In the opening chapter of Pirate Utopia, Lorenzo Secondari goes to the cinema with his pirates. Secondari—an undead übermensch, pirate engineer, and future Minister of Vengeance Weapons for the Regency of Carnaro—is accompanied by the owner of his torpedo factory, the Communist platonic love interest and Fiume native Blanka Piffer. These two are, if the materials at the end of the novella are to be believed (and they seem by all means to be accurate), just about the only two characters in this tale of the proto-fascist/anarchist state of Fiume/Carnaro that are not themselves real people.
Before reading Pirate Utopia, I was completely unfamiliar with the history of the Regency of Carnaro (aka Fiume), and there is something to be said about how that affected my enjoyment of Bruce Sterling's latest Italian adventure. With no knowledge of the historical import, the political pillars of the novella—and I should say clearly that, like most of Sterling's recent fiction, it is the politics that are primarily of interest here—were much more malleable. Rather than seeing this as a treatise or a partisan attack, I was able to see in it something I could work with: if you're looking for a simple positive or negative recommendation (and to avoid spoilers), the only thing you might otherwise need is the knowledge that Pirate Utopia is the best of Bruce Sterling's recent Italian work (including Black Swan and The Parthenopean Scalpel [both 2010]). The short version of the history to which Pirate Utopia offers an alternative, though, is this: in 1919, poet and war hero Gabriele D'Annunzio occupied a small Balkan city called Fiume after the League of Nations gave it to Yugoslavia, intending to annex it for Italy. He instead ended up creating a cobbled-together state that reveled in aesthetic and anarchist practices, as well as becoming a hotbed for fascism—most notably by introducing Mussolini to the Roman Salute with which Adolf Hitler would go on to be associated.
The basic premise of Pirate Utopia is to tell that story with a dieselpunk twist. It begins at the cinema, where Secondari falls briefly in love with the actress of the film and then exits directly into a demonstration of Marxists calling for the heads of his pirates. A fit of lucid rage and a dud grenade lobbed into their tank later, he has run the Marxists off and is driving their tank back to the factory—where he plans on engineering new, Futurist flying torpedoes. In Sterling's timeline, Fiume doesn't crumble in a year but instead flourishes, and the only major difference is a near-deaf and wholly driven engineer dedicated to the aesthetic of Futurism.
The routing of the Marxists at the cinema finds a parallel at the novella's end, after many political twists and turns. At a show by Harry Houdini, magician and Secret Serviceman, at which the Italian King's cousin, the Duke of Aosta, is in attendance, Secondari is addressed by Houdini's assistant, Robert Howard, and his PR representative, H. P. Lovecraft. With Italian royalty lending old-world prestige and the Secret Service lending new, Fiume is being ushered into global geopolitics rather than being a notable outlier. And Secondari gets his reward as well: Lovecraft and Houdini and Howard also extend to him an invitation to work together on a new project in Manhattan. The invitation is proffered partially because, as Howard puts it, they admire Fiume: "'Especially what you did about the Communists,' said Bob Howard. 'We aim to do that ourselves'" (p. 99). Pirate Utopia is, in other words, quite literally a book about the birth of fascism, bookended by anti-Communist sentiments, and differentiated from history only by the successful machinations of a self-proclaimed übermensch.
Pirate Utopia finds publication at a strange moment in history, both politically and aesthetically. The former correlations are perhaps obvious: the global wave of populist revolt that followed the 2008 economic crisis has broken, and once again the jetsam of fascism is more and more rapidly being revealed. Trump and Brexit have become the bellwethers, but they have only taken over for the Golden Dawn and many others. Now is perhaps the worst possible time to release a novella that uncritically replicates the ideology of the Historical Man in a way that could easily be read as an apologia for the historical moment we may well have cycled back into. But simply stating that is meaningless moralizing. It is our concurrent strange aesthetic moment that complicates and crystallizes Pirate Utopia.
In The Last Days of New Paris (2016), China Miéville focuses on Paris only a couple of decades after the events by which Pirate Utopia is inspired. Though released nearly concurrently and by two very different writers, New Paris could be read as a sort of sequel to Pirate Utopia. Where Sterling's characters are obsessed with Futurist aesthetics and their goal of realizing that set of artistic principles in the world, Miéville's characters live in the aftermath of the very literal realization of the Surrealist aesthetic in the occupied French city. Miéville's Parisian landscape is full of the products of the Surrealist technique of exquisite corpse, of art by Breton and Man Ray and Max Ernst, and militant members of the Resistance fighting the Nazi occupation. Since Miéville's moment is concerned with Nazis, Futurism isn't exactly prevalent; instead, his fascists are mostly concerned with the occult and demon-summoning, at least until they reveal their final gambit. Throughout The Last Days of New Paris, there is a mystery regarding the term Fall Rot. When it is finally resolved at the novella's climactic moment, it is a perfect realization of the fascist aesthetic.
In New Paris, this is a literal realization. Fall Rot in Sterling's novella would be the atomic bomb dropped on the city from Lang's Metropolis; in Miéville's, it is a self-portrait of the Führer, featureless and effacing the world with identical pseudo-suburban, lifeless homes. The day is (partially) won only by the aesthetic of the unconscious interpolating itself into that artistic superego, destroying both in the process.
It is notable enough that two major writers of the fantastic turned to alternates of roughly the same period of history at the same time, albeit from very different perspectives and places. Both triangulate the rise of fascism, a primary aesthetic movement, and a lone man moving the needle of history, in one way or another. Another piece of fiction in 2016 also involved a city, a history, and its politics, and might help to cast into relief the differences in the two previous.
Friends at the Table is an Actual Play podcast. What this means is that it is a recording of friends playing a tabletop roleplaying game together; in the season of Friends at the Table we are discussing, the system is Blades in the Dark, but Dungeons & Dragons is the most recognizable name. The season in question, Marielda, is a sort of prequel to the show's first season, a post-post-apocalyptic high fantasy romp; in Marielda, the players build up a city (using a different system called The Quiet Year) and then explore it as a group of underground knowledge merchants.
As a city, Marielda is notable for a thing known in the fiction as Reconfiguration: each night the city changes, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes radically. This isn't (just) Fantastical Divinity; the city contains a Bureau of Reconfiguration, where the decisions of how the city will magically rearrange are presumably decided, or at the very least bureaucratically discussed. In one of the final capers of this interstitial season, the players attempt to rob a university library of a particular text; outside, a protest co-opted by radicalized factory workers (the Black Slacks) rages. Because the season is an interlude, the podcasters don't get into the implications of an ever-changing city on the tactics of protest, but the simple juxtaposition is very much a way of leading the question.
Of these three cities—each defined by war, each fantastical—the only one that doesn't resort in any way to the Historical Man is Marielda. This is a function of the form, to some extent: it is hard to have a single protagonist when five people are collaborating on a story in real time, no matter how hard anyone tries. But even accounting for that, the way that each of these three texts privileges the city makes for its own triangulation: how they engage their politics, how they represent the politics that aren't theirs, and what the place of those politics in this particular moment do, are all the more clear.
Pirate Utopia, in light of The Last Days of New Paris and Friends at the Table's Marielda, can look especially dire. Where Miéville made every formal and aesthetic and political decision to villainize Nazis, Sterling is ambivalent; where Friends at the Table deconstructs the ideologies of fascism in its very form, Sterling clings to them. And the author's history provides no real alibi. From cyberpunk to steampunk to slipstream, from design fiction writer and Wired blogger to wandering futurist, Sterling's Midas touch is to turn all he touches into markets. Sometimes that means erasing the recent history of women's writing, other times advocating for what amounts (in John Clute's words) to "commercial piggybacking." None of this is to say that he hasn't done admirable work as well, especially around taking seriously climate change in fiction. Even as a writer whose material actions against which I often take umbrage, he remains a storyteller who is invested in taking the political elements of his work seriously and crafting them into something both entertaining and thoughtful.
With that in mind, the pleasure of Pirate Utopia is in discovering the story of a formative, fucked-up political moment, no matter where the author might find himself in it. Sterling does also put a bullet in Hitler's chest, and a couple in Mussolini's junk, and he does create Frau Piffer and her incredible, utopian factory full of liberated women with Anarcho-Syndicalist ideals. The uncharitable reading, however, is that this is all just a disquisition on horseshoe theory; it is the kind of book that has the protagonist discourse on an engineering solution to the material destruction of the native capitalists only to have him refer to it as his having "offered you a final solution!" (p. 48)
There is, though, a charitable reading: Pirate Utopia develops a proto-fascist moment that isn't Nazi Germany at a time when fascism needs more honest appraisals that cover fascism in its totality rather than simply repeat what is known, and which manages to make the anarchist and Communist aspects of that revolution as appealing as the fascist ones.
For every moment where Secondari is praised for chasing off Marxists, Pirate Utopia reveals the magnetic appeal of struggling against the ruling class. Secondari's self-description as an übermensch is never in service of his disidentification with his working-class identity, and neither is it an attempt at cathexis. He simply works toward a world in which the bourgeoisie is usurped as a class, whether through his “engineering solutions” or simply by doing the work that creates a world where they become obsolete.
In the beginning this work takes the shape of resurrecting a torpedo factory that has been turned into a soup kitchen, as well as personally leading pirate raids for money and materials. By the end of the novel, Secondari is seeing the new state devolve: the once-inspirational D'Annunzio is reduced to the pawn of an Italian noble, his own love for his platonic mistress's daughter causing him to feel for things other than the (Futurist) future. Even in an alternate history structured according to the principles of the übermensch, the ultimate fate of Fiume (like and unlike Nazi Germany, and twentieth-century fascism in general) is its absorption back into the capitalist mode of production.
Indeed, and just like the real-world antecedent, what inspires about Pirate Utopia is the moments of collective work, of the life of the city, and of the failures of the fantasy of the Historic Man. Like the dogs lost in the reconfiguration of Marielda or the small solidarities among the living surrealism of Miéville's New Paris, everything about the living Futurism of Fiume must ultimately melt away, revealing that the only real way forward—into the future—is to build one that capitalism cannot absorb.
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