Author Bruce Sterling is best known for his futuristic science fiction, but he’s equally comfortable writing about the past. His new novella Pirate Utopia is an alternate history set just after World War I, and takes place in the real-life city of Fiume (now Rijeka), which experienced a brief period as an independent state run by artists and revolutionaries.
“Believe me, what went on in the Fiume enterprise was truly one of the weirdest things that happened in the 20th century,” Sterling says in Episode 238 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s really, really a strange business.”
Fiume served as a breeding ground for radical ideas, everything from socialism to anarcho-syndicalism to fascism. Sterling says it’s hard for many people to understand the allure of fascism, but that it makes more sense when you look at it sort of like a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster that overwhelms your brain with its dazzling special effects.
“There’s a kind of rhetorical trick that goes on in science fiction, and in fascism, that kind of says, ‘Don’t really worry about what this means for the guy next door,’” Sterling says. “That it’s so cool and amazing that you should just surrender yourself to the rapture of its fantastic-ness.”
As an example he cites the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which astronaut David Bowman is transformed into a superhuman entity called the Star Child. Sterling says the image is so striking and awe-inspiring that few viewers ever think to ponder the potential downsides of the Star Child.
“It’s not like anybody voted on the space baby,” he says. “It’s not like an ethics commission wrote on the space baby. It’s not like anybody says, ‘What if the space baby turns out to be cruel to certain ethnic minorities?’”
Sterling believes that it’s important to retain your ability to be moved and inspired, but equally important to be selective about the images and ideas that you choose to invest in.
“If you don’t have a sense of wonder it’s like you’re dead inside,” he says. “But your sense of wonder can be used to trick you. You can have a sense of wonder over a thing that’s basically a conjurer’s trick, or a con job, or a rip-off.”
Listen to our complete interview with Bruce Sterling in Episode 238 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Bruce Sterling on the allure of fascism:
“If you’re under fascist occupation, there’s very little question that you’re suffering a lot and that they’re really bad. Even though they’ll propagandize you and so forth, their contempt for you—their racial contempt for you and their cultural contempt for you—is so overwhelming that you never believe that. But if you’re inside the fascist tent, it’s all about patriotism, and the allure of self-sacrifice, and how we’re bringing civilization to other people, and we’re resolving age-old conflicts in our own society by uniting around our great leader, the Duce or the Führer, and it’s actually exciting, it’s thrilling. You go out into the square and there’s like a hundred thousand people all around you, they’re shouting for the same thing, they’re making the same arm gestures. There’s tremendous light shows, fantastic music. The women are excited, even the five-year-old child thinks it’s great, your grandparents are overwhelmed by the pageantry. You really feel like your civilization has gotten up on its feet and achieved something fantastic.”
Bruce Sterling on historical figures in Pirate Utopia:
“There’s a lot of documentary evidence about Houdini’s involvement with American espionage, and they had good reason to hang out with him. I mean, he was a useful guy to know. And Houdini actually hired Lovecraft on occasion to do some ghostwriting for him. Houdini was carrying out a war against spiritualists and these superstitious table-knocker people who were trying to raise spirits, and Lovecraft also despised that kind of stuff. So the two of them actually had rather a lot to talk about, and besides, Lovecraft was so broke that he was willing to work cheap. So yeah, Houdini and Lovecraft knew each other historically, and they even had things in common. To throw Robert E. Howard in there as a teenager is a bit of a stretch, but Lovecraft knew a lot of teenage science fiction fans, and he certainly knew Robert E. Howard.”
Bruce Sterling on dystopias:
“The idea of dystopia paying the bills is a super-alien idea for a guy who grew up reading commercial sci-fi in the 1960s and 1970s, because if you wrote a dystopia in that period you had to really go beat the knuckles of Ace Books or Ballantine Books or the other major sci-fi publishers of the period to get them to print a book with a downbeat ending. It’s just not something you would do at all. But dystopia actually sells pretty well now, though it doesn’t sell anywhere near as well as just complete fantasy. Teenage vampire books or Harry Potter books or Game of Thrones or epic, game-able fantasies are what really sell. [Dystopias] sell kind of OK, but they’re not the major imaginative sub-genre of our era. But I think Chris [Brown] is right in that optimism sells even less. I mean if you try to write a sci-fi anthology or something which says, ‘Boy, it’s 2017 and things are going great, let’s lift our chin up.’ There’s just such an obvious phoniness about that whole idea, nobody believes it.”
Bruce Sterling on cyberpunk:
“People were very kind to us cyberpunks, critically speaking. We’ve always been critics’ darlings, compared to the hell that New Wave writers of the 1960s went through, who were pretty rigorously condemned by the status quo. … On the contrary, people in the 1980s—and even late 1970s—were really happy and pleased to see a generation of science fiction writers come up who wanted to talk about computers. Nobody was cruel to us. I don’t even get flamed by people on Twitter, which is kind of weird. We had a few quarrels with people as cyberpunks, there were debates, but by the standards of literary quarrels we had a very friendly reception, and we really don’t have any enemies. It’s hard to find somebody in science fiction who doesn’t admire William Gibson. There’s no organized anti-William Gibson sensibility. On the contrary, you either sort of like him or you really, really like him.”