Writer: Bruce Sterling
Publisher: Tachyon Publishing
Review by Stacy Dooks
If there’s one rule that as a writer myself I would engrave on to the desk of every author presently in the game and those wanting to come up and break in, it would be simply this: you must play fair with the audience. To take an example from another medium, let’s look at the climax of Chris Nolan’s mind-trip Inception. The film ends on an ambiguous note, with the notion of whether or not the ending itself is in fact real or another aspect of the protagonist’s dream narrative. To some, this narrative choice on the part of the filmmakers–leaving the audience to determine the ending and the ultimate meaning of the journey for themselves–is a brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling. It’s a testament to the imagination of the audience and to the inherent trust the creator places in their audience to draw their own conclusions.
To me, this is the narrative equivalent of the author drawing their fingernails down a chalkboard while wearing an “ASK ME WHAT IT MEANS” t-shirt. It drives me absolutely, completely, and totally apoplectic. How does this relate to Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia? Well, let’s sit down and talk about this imaginative but deeply frustrating read, and I’ll do my best to impart why it irks me so. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but some of what I discuss will brush up against characters encountered in the book’s climax, so if you want to go in completely spoiler free I’d recommend skipping down to the Verdict. Okay? All right, here we go.
Set in an alternate 1920s Europe, the small nation-state of Carnaro has declared it’s independence from greater Europe and stands as a bastion of futurism and progress under the benevolent dictatorship of The Prophet. Within the capital city of Fiume people strive to build a better tomorrow based on the high ideals of futurism and a desire to put the people first. The series of vignettes that comprise the novella follow Lorenzo Secondari, the Pirate Engineer, as he struggles to find his footing amidst the high ideals and pragmatic politics of the new, self-styled ‘Pirate Utopia’. Lorenzo manufactures bombs for the state, and is high-minded in his ideals and believes the world will benefit from Carnaro’s illuminated philosophy as espoused by the Prophet and upheld by men of conviction and vision such as himself. At the behest of the Ace of Harts, a daring combat pilot who now serves as the minister of intelligence for the state, he becomes Carnaro’s ‘Minister of Vengenace Weapons’. A turn of fortune at a magic show has Secondari cross paths with The Man Without Fear, the illusionist (and Secret Service Spy) and his aides, his publicist Howard Phillips Lovecraft and bodyguard Bob Howard. Having been made an offer to see the fabled Manhattan Project in America, can Lorenzo say no if it means furthering his glorious utopia?
Let me say that there is a lot to like about Pirate Utopia. Based as it is around an actual historical event (The Italian Regency of Carnaro) and an actual historical figure (Gabriele d’Annunzio is the basis for the Prophet of Sterling’s novella), the book paints a vivid picture of life in this little nation flush with the post-war boom of the 1920s and full of utopian hope for a brighter tomorrow. Secondari is a bombastic and polarizing figure of a character and most of the other personages in the book are fairly interesting in the usual ‘what might have been’ of alternate history stories. The notion of Secret Agent Harry Houdini and his sidekicks H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard traversing the globe and getting into adventures alone is gold and brought a smile to my face.
The problem is that for all it’s splendor, for all the wonderfully evocative interior artwork by John Coulthart contained behind his beautiful cover for the book, for all the intriguing notions put on the table by Sterling in Pirate Utopia the fact remains: it goes nowhere. The point where you would expect the main plot of an actual novel to kick off, the meeting with Houdini and the offer for Secondari to see the Manhattan Project is where the book stops. And the stop is abrupt. A final sentence from Lovecraft, and that’s all folks. With nary a “The End” or “To Be Continued” to be found the book just drops off. I understand that Sterling wrote the book in a sort of pseudo magical realism style meant to invoke Italian fantascienza, but for the book to simply end just as a traditional plot begins is jarring and more than a little irksome. The underlying fact that a book about a utopia ends nowhere might entail some amusing authorial thematic point but to a reader who plunked down $20 for a story, you expect that story to end satisfactorily. It’s the literary equivalent of ordering a 24-oz rib eye and only getting 12. Leaving the ending or the next chapter of the story up to the reader to decide might be ideal for some in the audience, but to others it’s anything but enjoyable. To call it dissatisfying is putting it mildly.
The Verdict: Skip It.
If you’re a fan of alternate-reality diesel-punk stories with a magical realism feel you’d probably enjoy Pirate Utopia, but the fact that it ends abruptly and has such an intriguing premise without actually doing anything with it, keeps it from getting a full recommendation. Pirate Utopia is a clever and well presented work; it just doesn’t feel like a completed one.