Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Pirate Utopia
Bruce Sterling
Tachyon, 192 pages
Review: Ian Hunter

“Strange days indeed” as John Lennon once sang, and Pirate Utopia seems to be the perfect political satire novel to have come out in 2016 given the events of Brexit and the election success of Donald Trump, though as a novel Pirate Utopia is far from perfect. Think Chaplin’s The Great Dictator with the Marx Brother’s Duck Soup added into the mix as well as a sprinkling from Orwell’s Animal Farm and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and you might have something close to the exotic dish that Sterling has served up here. However while the aforementioned films were fictions, Sterling’s novel owes more to Chaplin’s film which parodied Hitler and European fascism; and Orwell’s novel which gave an animal spin on the Russian revolution and events thereafter. Sterling has also used real people – some in unlikely guises – and mixed them with his own memorable cast. He has taken as his starting point the short-lived state of Fiume on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea which was independent of its neighbours (or liked to think it was) at the start of the 1920s. It became part of Yugoslavia after the Second World War and in the post-Soviet world is now part of Croatia.

In the novel Fiume is part of the tiny Regency of Carnaro, wedged between larger neighbours on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It’s handy to have water nearby when you have a pirate mentality, but these are no ordinary pirates, nor do they really need water in the events that follow. The pirates of Carnaro are futurists, with a vision that takes no prisoners and anyone who doesn’t share their world view is fair game as far as they are concerned.

In this pirate utopia, the Strike of the Hand Committee is run by someone who is mad, bad and very dangerous in a laboratory, namely engineer Lorenzo Socondari. He has survived the First World War and won’t let the fact that he was once dead and is now reborn get in the way of his ambitions. Into this mix Sterling adds Frau Piffer who, along with her all female workforce, churns out torpedoes from her factory. Then we have the Ace of Hearts who is every bit as dashing as he sounds, a sort of aristocratic James Bond. Sterling takes a real life person, one Gabriele D’Annunzio and turns him into The Prophet. In real-life, D’Annunzio and his Italian nationalists took over Fiume in 1919, hoping that the Italians would take it over from them. They didn’t, but in the intervening years D’Annunzio and his followers ran a city that embraced the artistic, though violent ideals of futurism which influenced both Mussolini and Hitler. D’Annunzio and Sterling’s creations run their little state and their futuristic inventions – namely flying boats and radio-controlled flying torpedoes which allow them to make a stand against the march of communism – attract the interest of neighbouring powers and the American secret service in the form of Harry Houdini (and controversy still rages as to whether or not Houdini was a spy in real life) and HP Lovecraft who is Houdini’s publicist as his writing career hasn’t exactly come off. Benito Mussolini also appears, as does Woodrow Wilson. Adolf Hitler might have contributed more to these fictional events had he not taken a bullet to save someone’s life in a bar fight.

Splitting his time between homes that include Turin and Belgrade, Sterling has often dipped his creative toes into the experimental writing known as fantascienza, which brings together real-life and alternative realities. Throughout the text, Sterling takes little detours from the narrative to drop in telling, or macabre facts, and even more time is devoted to detailing what people are wearing.

What you have is something that meanders along in six parts, and harking back to the Marx Brothers analogy, seems to be made up of a series of sketches or scenes joined together by some recurring characters, almost in the way that Jennifer Egan drove her wonderful A Visit from the Goon Squad by having one character pass the baton from chapter to chapter. Sadly, this is nowhere near as good as that and while this is certainly not Sterling’s best work it does entertain with its memorable characters and wild invention and world building and snappy dialogue. All in all Pirate Utopia is more novella than novel.

Apart from Sterling’s narrative, there is an introduction from acclaimed graphic novelist, Warren Ellis. There are also illustrations from British artist, John Coulthart, winner of the World Fantasy Award, and he provides notes on his designs. The notes are then followed by an afterword from novelist Christopher Brown, who is also an expert in city states and an interview with Sterling conducted by opinionated geek, Rick Klaw, like Sterling a sometime resident of Austin, Texas.