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 socialismto 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.