfully.