Pirate Utopia

PrintBruce Sterling’s latest, Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) brings together several Sterling preoccupations: alternate histories, secret technologies, and liminal, out of the way places. This time the place is the city of Fiume (modern-day Rijeka, Croatia) at a complicated point in its history.

In September 1919, Italian irregulars led by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio marched into the city to prevent it from being handed over to Yugoslavia in postwar peace talks. A year later the Italian Regency of Carnaro, an anarchic, corporatist, proto-fascist state was proclaimed. It would prove short-lived: D’Annunzio refused to recognize the Treaty of Rapallo, which established Fiume as a Free State, and his regime was expelled by Italian forces in December 1920. Fiume itself would be formally annexed by Italy in 1924.

When reading alternate history that is set in the more obscure corners of the past (see also: two thirds of Howard Waldrop’s oeuvre), it can be tricky to separate the obscure from the fictional. How do you know what’s changed when the factual is unfamiliar and the counterfactual is, shall we say, subtle? Everything mentioned in the previous paragraph is historical fact. Sterling’s changes, apart from the off-screen elimination of certain world-historical figures, are subtle, suggesting a future in which Carnaro might survive long past its historical sell-by date.

Sterling’s version of Fiume is a polyglot ramshackle town that has attracted all manner of pirates, insurrectionists and scoundrels from across Europe, most of whom turn out to be real. (And some of whom are bizarrely unexpected.) A key figure, and the story’s protagonist, is one of the few fictional characters in Pirate Utopia: Lorenzo Secondari, the Pirate Engineer of Carnaro. Secondari reminds me of another of Sterling’s characters, one with the same initials: Leggy Starlitz, the hustler of the late 20th century who appears in three stories and the novel Zeitgeist (Bantam, 2000). For all intents, with his mechanical ability, unflagging luck and tenuous grip on existence, Secondari is Starlitz, who by the way also happened to find himself in the world’s liminal places (the third Starlitz story, “The Littlest Jackal,” is how I first heard of the Åland Islands).

Sterling’s purpose in Pirate Utopia is to shed some light on a key if overlooked piece of European history: when Futurist artists in Fiume began creating the theories and symbols that would later form the core of Italian Fascism. In Sterling’s version, Futurism goes off in a different direction and just at that point the story — if it can be called that — ends abruptly. In an interview included in Pirate Utopia, Sterling defends his decision to do so:

I decided to cut it off with that moment, because it makes a statement about the nature, the appeal, of fascism. How lofty and spiritual it is, and how people come to agree with it, like they get hypnotized by the inhumanity of it, and the scope of it. Fascism does have the appeal of science fiction in some ways.

All the same, Sterling’s aesthetic decision leaves us with only the first act of a story that would inevitably have taken Secondari away from Fiume to where his ideas would have had a much greater, and almost certainly more murderous, impact. We can see where the narrative is headed, so we don’t feel quite as cheated as we might: we can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Still, those reading for story will be somewhat disappointed, and the book, which includes an introduction and three afterwords, plus interior illustrations by John Coulthart, may come across as a bit padded out and just a little too impressed with itself. Pirate Utopia is, in the end, a rather odd artifact in book shape. Somehow that seems appropriate.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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What Can the Rest of Us Do?

Those of us outside the United States are in an awkward situation. We can’t do much about the present calamity because, no matter how much a Trump presidency would affect the rest of the world, the rest of us don’t get a vote.

Even voicing our opposition to the man can have consequences when that man is an aggressively thin-skinned narcissist. Outgoing NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who called Trump a fascist last spring, expects Justin Trudeau to stand up to him, but Mulcair’s demand, taken seriously, would be tantamount to national suicide. Oh yes, let’s by all means pick a fight we can’t win with the man who’s about to be the president of our largest trading partner, and who captured that position on a platform of nationalism and protectionism.

Is there anything we can do? There’s one thing I can think of: to do everything we can to mitigate the impact of a Trump administration on the rest of the world. First, to borrow a metaphor from the Internet, we need to treat him like damage and route around him.

For example, if the Trump administration intends to eliminate climate research by stripping NASA’s Earth Science Division of funding, then the ESA and other countries’ space agencies need to step up and fill that gap. If the U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement, then the rest of us have to reduce our environmental footprint just a little more. If Putin is counting on American dysfunction to give him a freer hand in the Baltic states, NATO may have to draw up plans that do not require U.S. participation. Global and international institutions, in other words, may have to prepare to get the job done in the absence of American support and in the face of American intransigence.

We also have to be prepared to relocate or replicate institutions that may be at risk from a Trump administration. Today, for example, the Internet Archive announced that it’s building a backup copy of its database in Canada, as a hedge against future U.S. restrictions. Other resources at risk may have to do the same: set up mirrors outside the U.S., or relocate entirely. In addition, any infrastructure, digital or otherwise, that routes through the U.S. may have to start planning to route around the country.

This goes for people, too. For many foreign nationals, the United States may no longer be a safe destination or place of residence (international students, for example, may start going elsewhere). To whatever extent there will be an exodus, or a shift in the destination of mobile workers, professionals and students, other countries will have to plan for it. And if things go completely black, Americans abroad may need help staying abroad on a more permanent basis, and we’ll have to start thinking about how to deal with Americans claiming refugee status.

Second, and more immediately and urgently, we have to prevent the contagion from spreading. There’s no far-right equivalent of Comintern — not formally, anyway — but it’s clear that there is a rising tide of nativist, nationalist, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant sentiment around the world that is being exploited and egged on by a bunch of feckless, insecure, macho authoritarians, all of whom seem awfully keen on Russia and Putin for some reason. They admire and talk to one another. They’ve won some successes — in central Europe, in the Philippines and in Turkey — and now the U.S. has fallen under their shadow.

For the moment, Canada, Scotland and Germany are among the very few islands in this storm, but that could change if we’re not careful. We need to defeat these movements in our own countries, roll them back, stop them before they take control, or de-elect them if they’re in power. This is an infection, and it’s pandemic: opposing these bastards is a matter of global public health.

In practice this means working like hell in each of our countries, doing what we can to ensure the defeat at the polls of our own private Trumps. In Canada, that means preventing someone like Kellie Leitch or Steven Blaney — or any other tribune of nativism — from acceding to the leadership of any major party. In Germany, that means defeating the AfD; in France, the Front national; in Austria, the FPÖ, whose presidential candidate Norbert Hofer is in a too-tight race with Alexander Van der Bellen — the revote takes place next Sunday (the vote is being rerun due to election irregularities). We need, each of us, in each of our countries, to draw a line in the sand and say: not here, not in my country. We need to make sure Trump is the last of his ilk to get elected. We already know who they are. We already know who we need to stop.

Bridging Infinity

bridging-infinityMost hard science fiction isn’t about science at all. Instead it’s really engineering fiction, concerned with building, creating and problem-solving, rather than pure science. To be sure, the two disciplines get blurred in the popular mindset: Heinlein, the field’s patron saint, was an engineer rather than a scientist; so too is one of the most prominent defenders and promoters of science in American popular culture, Bill Nye. Rocket science is as much engineering — materials science, propulsion — as it is physics, and many of the Giant Objects of hard science fiction, such as Dyson Spheres and Larry Niven’s Ringworld, are essentially engineering challenges in novel form (Niven himself described the Ringworld as a suspension bridge without endpoints). And let’s be honest: the holy text of hard sf, Analog, often reads as comfort fiction for engineers, a kind of escapism that reassures the reader that all problems, no matter how big or intractable, can be solved.

I’m probably being more than a bit unfair. Not every hard sf story requires a problem-solving engineer as its protagonist. Certainly that’s not the case with Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies, the fifth and most recent iteration of which, Bridging Infinity (Solaris, November 2016) is all about that hard sf tradition of engineered solutions to future problems. As Strahan writes in the introduction,

Science fiction, or at least the sort of science fiction that was typical in American pulp magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s was founded on a belief that problems are solvable, and that those problems are solvable using technical or engineering solutions. When faced with a problem in a story in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, our engineering hero wouldn’t quail before the challenge, but would instead “science the shit out of it” (as Andy Weir so elegantly put it) and come up with an engineering solution to the problem. And sometime it would take a big solution, a Hoover Dam or maybe moving a planet or two.

While previous volumes of the Infinity Project focused on interstellar futures, or limited themselves to the Solar System, Bridging Infinity‘s stories are about or are set in engineering projects at large — sometimes very large — scales, and the problems they aim to solve. But — and this is important — setting is not story. The fifteen stories by eighteen authors (there are three collaborations) are a good mix of perspective, character and setting.

The characters are as often adventurers and troubadours (for the latter, see “The Mighty Slinger” by Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord) as they are engineers; the marginalized are as present as the managerial, and the problem they’re trying to solve is sometimes their own survival. The settings themselves are fairly diverse as well: they range from cities, ships and installations to massive geoengineering projects on Earth (engineered responses to climate change is a recurring topic) and Venus to Dyson-grade megastructures. Some of the settings are familiar — with “Parables of Infinity,” Robert Reed presents us with another of his Great Ship stories, and Allen Steele returns to the setting of his novel, Hex, with a story that addresses a design flaw in that novel’s setting, a “not-quite Dyson sphere composed of trillions of hexagons.” Others, like the gravity wave generator in Benford and Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants,” are utterly uncanny. And sometimes the scope of the story is as vast as the built environment: see, for example, the multigenerational viewpoints of “The Venus Generations” by Stephen Baxter or Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays.”

I’ve long been a fan of Strahan’s Infinity Project. The stories have been of high caliber — Strahan’s a great editor, one I nominate for a Hugo each year — and I’ve made a point of buying and reading each installment as it comes out. But while Bridging Infinity is a solid and diverting collection of stories — it does what it says on the tin — it’s possible that after five spins of the wheel the returns are beginning to diminish. I can’t point to any single story and say, this is utterly amazing, whereas I could do that with many of the stories in the first book, Engineering Infinity. In the end, my sense of wonder ought to have engaged more than it did.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Expatriate Voting Rights

At the moment, Canadians living outside the country for more than five years are no longer able to vote in Canadian elections. (This is actually a fairly common practice: plenty of countries have limits on expatriates voting — except, notably, the Americans, who also have to file tax returns from abroad.) The Hufffington Post is reporting that the federal government plans to change this, giving every Canadian abroad the right to vote by special ballot regardless of time spent outside the country.

Dale Smith is skeptical, pointing out that Canadians vote for members of Parliament, not governments: “[A]s an expat who has been out of the country — and in particular that riding — for more than five years, does it really make sense for you to continue to cast a ballot in said riding if you don’t actually live there?” Dale’s got a point. If we decide that Canadians should retain the right to vote no matter how long they spend outside the country, it doesn’t make sense that their votes should be applied to a constituency they might not have set foot in for decades.

There’s a solution to that, though I’m not sure Canada would go for it: overseas constituencies. More than a dozen countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, set aside a small number of constituencies for their overseas citizens. In practice they can be problematic: voter turnout for said seats is often tiny. Now there are 2.8 million Canadians abroad, more than live in the Atlantic provinces: what fraction of them will actually vote, and to what extent should that determine how many seats they get? (Do we want two dozen seats elected by a few hundred or few thousand voters each, for example?) The details would be messy. But I suspect that this is the only logical outcome for perpetual absentee voting rights.

Negative Campaigning and Simplicity

Shortly after the 2004 Canadian federal election, in which Paul Martin’s Liberals won a minority government after a negative campaign on all sides, I observed that negative campaigning was insufficient to win an election:

I’m of the opinion that negative campaigning does in fact work, but you can’t win an election on negativity alone. This was the mistake that both the Liberals and Conservatives made: they spent all their time explaining how terrible it would be to elect the other guys, without making the case for themselves. In a nutshell, they both ran terrible campaigns — the minority result is, I think, proof that neither side was persuasive on their own behalf.

Governments tend to get elected on positive messages — Chrétien in 1993 with da liddle red book, Clinton in 1992 — even if they’re combined with a strong negative message. “We can do better than that crap, and here’s how” is much better than “This is crap, and they’re all assholes” — which may well be true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case why someone should vote for you.

Earlier this year I suddenly remembered that I once wrote that, and worried that the Clinton campaign was about to make the same mistake. Yes, she had a detailed platform, and it was there for anyone who cared to look at it, but the key thrust of her campaign was that Trump was an awful human being who should not be president. You’d think that would be enough. They did. It should have been. But it isn’t, and it wasn’t. Remember: according to the exit polls, 12.6 percent of voters believed that Trump was untrustworthy and temperamentally unfit to be president, and still voted for him.

Paradoxically, for all the narcissistic rage and race-baiting and intolerance and thuggish behaviour, Trump at least made specific, clear promises that, while horrible or impossible, were easy to understand. His campaign was at least for something; ordinary people could point to him and say “at least he’s going to do something about all this.” Clinton was for a lot of things too. But her platform got lost in the weeds for a number of reasons, one of them being that it wasn’t simple or clear enough to cut through the other side’s Gish gallop. Her campaign didn’t keep it simple; Trump’s did. I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor.

Accidents on Autoroute 50

aut-50Last weekend there was a major accident on Autoroute 50 near Buckingham: a head-on collision left one woman dead; a man is being charged with impaired driving.

Most of Autoroute 50 is a two-lane expressway, which might need some explaining. It’s an undivided, two-lane highway built to freeway standards. Cars travel at freeway speeds (100 km/h in this case) but there’s only one lane of traffic in each direction (except for occasional passing lanes), separated by a double yellow line. It’s also literally half of a freeway: the overpasses are built to accommodate a full freeway, but only one of the two roadways is built; there’s space for the other roadway to be built later.

Seven people have been killed in accidents along the undivided stretch of Autoroute 50 since 2013, which is leading to calls to build that other half of the freeway. Having taken that stretch of highway more than once myself, I understand the problem: drivers go fast and tailgate you until the next passing lane. Freeway-style driving on a two-lane highway does not make for a relaxing drive.

But the old highway that Autoroute 50 bypasses, Route 148, isn’t completely safe either. In 2007 a 14-vehicle crash east of Masson-Angers killed one and injured six. Route 148 is twisty and scenic and passes through every town; Autoroute 50 is straight and has great sight lines. It’s not an inherently dangerous road — that is, until you put speeding and drunk drivers on it. If the traffic levels warrant twinning some of Autoroute 50, so be it, but I’m skeptical of solving behavioural problems with engineering. Twinning a highway might address head-on collisions, but it doesn’t make speeding or impaired driving go away.

Analog and Asimov’s Go Bimonthly

asimovs-analogAnalog and Asimov’s Science Fiction are switching to a bimonthly schedule as of January 2017. The magazines currently publish 10 issues a year, with two of those issues being double issues. The amount of fiction published won’t change, but publishing it in fewer issues ought to help with costs somewhat (postage, if nothing else).

Fun fact: back in the 1980s, both magazines were tetraweeklies — publishing 13 issues a year, one every four weeks.

‘The Embodiment of Everything She Purports to Run Against’

This is the third in a series of posts tracking statements made by or about Kellie Leitch, a member of Parliament and candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Leitch has advocated testing immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” and has welcomed Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.” I’m writing these posts because (a) this kind of extremism needs to be opposed at every stage and defeated at the earliest possible opportunity and (b) sunlight is the best disinfectant.

So:

Over the weekend Kellie Leitch bristled at criticism from fellow leadership candidate Michael Chong during a broadcast of CTV’s Question Period, saying “I am not a racist. I am not a person who’s out groping other individuals.” Well, all right then. As LBJ could tell you, having to issue that kind of denial is not good for your political career: most politicians don’t have to say that they’re not racists or gropers. Dale Smith cites this as an example of Leitch playing the victim card. Another example is the bizarre report of a break-in at her home — which turned out not to be an actual break-in, but an alarm going off. Regardless of whether the incident was real or serious, her campaign certainly seems to be torquing it.

Meanwhile, Chris Alexander, who joined Leitch in announcing the barbaric cultural practices hotline during the 2015 election and is now also a CPC leadership candidate, is slamming Leitch’s attempts to bring Trump-style politics north of the border. And Leitch’s policy is costing her some high-profile supporters: she’s lost retired senator Hugh Segal, Graham Fox (Joe Clark’s former chief of staff) and former Newfoundland and Labrador deputy premier Steve Kent, all of whom had previously endorsed her.

Leitch says she’s not concerned about racists supporting her campaign. (“It’s not for me to speak about other individuals.”) Wrong answer. The correct answer is “I don’t want their votes.” When bafflegab and obfuscation appear in the place of clear and unequivocal denunciation, it’s … very telling.

The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom warns that the forces that brought Trump and other right-wing populists to power need to be understood, and that we can’t assume that it can’t happen here in Canada. But is Leitch capable of becoming a Trump-like figure?

Not, it would seem, an authentic one. The CBC’s Robyn Urback notes that the former cabinet minister and surgeon “is the embodiment of everything she purports to run against” and is running “a completely inauthentic, deliberately provocative campaign.” And in the National Post, John Ivison notes that, no matter how much she tries to pick and choose from the Donald Trump playbook, “[t]he problem for Leitch is that she’s no Donald Trump. […] she lacks Trump’s populism, narcissism and conceit.”

Au-delà du gouffre

au-dela-du-gouffreYesterday was the publication day for Au-delà du gouffre (Le Belial’), a collection of Peter Watts’s short stories in French translation. My essay, “God and the Machines: The Short Fiction of Peter Watts,” translated into French by Erwann Perchoc, appears as an afterword.

This represents several milestones for me: it’s the first time something I’ve written has appeared in book form, the first time something I’ve published has been reprinted, and the first time something I’ve written has been translated into another language.

Au-delà du gouffre isn’t listed on Amazon.com at the moment: try Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.fr; it’ll be available through Amazon.ca in January.

Still waiting for my contributor’s copy, though, so I can’t yet feel weird about reading a translation of my words into a language I can read.