ROBOT ARTISTS & BLACK SWANS: THE ITALIAN FANTASCIENZA STORIES by Bruce Sterling (BOOK REVIEW)
“Ideas changed the world. Thoughts changed the world – and thoughts could be written down. I had forgotten that writing could have such urgency, that writing could matter to history, that literature might have consequence. Strangely, tragically, I’d forgotten that such things were even possible.”
“Turin, the Esoteric City, was saturated with magic both black and white. Every brick and baroque cornice in the city was shot through with the supernatural.”
Bruce Sterling’s new short story collection Robot Artists & Black Swans (2021), collects stories written as by Bruno Argento, Bruce Sterling’s alter ego who is an Italian writer of fantascienza stories living in Turin. This literary game, drawing on Italo Calvino’s split protagonist in The Cloven Viscount (1952), allows Sterling to write with detail and depth about his adopted Italian home, paying tribute to the Italian fantascienza scene whilst exploring the fractured future of a post-millennial Europe. The seven stories collected here show how this approach has reinvigorated Sterling’s writing. Playfully spanning a range of genres, modes and ideas, the Bruno Argento stories show one of the great science fictional minds at work, processing exciting new ideas in a novel context and reaching towards an increasingly uncertain future. The book includes wonderful illustrations by artist and graphic designer John Coulthart, who also designed the striking cover.
The stories in Robot Artists & Black Swans display a profound interest and immersion in Italian history and culture. ‘Pilgrims of the Round World’ is set in an old Turinese inn in the 1400s, and shows how Italy and Europe were enmeshed in a global network as far back as the Crusades. It is an impressive example of how the prism of domestic relationships can be used to create a portrait of an expanding world, taking in everything from Pope Felix the Fifth being declared the antipope to the mysticism of the Turin Shroud. ‘The Parthenopean Scalpel’ is set around a web of Carbonari conspiracies, and tells the tale of a political assassin and his ill-fated relationship with Siamese twin sisters. As with ‘Pilgrims of the Round World’, it is a curious mixture of history, myth and fantasy that uses its unique perspective to show us European history in a new light.
Other stories use this heightened slipstream aesthetic to look at present day or extend into near future Europe. ‘Esoteric City’ imagines Turin as a focal point of black and white magic, and presents us with a modern day Dantean trip to the Underworld. However Sterling’s vision of a Hell populated by automobile industrialists serves to question how outmoded classical visions of Hell are. After all, what self-respecting late capitalist industrialist would not be able to get one over the old devils of Hell? ‘Elephant on Table’ imagines the death of Italy’s last prime minister in a future where Europe is owned by AI-ran corporations. With its mixture of black humour and cynical extrapolation, the story is both wryly amusing and a disturbing reflection on how future trends of AI control and surveillance may shape the political landscape of the near future.
However the two most striking and unsettling stories are the ones which give the collection its name. ‘Black Swan’ echoes both Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s ‘Mozart In Mirrorshades’ (1985) from Sterling’s original cyberpunk-defining Mirrorshades anthology, and William Gibson’s recent The Peripheral (2014), but takes the original concept of “third worlding” alternate timelines in strange new directions. Drawing on Italo Calvino’s unfinished (in our timeline) Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), and playing out a complex plot involving a botched assassination of Nicholas Sarkozy, the story is a tribute to the power of writing and thought to change the world. Calvino himself is the story’s black swan, the historical event that changes everything that’s simply impossible to predict. Whereas the protagonists of ‘Mozart In Mirrorshades’ are from the alternate reality that is exploiting other timelines, Luca in ‘Black Swan’ is a tech journalist from our universe, which is one of the alternate timelines created and exploited by those in the other universes. This shift in perspective between the two stories highlights the extent to which we no longer feel in control of the course of history, the nagging sense that we have taken a wrong turning somewhere.
The story ‘Robot In Roses’ closes the collection, and features the eponymous robot artist. The Winkler is a robot in the shape of a wheelchair that roams the world creating unique works of art. The story follows Wolfgang Stein, a member of a group of top scholars dedicated to trying to understand the Winkler and what an artificial intelligence creating art means for humanity. Much of the story is dialogue between him and Dr Jetta Kriehn, a scientist who sees the Winkler as a dangerous fraud. Informed by up to date ideas around artificial intelligence and recent debates around the subject, the story is a fascinating look at artificial intelligence and what its emergence means for humanity, made all the more powerful and disconcerting by its strong basis in modern AI theory. Both ‘Robot In Roses’ and ‘Black Swan’ are powerful examples of Sterling at his best, and are reason enough on their own to make the collection essential reading.
Robot Artists & Black Swans sees Sterling in fine form, the games he plays with his Argento persona allowing him to explore ideas at the cutting edge of tech and European politics. As a record of the terrain one of science fiction’s keenest minds is currently exploring, it offers both inspiration and excitement for where he might go with this in the future. The stories themselves are strong examples of Sterling’s writing, spanning across the range of cyberpunk, slipstream and beyond that he has made his natural territory. Long may Bruce Sterling and Bruno Argento continue to wrestle.