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Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling. Book Review

November 13, 2016

pirate-utopia

The tiny state of Fuime, like the rest of Europe, is still reeling from the Great War. Veterans of this world-shattering conflict begin to cross its borders seeking a new way of life. Before long Fuime finds itself at the centre of political attention and possibly about to take its place as a powerful player on the world stage.

Fuime was a real country in the Balkans (now modern Rijeka) which had a brief bout as an independent Italian free state between 1920 and 1924 as it attempted to become a major political driving force (something Bruce Sterling documents at the back of the main story). This is a concept Sterling runs with, throwing in the occasional real character, as well as changing history with a few inventive strokes of the keyboard.

The result is that Pirate Utopia is a rollicking, full-bodied, intelligent satire of a country that might have been a world player, had not events conspired against it in real life.

The characters are introduced in the style of a play and the whole book feels like an immense and richly dressed piece of theatre. Certainly if this novel were staged, the actors would ply their craft by making bold and extravagant gestures, enunciating their words excruciatingly carefully so they could be sure the audience at the back of the theatre would hear every word. This means the narrative takes on a wonderfully overblown feel and the interactions of the characters are hysterically over the top.

But there is a very unsettling undertone to this seeming pantomime. This was a period in history which probably saw one of the greatest shifts in people’s thinking, forcing many to move outside the type of constraints placed on individuals by the society of the previous century. Governments and the aristocracy were being challenged. The world was in flux.

With his style of narrative and the story itself, Sterling has really managed to capture this sense of frenzy as the characters search for the truth, gathering ideas like pebbles on a beach which they pile up to fortify their political microcosm while they create their vision of a new and improved world. It is a world which undergoes more than one uncomfortable transition, leaving some citizens on the sharp end of a great deal of unpleasantness as the political climate shifts leaving them high and dry.

The writing on its own rattles along splendidly, but complemented by John Coulthart’s incredible propaganda-style artistic renditions, Pirate Utopia takes on the air of a manifesto which would have been bought by the inhabitants of the nearly-real Fuime and clasped close to their chest in reverence.

Alternative history of places that are still relatively recent, particularly ones situated in such politically volatile locations can be hard to pull off, but Sterling’s over the top writing and characters mesh brilliantly with what actually happened to Fuime just after the First World War.

Given the recent political events, there is plenty here to make a reader laugh, while at the same time feel very unsettled, as Pirate Utopia picks its outrageous way through Fuime’s alternate history.

Pirate Utopia was courtesy of Tachyon Publications via NetGalley

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