Bruce Sterling’s Robot Artists & Black Swans represents a fascinating concept. A set of science fiction stories told by a fictional Italian author from an Italian point of view. Coming from a classic master of cyberpunk, such a collection is bound to be of interest, and the variety of stories range from the near future sci-fi to fantasy in the distant past.
The first short piece is “Kill The Moon” a story in the style of an editorial. It perports to be by a disillusioned Italian who finds the fact his country would have anyone travel to the moon, much less the chosen individuals, completely wasteful and shaming.
The references to reality TV, Eurovision, and many other stunts bring the work home from the point of view of European pop culture. The reflection of society wanting a cultural respect while complaining about frivoloties even when combined with impressive feats, makes this appetizer interesting.
“The Pilgrims of the Round World” is starkly different, a tale of a family planning to set out from Turin towards a meeting with the Queen of Jeruselem, so that they might reunite with their son who serves her. It is by far the lo best piece in the book, and a historical fantasy of sorts instead of the sci-fi varieties more usual in Sterling’s work.
For much of this story there is nothing explicitly supernatural. Indeed, given the location, the repeated mentions of a shroud increasingly remind the reader that this story, like “Kill the Moon” is a comedy and a satire. Characters subverting expectation – their own, other characters, or occasionally the reader’s – is the norm. A figure deemed a liar is often the one telling the truth, and people’s grand illusions are quickly dashed.
Major historical figures are discussed and the nature of religion plays a key part in the tale. Indeed the devotion one of the leads still holds to a fallen antipope is proof enough of the difficult nature of old ideas, and the ridicule of any land between China and Europe most entertaining. The language and style used is excellent, allowing the reader a degree of kinship with people centuries removed from themselves while also making clear the ways in which their lives paralleled. It is an excellent combination, and while not everything about these people is sympathetic they are effective as storytelling tools because of it.
The wide variety in this collection is appropriate to a wide and varied culture. At the same time it is impressive from a creative point to view that Sterling imposed the conditions he did and still produced such myriad works.
Each story is given a nice frontispiece, an artistic flourish detailing something about the story, if only in the most general terms. John Coulthart proves his talent in each of them, to say nothing of the cover image. This art helps further unify a volume constructed based upon theme and locale.
Bruce Sterling always has his appeal, and Robot Artists & Black Swans represents some of his more clever use of limitation. Essentially creating its own sub-genre, for the sole purpose of existing within it: A strange, overly specific variation of Italian sci-fi, and one that most readers will find charming, authentic, and thought provoking. It is an easy book to recommend to anyone who enjoys Bruce Sterling; on top of that it represents a fascinating exercise in world building.