Pirate Utopia, the new story cycle by Bruce Sterling, represents one of science fiction’s masters operating in peak form. A dieselpunk satire about a group of radicals and pirates bent on world domination, it features all the hallmarks of Sterling at his best—insane gadgets, deep world-building, a ridiculous cast of colorful characters, extrapolation from existing history, and a warped sense of humor—while creating something entirely new, a gonzo look into the might-have-been that directly engages with its background and acknowledges the darker parts of its history. The result is a joyfully deranged look at the past through a warped mirror, equal parts exciting and unsettling.
In short vignettes, the story follows the rise of the Futurist Regency of Carnaro, ruled by a loose collective of war veterans, poets, mad scientists, occultists, and other dreamers who straddle the thin line between madness and genius. Through the eyes of Lorenzo Secondari, a half-deaf pirate, “Minister of Vengeance Weapons,” and Carnaro’s most zealous servant, Sterling charts the Futurist Revolution from its humble beginnings as a small gathering of anarchists in the occupied city of Fiume, all the way to its eventual status as a fascist power on the world stage. As Carnaro grows more powerful, it gains the attention of sinister agents and other power players, including traitorous Americans and an Italy that would like to remain whole.
Sterling packs detail into every corner of this warped little world. The concepts, characters, and plot points are more or less real—though in our history, Carnaro and its Prophet only lasted for about a year, occultism was just kind of a weird fad, cocaine isn’t a performance enhancer, futurism was a little too obsessed with war toys, and radio-controlled torpedoes were sort of a hit or miss idea. But by grounding his ideas in real history of the 1920s, Sterling is able to build a series of “what if” scenarios that seem only more outlandish for their divergence from the actual timeline: associates of the Prophet and his regency can bring people back from the dead, invent death rays, and see into a future that seems like it’s only the timeline next door to our own, if skewed and incredibly pulpy. Sterling’s research also allows him to knock over multiple dominoes on his way through the story, building to a Futurist/fascist insurrection in the US, the painful end of newspaper editor Benito Mussolini, and numerous other butterfly effect changes that lead to Carnaro’s rise.
Sterling also imbues his world with a sense of humor that borders on parody, but never tips over the edge. The earlier vignettes have numerous slapstick touches, from a riot that ends in something resembling a Warner Brothers gag, to escalating gestures of revolutionary fervor that involve giving all one’s possessions away, to a protagonist whose obsession with explosions borders on a fetish. As the book takes a darker turn and the government descends further into state-sponsored corruption, the humor grows subtler and more biting, from the bizarre, over-designed uniforms everyone wears, to the way the two American agents refuse to get Secondari’s rank and title correct while trying to entice him to aid the US, or simply the fact that once Carnarans fully seize the means of their production, they fail to do anything useful with them, as the labor unions would rather be living lavishly than using the means of production to produce. Combined with a ton of historical in-jokes, the humor helps maintain a light pulp atmosphere without too much dissonance.
Looking for alternate timeline pulp that engages with history rather than using it for a backdrop to showcase magic and technology? This is the book for you. There’s something for everyone here, whether obscure history buffs or lover of dieselpunk, or just an aficionado of the truly weird and pulpy.