The point of Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia is clear and simple: revolutionary fervor is inevitably co-opted by existing power structures and ultimately by the commercial impulse. That’s it, that’s the hard part, and you don’t need to read the rest if the thesis statement is all you were there for.
However, if you do decide to stick around, there’s plenty of sugar to help the medicine go down. Sterling writes here with a nod to the comedic stylings of a Marx Brothers movie; the tone is always slightly madcap, even when the characters are discussing murder, revolution, and of course, flying torpedoes and death rays.
Which is fitting. The book’s set in the minuscule independent state of Carnaro just after the end of World War One. Led by a gaggle of inspirational Futurists with titles like The Prophet and the Ace of Hearts, it’s a radical experiment in independence and piracy, in the workers controlling the means of production and the rich getting it in the shorts. When we first arrive, the city of Fiume is full of revolutionary ferment, often against itself, and our hero is a half-deaf Italian engineer named Secondari, who’s sort-of-kind-of taken over a local torpedo factory belonging to the formidable yet sentimental Frau Piffer, a Corporate Syndicalist in training. And if you think that sentence was confusing, wait until you try to figure out how things actually work in Fiume.
The book advances in a series of scenes, rather than a full linear narrative. We drop in on Secondari from time to time, as his professional growth mirrors that of his chosen state. By the end of things, he’s the Minister of Vengeance Weapons, deliberately chosen to be an element of fear, but functionally it just means that he gets hit up for cocaine – classified as a vengeance weapon and officially restricted – at ritzy parties by one of the Prophet’s more eccentric mistresses. And Carnaro is the sort of place that needs a Minister of Vengeance Weapons, never mind that he’s the same guy who builds the torpedoes and who not too long ago was leading a rag-tag band of Serbian pirates out to sea in search of scrap metal. But the new Carnaro has no place for that man, or more specifically it needs that man but in a way that’s acceptable, and so inch by inch, compromise by compromise, the flame of revolutionary purity (which comes with its own problems) gets siphoned off by the necessities of the everyday.
Sterling has some fun with the historicity of it all, pausing here and there to take gleeful potshots – some literarily literal – at various historical characters. Mussolini, here a heroic newspaper editor, gets a couple of rounds in his lil’ Duce, courtesy of an ex-wife, while Hitler takes a bullet for a comrade before ever amounting to anything, and Woodrow Wilson gets poisoned by Communists. Then, Harry Houdini shows up with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard in tow, and let’s just say things get weird.
The novella ends with shocking, but appropriate abruptness. At the last, Carnaro’s revolution has reached its ultimate phase; there’s nowhere else for it or Secondari to go. The reader is left with two simultaneous and opposing conclusions, one particularly depressing and pertinent in the age of Trump, and one quiet and hopeful and, dare I say it, human.
There are a few other bits in the book, of the nonfiction variety. The introduction is written with typical acerbic aplomb by Warren Ellis; in the back are an essay on the real-world historical underpinnings of the story by Christopher Brown, a lengthy interview with Sterling conducted by Rick Klaw, and a short essay on design by John Coulthart. All add depth to the main narrative, supporting the main event and sometimes putting it into rueful context. As for the book as a whole, it’s unapologetically political and wildly entertaining, a rare enough combination to make casual readers sit up and take notice.