Bruce Sterling’s Italian Fantascienza Stories – Locus Online
Robot artists and black swans: the Italian stories of Fantascienza, Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications, 978-1616963293, $ 25.95, 250 pages, hc) March 2021. Cover by John Coulthart.
Few American sci-fi writers are as good at conjuring up the vibe of parts of the world outside of the United States as novelist-futurist-journalist Bruce Sterling – it’s something he had been working on for as far as Sacred fire (1996), and it has become a notable feature of the stories of A bright old-fashioned future (1999) and High-Tech Gothic (2011) and the novel Eurotrash-hipster-caper Zeitgeist (2000). For a while, Sterling was a more or less itinerant expatriate, living in various parts of Europe, especially Turin, and eventually invented “Bruno Argento”, an Italian alter ego and pseudonym (or maybe I should write pseudonym) which, over the last decade or so, has produced examples of fantasy, as Italians call science fiction.
High-Tech Gothic and Pirate utopia (2016) presented some of this work, and now there is a new collection, Robot artists and black swans, which brings together seven fantascienza pieces in a brilliantly executed volume with many literary and decorative extras: a preface by “Bruno Argento” himself, an introduction by Neal Stephenson, an afterword by the Italian SF writer Dario Tonani and interior illustrations by cover artist John Coulthart.
The stories merge Sterling’s familiar cyberpunkish sci-fi with Continental lore, from 19th-century Gothic and fantastika to 20th-century postmodern fabulists. It’s also interesting how many stories are built around debates or conversations. The short introductory piece, “Kill the Moon”, is an uninhibited monologue that sets up one of the themes of the volume: flair and style – the Italianity – Italian culture. In 2061, the narrator complains, the world “thinks space travel is old fashioned and adorable” and that its nation’s moon landing is “an empty-headed lark”. Nonetheless, everyone admires the Italian space program “in the same way they admire our unique penchant for grappa, baroque architecture and union demonstrations” as a charming anachronism.
The most common pattern is to unroll a thin thread of intrigue along which encounters, conversations, arguments, statements, and manifestos follow, all at the forefront of the narrative and the character’s voice. Even the most complicit tales – the “black swan”, the pact with the devil “Esoteric City” and the Euro-futurist “Robot and roses” – are punctuated with conversations, arguments and comments. as the characters move towards their designated ends. I still hear echoes of Texas hipster accent and attitudes /Wired correspondent who produced The crackdown on pirates years ago: an avant-garde-jazzy, playful and ironic and connoisseur train. But in these stories it turns into something more ‘literary’, more academic, often with a sense of translation into English that still manages to be useful to the jive of any past or future period or alternate history that is portrayed. .
Some of the stories carry the ideas and observations expected from Sterling-the-futurist; “Black Swan” projects a range of possible futures where its hack-journalist narrator could have been a genius inventor and “computer aesthetic guru”, or the President of France could be a rogue international criminal, or Italo Calvino could have could have been a great physicist who invented a better Internet (because Italian). “Elephant on the Table” offers a satirical picture of a world dominated by AI-driven “big data market capitalism” that produces a transparent society where invisibility is neither expected nor particularly desired – except by the Chief, a former senile centenarian. politician whose Shadow House, under surveillance, is “the state of the art in matters of confidentiality and reputation management”.
In “Robot in Roses”, two representatives of rival 22nd century cultural factions engage in an ongoing debate on art and science in which both sides appear as caricatures, pouring out arguments over their epistemologies and visions of the world. respective worlds as they pursue the Winkler, a freed robot wheelchair that may or may not represent a “Third Order of Being”: neither alive nor sentient, but capable in one way or another of surprising constructions and artistic. Wolfgang wants to publish a critical and aesthetic understanding of the Winkler; Junior post-human scientist Jetta, also a careerist, wants to demystify and destroy him. The framework of their arguments is the Italy of the Anthropocene Age, the result of ecological upheavals and technological miracles.
Italy had become a vast botanical lesson in eco-globalization. Large cosmopolitan jungles have flourished in the peninsula, amazing thickets of locust trees, ailanthus, kudzu and bamboo…. These new masters of the Anthropocene world, survivors of the great extinctions, were mostly invasive species: the upstart squatters of the plant kingdom.
Meanwhile, in cities like urban Verona and ancient and battered Rome, ancient social models persist, reinforced – or ignored – by global high technology.
When those same keen eyes turn to the past, the results point to the territory of Neal Stephenson’s baroque cycle: historical reimaginations with a postmodern twist. In “Pilgrims of the Round World”, the planned retreat (via a pilgrimage) of 15th century innkeepers Ugo and Agnès is interrupted by a parade of unexpected visitors, distant relatives, aristocratic refugees and other intruders. Not that the couple has ever lacked a large and varied company. On their last night as hosts, guests include:
a wandering Jew, an Arab astrologer, a German printer and a battle-scarred Serbian Ottoman… a Portuguese slave trader, a Vaudois heretic, an Alpine brigand and the lady of a Turin brothel.
Among others. But then it’s Turin, a crossroads for travelers from the Alps to Constantinople, and Ugo and Agnes are socially flexible enough to hang out with just about anyone from anywhere. The various interruptions and changes in their travel plans make up the story of one thing after another, which in turn provides opportunities for conversations about dynastic politics, international trade, the household maintenance of high-born people. , the provenance of the Shroud of Turin (and the role of the young da Vinci in its production), the patronage of popes and anti-popes, and Jesus’ own hand-written travel diary (guaranteed authentic). Everything, it seems, is up to date in 15th-century Turin.
“The Parthenopean Scalpel” is the memoir of a Carbonari assassin on the run after a botched murder (good victim, bad means and agent), hiding in Tuscany and fearing that he could not enter the action in Milan, where The Anti-Austrian Revolution of 1848 is in full swing. But political intrigue and violence are at the root of the narrator’s reflections on his high standards of professional conduct, his philosophical reflections, and ultimately his passion for the reclusive and very strange sister (or sisters) of his host and protector. What starts off as an intellectualized proto-plot thriller ends in Gothic territory even before a strange Austrian agent shows up to end the drama and push it all the way to fantasy.
“Esoteric City” offers another flavor of Gothic, as auto company mogul (and occult master) Occhietti is summoned for a reunion with his infernal bosses in the Turin branch of hell, guided not by Virgil but by the 3,000 – one-year-old mother of an Egyptian priest who regrets that she simply died (her heart is not there – as it is stored in a jar at the local museum). The task entrusted to Occhietti is even worse than visiting hell: he must make an appointment with Satan himself, who turns out to be quite the model of the “modern post-industrialist”, a fan of the Greens who says that everyone “ticks each box on the list of things to do for sustainable development” and recommends memorizing:
the three main components of the four systemic conditions of the natural stage. And, of course, the ten guiding principles for living on a planet. I hope you have read the three forms of solidarity of the World Wide Fund for Nature?
Even more enumerated and all-capitalized lists follow before Occhietti stops to conduct his dreaded interview, which, as you might expect, does not go as planned.
I postponed reading Stephenson’s introduction and Tonani’s postscript until I have a solid draft of this review. Just as well, since their comments are so about the money that I might have been tempted to just copy and paste them here. Like Coulthart’s striking black and white illustrations, they provide an enlightening context for a set of stories that show how Sterling’s imagination and craftsmanship can extend across geographies, stories, rhetoric. and genres.
Russell Letson, editor, is a not quite retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He’s been hanging out in the sci-fi world since he was a kid and has been writing about it since his graduate days. In the meantime, he has published a good deal of journalism on business technology and music. He’s still working on a book on the Hawaiian soft-key guitar.
This review and more in the May 2021 issue of Location.
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