Review: Pirate Utopia, by Bruce Sterling

Just finished Bruce Sterling’s new novel Pirate Utopia and it ended up being more than expected. I went into it naively expecting a post-modern, pre-millennium cyberpunkish politics romp. I instead received an absurdist realism novel, an alternative history constantly balancing romantic ideals, their execution and its evolution. It’s a book rich with surreal exaggeration and fantasy but using that to explore the more realistic and bleak practicalities of anarchism, communism and fascism — and democracy.

Pirate Utopia drops us into the Regency of Carnaro, the spontaneous self-government of the state of Fiume after it rejected Italy’s delivery of Fiume to Yugoslavia after World War I. Largely featuring Pirate Engineer Lorenzo Secondari it also introduces a maniacal manufacturist in the personage of Frau Pfiffer, a combat ace turned second-in-command the Ace of Hearts, all operating under the leadership of poet-statesman Gabriele d’Annunzio — otherwise known as the Prophet.

Secondari’s a fascinating protagonist to be sure. He’s presented as previously dead but now alive and self-charged with the mission of moving ownership from those that possess to those that make. He’s a stubborn, spontaneous anarchist maker of a sort though distinctly different from the type you’d see today. There’s no mention of his distributing either model or means — he doesn’t seem the type to upload notes, designs, schematics etc for the world to create his designs for themselves. His utopia is necessarily personalized and he can’t seem to conceive of one outside himself.

Ideals and actions are presented alongside each other constantly and both shift across the course of the story in interesting ways, as a sad exposition on how these things typically progress when people act as they do. It’s not a gradually sliding progress bar so much as Sterling slipping the characters and their organizations along the slippery, evolving surface of a self-justifying Moebius strip of power and violence. It’s hard to tell how or where one side became the other. A seamless transition in which all eyes are still on dragging the future towards them by way of the gravity of their personalities, but they’ve had time to polish their boots now and they’re the ones in control of the artillery on the hill.

The exception to this is Maria Pfiffer, Frau Pfiffer’s daughter and a favorite of Secondari. She’s an unnatural, shining, extrasystemic object — beautiful and consumptive, unprepared for spectacle, an unconcerned alien amidst clandestine conversations despite her polyglot intelligence.

Sterling also manages to sideline two historical devils in amusing ways. But the Moebius strip politics continue according to the realistic streak in Pirate Utopia: absent those two devils, others rise accordingly.

Pirate Utopia’s a short, fun read that doesn’t alternate between stark and wacky but manages to hold their continuing tension in exquisite and exacting fashion. It also comes with a great and timely introduction by Warren Ellis that came out before the election but seems spot-on after, and some supplemental materials at the end that explored Sterling’s writing of the book. This latter appealed directly to the process voyeur in me and I’d love to see it in more works.

Pirate Utopia: Highly Recommended Reading.

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Writer, security-minded techie, information addict.

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