Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

pirate utopia BY Bruce sterling

reviewed by jim hepplewhite


"If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?"
          - John Updike

Bruce Sterling, the writer of Pirate Utopia, is a foundational cyberpunk author, current futurist and Important Technology Man. He, along with William Gibson maybe defined cyberpunk in The Difference Engine, and both writers are known for their research. I'm therefore uncomfortable saying Pirate Utopia feels tossed off, or that it works better in theory than in practice. I want to like the book more than I actually like the book.

Pirate Utopia reads like a gloriously dilapidated car that’s somehow doing 90 mph while also on fire. Its minutes are numbered. And yet, if I didn't ask too many questions, I lost track of time reading the novella. Maybe Pirate Utopia resembles Wile. E. Coyote, who can run through the air as long as he doesn't look down.

There's plenty of reasons to look down, though. The three largest:

-A frivolous three page dramatis personae to introduce characters that appear for less than a page. In a novella.

-A use of H. P. Lovecraft that suspended my disbelief.

-The main character. Lorenzo Secondari is an engineer, he improvises explosives, and he's very excited about Futurism. That's all there is to him. (Admittedly, the first section contains a cool moment where he throws a dud grenade into a tank, sees it doesn't explode, then goes back to retrieve the grenade and put the pin back in.)

Pirate Utopia is a mango, to use the term from anime and manga fandom. The novella's juicy and sticky and you can't eat it without getting a little bit messy, but the taste can't be found anywhere else.

"'No woman is a technical solution, that's why! I'm a pirate engineer! I don't want a girlfriend, I want a revolution in popular mechanics! We need real factories that can work! We can't just lift the skirts of the pretty girls, after we give them votes, and hashish, and jazz records!'

'Whatever does it take to please you, Lieutenant? I've never once seen you look happy. I worry about you. The Prophet must be thrilled with your new torpedoes now? He will let you name your own reward in Fiume. Isn't that enough?'

'I hate all these useless, beautiful gestures!' Secondari shouted. 'The Prophet is a poet! He can't build industries with his sonnets! No matter what reward a poet may give me, those rich bourgeois louts with their ballot boxes, they'll just grab it all back! Capitalism must be smashed!'"

Secondari emerges from World War I too shell shocked to communicate with fellow human beings without the crutch of Futurism or a working knowledge of explosives. He makes a name for himself running a pirate gang, before accepting a job from a poet-dictator Gabriele D'Annunzio to build an anarchist syndicate in Fiume. Mr. Sterling nudges Secondari and the Regency of Carnaro further and further into post-WWI Europe with increasingly zany results. 

"As a minister of the government, Secondari liked to publicly attend the jazz clubs of Fiume. He went there often, black-clad, bearded, long-haired, and heavily armed. Secondari preferred jazz music to all other forms of music, because jazz was loud.

His sinister presence within the jazz clubs made it clear to all that American Negroes were under a particular protection in Fiume. The jazz clubs were also excellent places to discreetly meet international dealers in arms and narcotics."

In an interview, Mr. Sterling describes Pirate Utopia as a work in the style of Italian science fantasy. To Italian science fantasy, Arizona contains aliens, ziggurats, massive rattlesnakes and any other detritus from pulp's history. Within that context, Pirate Utopia makes a lot more sense. Steampunk's many gears are updated and thrown together, everything runs loosely, just as long as no one looked too close.

I lost track of time when it came to the ending of Pirate Utopia. Alternate history works aren't my bag, and neither is any prefix-punk in literature.

"Some German faction…in a beer cellar…Their own men, the 'Brown Shirts' …They burst in there with guns and big knives, a massacre! 'His best friend - - - Adolf from Linz, such a brave soldier - - - he jumped in front of a bullet, to save my husband. Adolf gave his own life for my Hans.'

The thought made Frau Piffer weep piteously. 'I met Adolf once. He came here on a summer vacation with Hans. He was the best of them all, Adolf was. What a talker that man was, and what eyes he had!'"

Maybe this is the fun in writing alternate histories, but this sort of thing irritated me and removed me from the world. Those two paragraphs (I omitted one more), apparently, afforded Adolf a mention in the cast of characters.

Any praise I give Pirate Utopia is tempered, but any criticism is similarly softened. My advance copy is padded out with an SXSW interview, two essays and what looks like New York Times clippings about the real life Gabriele d'Annunzio. Assuming the retail version contains the additional materials, the two essays (one of which from designer John Coulthart) are worth seeking out.

I'm not the audience for Pirate Utopia, but if you like steampunk or remember The Difference Engine fondly, you might be the audience Pirate Utopia seeks.