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Robot Artists & Black Swans coverThe Difference Engine (1990) was my introduction to Bruce Sterling. As a kid then, devouring cyberpunk along with other SF classics, I remember thereafter categorizing William Gibson as a groundbreaking writer of the science-fictional present, and Sterling as a groundbreaking writer of the science-fictional past. As such, I had a bit of an “aha” moment when reading the introduction to Robot Artists & Black Swans (2021), wherein the author shares a claim that “[t]he task of the historian is to reconstruct and to depict the comprehensive epochal design in which every single human fact fits and can be explained in relation to the others”—then explains why science fiction, not history, is the realm where such an aim can be achieved:

In fact, it is only through fantasy science that such “comprehensive epochal designs” can ever take full control of all other written forms of reality! Historians will always be defeated when they aspire to this excellent result. But we science fiction writers can always achieve it—if we try sincerely. Furthermore—although, metaphysically—this historical aspiration applies to the world, and also the solar system, the galaxy, the cosmos— no book has enough words and pages for all that space and time. … Therefore, this “comprehensive epochal design” should be applied to many different times within one town.

And yet, apparently this insight is not so much Sterling’s as the work of one “Bruno Argento,” the author given attribution for all the stories in this collection. Throughout this introduction, Sterling—writing as Argento—goes to great lengths to insist upon Argento’s authenticity as an Italian, along with the dangers of becoming a Turinese writer, for:

Here in my city of Turin, our refined and delicate writers will rarely thrive. We Turinese writers seem to be a fragile group, haunted and persecuted by esoteric shadows. Sometimes we are famous—even outside Italy—but, in daring to write fiction here in Turin, we rarely end well.

The ruse continues with Argento claiming that “Bruce Sterling” is the real pseudonym:

Obviously this “Bruce Sterling” can never really exist, but my fellow Italian science fiction writers have cordially accepted this necessary deception of mine. The other Italians know about the life for writers here in Turin; they can follow my reasoning; they sympathize. Also, they are very erudite people, so they can see that the Argento/Sterling duality is a literary game, inspired by Italo Calvino’s famous fantastic novel The Cloven Viscount, which was written and published in Turin in 1952.

This advances to Argento’s choices, as a writer striving to achieve the historian’s aim:

[T]hat creative space can only be Turin. I am a Turinese writer and I can create, rebuild, epochal, complete worlds—as long as they are connected to Turin.

That’s how I became that rarity in the genre, a truly regional science fiction writer. It is not my goal to praise or glorify Turin, but to make Italian history comprehensible. These Italian stories of mine are slow cascades of the most science fictional aspects of Italy. They show little of the “Bel Paese” that makes us Italians sentimental about ourselves. These are epochal fantasies that are much more Italian than any real Italy could ever be. Such is my vocation as an Italian creative figure.

Sterling is Texan by birth, and moved to Turin, Italy, in 2007. As a Canadian myself, I’m used to the cultural rhetoric that someone can “belong” to a place much sooner than in fourteen years; and yet, as a white science-fiction writer who moved to Medellín, Colombia, in 2018, I find that the gambit of taking on a Turin-by-birth writing identity gives me pause, as do the above narrative defenses.

One might well say, “Yes, but, how about the stories themselves?”—and we will get there, absolutely—but since the very first line of the first story reads, “It embarrasses me that Italians have been to the Moon,” some initial reflection on the subject-position of the person advancing such playful criticism of “Italians” is warranted, especially for an audience of people who will possibly have had little to no other exposure to fantascienza from the region.

When “Argento” claims that “our refined and delicate [Turinese] writers will rarely thrive” because they are a “fragile group,” and then seeks to flatter that same group as “very erudite”—that is, surely capable of seeing the “literary game” in the “Argento/Sterling duality”—my first instinct is to look for any sign, in this introduction, of how actual Turinese/Italian writers feel about Sterling’s choice to inhabit this role. Does Sterling-as-Argento introduce and elevate living writers from his local communities? Give them roles that invite North American readers to see that “Argento” is by no means singlehandedly representing contemporary fantascienza?

He does not, which means that the closest we get to a local verdict, from the introduction, are the remarks ascribed to Argento when claiming Sterling as an alternate identity: namely, “that my fellow Italian science fiction writers have cordially accepted this necessary deception.” That “cordially” hardly counts as a ringing endorsement; and even the introduction is by Neal Stephenson, rather than someone who might lend a sense of Sterling having been locally invited to continue playing this “literary game” with their cultural identity.

Only at the end of the collection do we see any other Italian author represented, in an afterword by Dario Tonani, an editor in Milan who offers local and literary context for some of the Argento stories. But it’s an odd little piece, because it focuses mostly on a story not found in this collection—and in doing so, reveals itself as either written for this collection before a major change in its contents, or as the editorial foreword to a preceding collection: in Italian, perhaps, for an Italian readership. Not the strongest endorsement one would hope for, when introducing this Bruno Argento character to anglo-Western readers.

Granted, all of this collection’s stories were published elsewhere first, beginning with one at Wired, where Sterling has had a sponsored blog since 2003. Three more were first published in English, in North American publishing venues (Tor Books, Subterranean Online, Fantasy & Science Fiction). The other three were first published in Italian: “Cigno Nero” (“Black Swan”) in Robot: Rivista di Fantascienza; “Il Bisturi Partheneo” (“The Parthenopean Scalpel”) with now-defunct digital-imprint site 40K Books; and “Robot tra le Rose” (“Robot in Roses”) in an anthology, Nuove eterotopie: la antologia definitive del Connettivismo (2017).

In the aforementioned Italian productions, though, the name "Bruce Sterling" is prominently used in marketing, which reveals a notable power dynamic—the allure of the “big name”—that often is in play for a Western writer seeking to adopt another identity in local markets. Anglo-Western publishing also employs name-brand marketing strategies, but many of ours are, conversely, supposed to reflect a growing mindfulness around the uses and abuses of authorial identity. That sort of mindfulness is not on display in this English-language collection—either in the intro, or in the stories themselves. As mentioned above, the first in this collection, “Kill the Moon,” actually opens the collection with a round of teasing aimed at “[w]e Italians” for failing to “behave as adults.” And why? Because this country’s near-future citizens will apparently prove embarrassingly excited about trips to the Moon? The horror.

Then, in “Black Swan,” we have a high-tech chip loaded with alt-Italys, which is secreted into the hands of a familiar-to-Sterling-readers protagonist by one Massimo Montaldo, who, “[b]eing Italian, … struggle[s] to look suave.” The exchange takes place in a café where espionage, political intrigue, and strained Italian references are deployed in equal measure. And when I say “strained,” well …

“Who created that chip?” I asked him. “I know it wasn’t you. You know a lot about tech investment, but you’re not Leonardo da Vinci.”

“No, I’m not Leonardo.” He emptied his glass.

(Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Renaissance man.)

The story runs through hypothetical alt-worlds in which history plays out differently (and atheism apparently makes sex boring?), until we arrive at the “black swan” event of greatest urgency to our protagonist. As the story progresses, and the blatant cultural referencing eases, Sterling’s strengths start to peek through: the knowing banter, the intensifying stakes, the chill of existential discovery through technology.

Similarly, “Elephant on Table” takes place in a near-future world in which AIs are more fully integrated into Catholic teaching. The story tackles corrupt politicians and the church by focusing on a beachside “Shadow House” that shelters the mouldering “Chief,” a past national leader protected from prying digital eyes by attendants who care for him amid a physical decline rivalled only by his lifelong moral failings. The strength of the tale lies in its hyperbole, but a lot of the dialogue is stilted, especially around the story’s plucky sex worker, who in the presence of an AI-savvy priest utters such heavy-handed sentences as: “But how, Father? I’ve got police records on three continents, and about a thousand johns have rated my services on hooker e-commerce sites.”

“Pilgrims of the Round World” also, in places, has a want of nuance (at best), which does not fully reflect its depth. In the time of Pope Pius II, travelers from a wide range of cultures gather in a closing inn in Turin for one last spiritual feast. These guests include a “Portuguese slave dealer,” a “wandering Jew,” a “Chinese eunuch,” and an “Arab astrologer”—a not entirely sensitive collection of identities—and yet the whole of the tale explores the story of Carlotta, a queen driven from her throne, in a reclamationist alt-history of the era’s powerful women. Christian relics, including (obviously) the Shroud of Turin, play key roles in other discourse about political power—who wields it, under what names, to what ends—which is ultimately oriented around a kinder version of Carlotta’s exile.

“The Parthenopean Scalpel,” too, is an alt-history, with allusions to the development of more advanced tech and the possibility of vampires. It is situated around the Five Days of Milan in 1848: a precursor event to the First Italian War of Independence. Sterling-the-historian is on clearest display in this story, which relates the ideology of a fragmented, long-occupied Italy yearning for freedom. The story follows a would-be assassin from Rome, forced to start anew in Tuscany, where he becomes the lover of the Count’s polycephalous (two heads, one body) sisters. Again, however,  some of the story’s nationalist descriptions (“Italy was like the olive tree, that most Italian of trees”) lie uneasily on the page, not quite of a piece with the overall tone of the tale.

What is perhaps Sterling’s humour at work performs better in another, more lighthearted piece. “Esoteric City” brings to the collection more plainly fantastical fare, through a mummy who joins Occhietti, our late-night snacker of a protagonist, to inform him that he’s been called to Hell. In this Dantean tale, thick with playful banter that fuses modern hells with ancient struggles, we return to Turin as a site of holy Christian relics, along with Egyptian artifacts and a meeting of black and white magic, and then dabble in the intersection of these mythologies. For instance:

The walls held a delirious surge of spray-bombed gang graffiti, diabolically exulting drugs, violence, and general strikes against the System—but much of that rubbish had been scrubbed away, and Turin’s new, improved path to Hell was keenly tourist-friendly. Glossy signs urged the abandonment of all hope in fourteen official European Union languages.

“Someone took a lot of trouble to upgrade this,” Occhietti realized.

“The Olympics were in Turin,” [the mummy] grunted.

“Oh yes, of course.”

The collection’s strongest note, however, is perhaps its closing one. “Robot in Roses” follows Wolfgang, a “robot’s shepherd” in 2187. He is an art critic who protects the Winkler, a wheelchair-shaped “wayward art machine,” as it creates new masterpieces while wandering the world after the death of its original host, a Japanese artist who shaped its development. There’s some tedious “the Japanese are amazing!” fetishism, but mostly the tale involves Wolfgang’s philosophical standoff with the superhuman Jetta, while trying to keep the Winkler safe. The story asks questions about whether this robot’s creative relationship with nature is real, a stunt, bad art, or otherwise susceptible to underhanded human manipulation; and simultaneously, about the value of humanity’s quest for longevity by various means.

In “Robot in Roses,” too, we’re given some visions of future-Italy, but for the most part the story does what earlier pieces in this collection did not: it relaxes into its chosen vernacular, geography, and history, rather than making them the central spectacle of the narrative. Sterling is at his best in this collection whenever he gives himself leave to do just that.

As a fellow writer in a non-native land, I sympathize with the self-conscious struggle to integrate a new home into one’s writing. Sterling’s earlier Argento stories reveal growing pains that later works seem to be resolving on their own, which is a great start—but the more pressing literary matter pertains to how Sterling is still speaking for, not with, a community.

Did Bruce Sterling need to be Bruno Argento to write these stories? Hardly, because even his Italian sales still trade on his English name’s popularity. And did he need to create a “Bruno” with an elaborate Turinese bio, instead of just writing in Italian under this name? No, not at all.

The equivalent for me, in Medellín, might be going further than, say, publishing as “Maggy,” as many locals assume my name to be, to outright fabricating a “muy paisa paisa”named Maggy, who was born in “un barrio humilde,” but hustled off to a nearby “finca” for safety during one of the worst waves of local violence; and who then returned to the city to struggle for seven years to gain a post-secondary degree at one of the many universities that kept closing due to another era of violence. See how tetchy that kind of authorial role-play quickly becomes?

What would have made this collection a great deal stronger would have been the naming and promoting of other local authors in its introduction—even if under the guise of Argento, when writing out “his” history of fantascienza. (At The Future Fire, you can find one such history outlined by Valeria Vitale in conversation with Alessandra Cristallini and Andrea Gibertoni.) As it stands, while Sterling’s strengths—such as the repartee in his political and philosophical intrigues, and his passion for historical detail—are on entertaining display in some of these pieces, there remains an unpleasant tang to the text’s relentless assertions that “being Turinese/Italian means [X].” I’ll absolutely grant that this collection shows a warm-hearted fascination with the possibilities of the multiverse, especially in the past and the present, but surely life in the multiverse not only allows for, but also compels, more overt shows of authorial subjectivity when depicting the people from any given place within it—let alone from those places we are ever fortunate enough to call our homes.

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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