Book Review: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s new novel showcases the theme of doing “great” things in the name of progress, regardless of whatever collateral damage is caused.

pirate-utopiaSo…a lot has happened since last week. I wasn’t planning on talking about it since I am just a humble book reviewer…but the subject matter of Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia could not be more relevant to recent events.

Pirate Utopia is set in the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) in 1920 during the short-lived Regency of Carnaro. In our timeline, Fiume was supposed to be ceded to the newly created Yugoslavia in the wake of World War I, however, Italian nationalists led by Gabriele D’Annunzio seized control of the city in 1919. They had hoped the city would be annexed by Italy, but Italy wasn’t interested. In the meantime, D’Annunzio and his supporters created a government highly influenced by the ideas of futurism, an artistic and social movement originating in Italy that promoted modernization, youth and violence.

Many of the ideas and terminology that came out of the futurists and the Regency of Carnaro were highly influential on the fascist movement of Mussolini, which in turn inspired Hitler’s National Socialism. In the end, D’Annunzio couldn’t keep his rogue state going and he was overthrown by the Italian military. Italy did end up annexing the city in 1924, but before D’Annunzio could get the last laugh, Italy and the rest of the Axis powers lost World War II, finally ceding the city to Yugoslavia in 1947.

In the timeline of Pirate Utopiahowever, Carnaro has the services of Lorenzo Secondari, the pirate engineer. Thanks to his engineering genius and cold-blooded nature, he helps turn Carnaro into a functioning state that is soon recognized by Italy and the other world powers. Unbeknownst to him, however, he indirectly throws history off its rails when a gun from his factory is used on Mussolini and then later the estranged husband of his friend is saved from death when Hitler throws himself between the man and a bullet. Of course, Lorenzo could care less about these “insignificant” events. All he wants is to make his flying, remote-controlled torpedoes, and perhaps a group of American spies, led by Houdini and his publicist, HP Lovecraft, can help with that.

Pirate Utopia‘s main strength comes from how it presents fascism. It doesn’t simply say the obvious (well…what should be obvious) “fascism is bad” mantra. Instead Sterling makes an effort to show how appealing fascism can be. He highlights the pageantry, the appeals to the poor working class, the overthrowing of the established elites and the seduction of using violence and force, rather than diplomacy, to deal with complicated problems. Most importantly, Sterling showcases the theme of doing “great” things in the name of progress, regardless of whatever collateral damage is caused.

On the other hand, Pirate Utopia‘s main weakness is that there really isn’t a story. The actual story only takes up less than 150 pages and that is counting the pages dedicated to the black-and-white illustrations of John Coulthart. The rest of the pages (which together with the story proper come up to 188 pages total) are dedicated to essays by Sterling and others, an interview with Sterling and other appendixes. The story itself primarily focuses on Secondari and through his eyes we see the transformation of the Regency into an actual state, while Secondari moves up through the ranks of the futurists.

We hear characters discuss pirate raids and secret weapons projects, but we only see the absurdity of an art movement creating a government. Meanwhile, events happening in the outside world that impact the Regency more often than not happen in spite of the characters’ actions, rather than because of them. Thus we don’t really get a coherent narrative, just a series of loosely connected scenes starring some familiar characters. A part of me feels this tale may have been better served as a graphic novel. That way we could at least see the angular futurist uniforms and crazy propaganda that are constantly described. I mean futurism was an art movement after all, lets get some more art in here!

Reading through the entire book, however, I get the sense that Pirate Utopia is Sterling’s love letter to Rijeka, a city which, according to Sterling, was the first to suffer under a fascist government, which has left the populace inherently distrustful of that political philosophy ever since. I think Sterling wants the world as a whole to act more like Rijeka. There is no reason to experiment with futurism and its off-shoots, because we already had a place that tried it and they can tell you it’s a bad idea

Which brings me to The Wave by Todd Strasser, a young adult novel I read in grade school allegedly based on an actual incident where a high school history teacher tries to show his students how people could be seduced by Hitler by carrying out an experiment that spirals out of control. The book had a profound impact on me as a child and I still kept my copy after all of these years. What I liked best about the book was the sense of dread it gave me about how easily some populist movement that rallied people against the “other” could happen. Pirate Utopia, coupled with recent events, have managed to give me that same dread again.

So given the circumstances, Pirate Utopia is probably worth a read, even if it doesn’t fit the standard storytelling narrative we are used to. The setting and characters are interesting, the illustrations are powerful and we all need reminders of what really happened in the past, even if we have to learn about it through an alternate history.

And as for recent events…I always hope for the best, but will be ready for whatever happens.

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