Bruce Sterling is known primarily for science fiction set in the future, but in the bizarre Pirate Utopia (2016) he reaches back into history to examine the futurism of the past. In this alternate history “dieselpunk” tale, Sterling takes us to the city of Fiume, a small port on the Adriatic coast. Traditionally Italian, Fiume is served up as a bargaining chip to the new nation of Yugoslavia at the end of World War I, and becomes a hotbed of oddball political thought. The “hero” is Lorenzo Secondari, a half-deaf survivor of the Great War who sees himself as a utopian Übermensch, and becomes a major figure in the formation of the Regency of Carnaro, a nascent anarcho-syndicalist state with visions of world domination.
Manic, gonzo, and politically charged, Pirate Utopia is a singular piece of work, mining obscure corners of history to vivid, surprising effect. The storytelling isn’t particularly streamlined, but sheer invention more than makes up the difference. Sterling’s pirate utopian antiheroes are rather appalling, but their ambitions are rendered palatable by buckets of quirky humor and clever alt-history easter eggs that insert historical figures at key moments, a kind of celebrity stunt-casting. The ending is abrupt, but services the larger political point of the piece, which seems particularly timely.
It should be noted that Pirate Utopia’s print release is beautiful, with exceptional art and design by John Coulthart. I suspect this will be one of those idea-driven works that doesn’t appeal broadly, but will delight a chosen few, particularly Sterling enthusiasts.