Back in April on the eve of the annual SXSW Interactive Festival, I met with Bruce Sterling for an interview that’ll be in the forthcoming Pirate Utopia. While roughly 90% of the original discussion made it’s way into the finished book (due out in November from Tachyon Publications), this bit, which I post following the description of the story, was deemed too timely an accompaniment for a tale about events set in Fiume following the First World War.
Cover by John Coulthart
Who are these bold rebels pillaging their European neighbors in the name of revolution? The Futurists! Utopian pirate-warriors of the tiny Regency of Carnaro, the unlikely scourge of the Adriatic Sea. Mortal enemies of communists, capitalists, and even fascists (to whom they are not entirely unsympathetic).
The ambitious Soldier-Citizens of Carnaro are lead by a brilliant and passionate coterie of the perhaps insane. Lorenzo Secondari, World War I veteran, engineering genius, and leader of Croatian raiders. Frau Piffer, Syndicalist manufacturer of torpedos at a factory run by and for women. The Ace of Hearts, a dashing Milanese aristocrat, spymaster, and tactical savant. And the Prophet, a seductive warrior-poet who leads via free love and military ruthlessness.
Fresh off of a worldwide demonstration of their might, can the Futurists engage the aid of sinister American traitors and establish world domination?
Bruce elaborates on the current US Presidential Election, the obsession with Donald Trump, and other worldly matters.
RICK: Are we talking about “we” as the world?
BRUCE: Everywhere, really. The people in the US are obsessed with Donald Trump; in Italy they’ve just…they’re not worried about him, they just know he’s [Silvio] Berlusconi. “Oh, you’ve got Berlusconi! You’ve got a Berlusconi!” Everybody knows what’s going to happen: he’s going to feather his own nest and have a lot of sex with very young women and everyone around him will be as corrupt as he is, ‘cause he bullshits all the time. The thing that is attractive about Berlusconi is that he doesn’t make you do anything. It’s actually kind of relaxing; everybody knows what he’s going to do: he’s just gonna get up and start bullshitting, laughing, swinging his dick around, cheering for the soccer team, driving fast cars. He’s not particularly malignant or anything, and you know he’s not gonna bother you. He’s not going to like, ask you to rise to the level of you better nature. On the contrary, everybody should be in the mud with me! Let’s just relax! Where’s the problem? We’re winning! It’s just very hard to accomplish anything with this bullshit all the time. The fix is in; his cronies aren’t very good, he doesn’t really have a plan, he’s kind of winging it, and it’s very debilitating for stuff like foreign policy, tough economic decisions, infrastructure development, like “Where are you gonna put the highway?” “Who cares?” It’s hard to get rid of him because everybody’s so demoralized by the louche atmosphere of the fish rotting from the head down. Until the guy just becomes nuts and just like, starts having public orgies and just loses all sense of proportion, then it becomes sort of embarrassing. It’s like, well, if we allow ourselves to be associated with this utter pervert. But he’s still in business in Italy and scheming to return to power, and he has guys in his court. But the American problem here, of Trumpism or whatever, is not unique to the US. On the contrary, Britain, which is normally the sane guy in the room has extremely weird politics right now: Scotland is running away, the Bernie Sanders-figure who took over the Left can only talk about breaking free from Europe and there’s no particular reason for them to do that at all, real estate in the capital city is totally out of control, nothing is working. These are normally the people who people ask advice from, Mother of Parliaments, can you come in and show us how to set up your legal system,’cause everything’s broken, the Mayor of London is a lunatic. They have it. The French have it. It’s very bad in France. Italy is sort of okay, but only by Italian standards, Russian politics is very weird right now, it’s kind of Putin and nobody else, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s kind of being led by the nose by these weird Ukrainian rebels very like the Fiume thing. They talk about Fiume all the time. All the guys in the Ukraine are big D’Annunzio fans. Fascism is on the rise; there’s a lot of nativist parties all over. And all the global things breaking down–nobody’s going to pass the Pacific Trade Agreement; nobody wants it: the Right doesn’t want it; the Left doesn’t want it. The Euro might break up. We’re just passing into an era of considerable political discord, which is typical of a large-scale economic depression that people can’t get out of. People have just lost faith in their system, and not just in the US, all over the place. There’s just nobody who’s on top of their game. Maybe Canada, but Canada was crazy until a couple of months ago. They were really eccentric. So, it’s a situation that really doesn’t have words for it, and the people who would normally be describing what’s going on are really at sixes and sevens; they just literally don’t know what to say. If you go back and read some press coverage of, say, the American presidential election, it’s got a lot of coverage and absolutely nobody has any idea what’s going to happen. Twitter exchanges just turn out to be blisteringly detached from reality, and just, like, looking for weapons of mass destruction that just plain aren’t there; shock and awe that nobody is shocked by or awed by–weird, crazy shit, and it’s getting worse. Now they’re shell-shocked. Nobody wants to say anything about anything. The only thing that’s kind of good about it, historically speaking, is that the level of violence is really, really low, except in Moslem countries, where they’re busy killing each other. They don’t even kill the West very much. You would think from the violence of the rhetoric that everybody would be out tear-gassing each other, but you’ve got stuff like a guy grabbed a reporter’s arm at a rally and maybe left a few bruises, and it’s as if a nuclear weapon had been detonated. There’s no political violence. There’s lots of personal violence. Every week there’s a massacre by some schizophrenic who just cuts loose with an automatic weapon, but there’s no political violence at all, seriously, any. There’s police killing black people, but there’s no riots, no Watts, no smashing, grabbing.
RICK: There’s certainly no rioting in the streets, killing people.
BRUCE: No assassinations. The universities, which are usually super-violent in times of political unrest are sort of like people cowering in safe spaces. They’re locking the doors and staying inside and kind of crying quietly into a handkerchief. It’s a very strange epoch, but not super scary. There’s no purges, the wars aren’t much of a war. Now, the Ukrainian war is kind of serious, but it’s one of the worst wars I’ve ever seen just in terms of the inability of the guys fighting it to know anything about a war. They’re like motorcycle gangs with missiles: “Let’s shoot a Dutch airliner out of the sky!” “Why? Did you check the code to see if it was a civilian?” “I don’t know, I just saw it and blew it away!” Terrible. Really just a terrible military. It’s a joke how bad they are.
RICK: There’s been a lot of people thinking that the rhetoric is going to lead to violence.
BRUCE: It should have done lead to it a long time ago. America has a very rough and tumble style of politics. The ideological polarization is complete. People say Hillary Clinton is unelectable because everybody on the Right really hates her and her unfavorables are sky high, but there’s nobody on the Left who has any favorables with anybody on the Right. They hate Sanders more than they hate her, and he wasn’t even a Democrat. Anybody who even looks like a leader on the left is immediately totaled. There’s nobody they’d agree with at all. They don’t like any standard leftist, not that there are many left. I mean, it might as well be her, because there’s no other candidate who isn’t just as detested, or wouldn’t be immediately. She’s been around for a zillion years. She might still lose the primaries; she’s not a very charismatic campaigner. And it’s a pity she’s kind of the Ma Ferguson of US politics, but at least she’s not running around with an armed militia having people lined up and shot. She’s not liquidating people and it’s not, in of fact, a particularly violent thing, and that’s what’s historically puzzling to me about it. You would think, looking at the history of the past 120 years that if people were really this badly off that there would just be lots of rioting. What happened to them? Are they all in jail?
RICK: Especially as armed as we are now.
BRUCE: I actually just suspect that they’re spending all their time typing on screens. They’re literally just too busy to go burn anything. They’d rather be on Facebook.
The interview is but one of the bonus goodies in the inexpensive $19.95 hardback. The legendary Warren Ellis of comics and novel fame offered up the introduction. The extraordinary Christopher Brown, whose debut novel Tropic of Kansas is coming out 2017, delivered the insightful afterword. And finally, the incredible John Coulthart supplied the gorgeous cover, interior illustrations, interior design, and design notes, making for a truly incredible looking volume.
This all serves as a prelude to Bruce’s fine writing, which is of course the centerpiece of the book. The story is getting all sorts of positive buzz.
[STARRED REVIEW] “Noted sci-fi maven and futurologist Sterling (Love Is Strange, 2012, etc.) takes a side turn in the slipstream in this offbeat, sometimes-puzzling work of dieselpunk-y alternative history. Resident in Turin, hometown of Calvino, for a dozen years, Sterling has long been experimenting with what the Italians call fantascienza, a mashup of history and speculation that’s not quite science fiction but is kin to it. Take, for example, the fact that Harry Houdini once worked for the Secret Service, add to it the fact that H.P. Lovecraft once worked for Houdini, and ecco: why not posit Lovecraft as a particularly American kind of spook, “not that old-fashioned, cloak-and-dagger, European style of spy,” who trundles out to Fiume to see what’s what in the birthplace of Italian futurism-turned-fascism? Lovecraft is just one of the historical figures who flits across Sterling’s pages, which bear suitably futuristic artwork, quite wonderful, by British illustrator John Coulthart. Among the others are Woodrow Wilson and Adolf Hitler, to say nothing of Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini. “Seen from upstream, most previous times seem mad,” notes graphic novelist Warren Ellis in a brief introduction, but the Futurist project seems particularly nutty from this distance; personified by Lorenzo Secondari, a veteran of World War I who leads the outlaw coalition called the Strike of the Hand Committee in the “pirate utopia” of the soi disant Republic of Carnaro, its first task is to build some torpedoes and then turn them into “radio-controlled, airborne Futurist torpedoes,” not the easiest thing considering the technological limitations of the time. A leader of the “Desperates,” who “came from anywhere where life was hard, but honor was still bright,” Secondari and The Prophet—D’Annunzio, that is—recognize no such limitations and discard anything that doesn’t push toward the future. So why not a flying pontoon boat with which to sail off to Chicago, and why not a partnership with Houdini to combat world communism? A kind of Ragtime for our time: provocative, exotic, and very entertaining.”
Look for Pirate Utopia this November.