Book Review: “Pirate Utopia” by Bruce Sterling

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Sterling’s latest work is a historical fantasy, set in post WWI Balkans. He riffs on political and cultural ferment in Italy and the Balkans, a time which saw the Bolshevik revolution and Russian civil war, the end of the Austrian and German empires, chaotic civil unrest throughout Europe, and the rise of Fascism.

The story builds off a short-lived “pirate enclave” that (in our timeline) existed in Rijeka (Fiume) on the Adriatic. The brief but exciting interwar experiment attracted all kinds of romantics  rebels, and writers, and geminated the beginnings of Italian Fascism.

Sterling’s alternative history plays with the exotic cast of characters, and tells of a more lasting polity, full of Anarcho syndicalists, Futurists, and a proto-Fascist revolutionary regime. The book is a collection of short stories written in a bombastic “futurist” style, and lavishly illustrated with “futurist” inspired graphical elements.

Overall, the stories make little sense, and the people are mostly repulsive. Their rhetoric is obnoxious, and their personal character horrid. The futurist typography and graphics aren’t especially attractive, either.

The book includes some back matter, including an interview with the author. These materials give us some useful information, without which it is hard to understand the stories at all. But it doesn’t really make up for the lack of substance to the stories, or for the irritating style.

Sterling may have had some lucky timing in the US, what with the sudden ascendance of our new egotistical strongman. In America, Futurism is in the air, cleansing the world of the old lily-livered, soft-hearted “civilization”.

Unfortunately, I myself am not really in a mood right now for historical fantasies about “heroic” fascists.

  1. Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia, San Francisco, Tachyon Publications, 2016.


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