Plato may have been right: it’s not a good idea to let poets get too close to the machinery of government. Take the case of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian poet and art critic, smitten with airplanes and modern machinery, who, in 1919, proclaimed the arrival of a new kind of human and a new kind of civilization. He meant fascism, and a quarter-century later, much of the world lay in ruins because of the doctine he so enthuasiastically described.
Swept up by Marinetti’s futurism, a less sanguinary bunch of young Italians imagined themselves to be the exemplars of that new human. They marched into the Fiume, on the Adriatic coast, and declared the Republic of Carnaro, a place without much in the way of law, a place where thick-bearded anarchists could get away with wearing women’s fur coats “cinched by thick leather army belts festooned with daggers, pistols, and hand grenades.”
The words are Bruce Sterling’s, late of Austin, Texas, now resident for much of the year in the antifascist, writerly Italian city of Turin. In a departure from the near-future science fiction for which he has become well known, as with novels such as Distraction and Heavy Weather, his new novel Pirate Utopia drops readers into the heart of Carnaro and the middle of events a century past.
That seemed like the future back then—and, in some ways, it is that future that we now inhabit, for better or (as it so often seems) worse. Call it the past of the future, then, or perhaps better the past of futurism. “A tradition of future sounds oxymoronic,” Sterling says, “but of course we really do have quite a long and solid tradition of futurism. We just don’t have a good way to describe how futures become old-fashioned, or what aspects of futurism are perennially renewed.”
Against our present glumness, the futurists of Carnaro seem an exuberant bunch, up to endless mischief that has yet to turn dark—though, if you were at the receiving end of one of the pirates’ “radio-controlled, airborne Futurist torpedoes,” you might take exception to the experiments of Lorenzo Secondari and company, men collectively known as the Desperates, who “came from anywhere where life was hard, but honor was still bright.”
Honor among thieves, one might say. Enter Harry Houdini, soon to be world-famous magician but now a private detective of sorts, and his associate H. P. Lovecraft—who really did work for Houdini once upon a time, before becoming famous himself as the earthly representative of the kingdom of Cthulhu.
Did the duo ever cross paths with the likes of D’Annunzio and Mussolini? Sterling lets his imagination run with the possibilities. “This story’s about a political extremist movement that’s getting more wild, piratical, and out of hand,” he says. “So when Lovecraft and Houdini show up as troubleshooters, their unlikely appearance feels reassuring.”
Yes, it’s a story that’s unlikely at times, but never implausible, and in that it stands squarely with the speculative fiction and counterfactual history that has long been part of the science fiction tradition, with such notable exemplars as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison. It’s also a hallmark of the Italian fantascienza genre, which Sterling is now exploring.
Pirate Utopia may just be a shot across the bow. “Writing short fantastic fiction on Italian themes seems congenial to me,” Sterling says. Look for stories of a futuristic Rome and of a magick-beset Renaissance Turin in time to come—and strap on your leather belt and goggles for his current extravaganza.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.