Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling has long been regarded as one of the principal architects of the cyberpunk genre. But for years, he’s also been writing Italian fantascienza — “fantasy science” stories — under the name Bruno Argento. Now, English-reading sci-fi fans in America will have an opportunity to enjoy Bruno’s stories with the new anthology Robot Artists & Black Swans: The Italian Dantascienza Stories (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview about it, Argento — I mean Sterling discusses this anthology as well as his alter-ego.
I’d like to start with a little background. What does “fantascienza” mean?
It’s a “portmanteau word” that crams two meanings into one noun. It means “fantasy science” and it was created by an Italian paperback editor named Giorgio Monicelli, who needed a good catchy hook to make the concept of “science fiction” catch on with an Italian mass audience in the 1950s.
And am I wrong in thinking “Italian fantascienza” is somewhat redundant?
Well, the Spanish write “ciencia ficcion” while the Poles write “fantastyka naukowa,” but the truth is that, eventually, you will get a cadre of fantastic writers in any language who will congregate around the same editors, publishers, critics, and regional fan scenes. Once they all know and read each other, they will come up with a regional sensibility.
They even back-project, and invent their own spiritual ancestors, so Italian fantascienza writers know all about Emilio Salgari, an adventure writer who was a contemporary of Jules Verne.
Interesting. Anyway, Robot Artists & Black Swans is a collection of your Italian fantascienza stories. First off, does it have all of them?
I can’t seem to stop writing fantascienza, so no, it doesn’t have all of my fantascienza stories. The novella Pirate Utopia, is too big to fit in, there are fugitive Argento stories called “The Task Lamp” and “The Ancient Engineer” that aren’t included… I’m not running out of ideas for inventive work set in Italy, so I hope to write even more.
Does that mean there will be a second volume of these short stories?
I’ve been threatening to finish my fantascienza novel. This novel seems to be more of an epic trilogy. This is Bruno Argento’s first novel, and first novelists often have that problem: they can’t seem to shut up and ship it.
Bruno Argento being the name you used when you published these stories. Aside from hoping you’d be invited to Dario Argento’s birthday parties, why did you decide to publish these stories as Bruno Argento and not under your own name?
Bruno Argento is an open pen-name. And, yes, the horror film director Dario Argento is also from Turin, but Argento means “Silver,” meaning “Sterling.” Sometimes I do publish work under Bruno’s name, but everybody in Italian fantascienza knows it’s me anyway, they all get the joke.
There’s a tradition of Italian writers using English pen-names to write and publish Italian “science fiction.” Giorgio Monicelli used to pose as “Tom Arno,” because an American pseudonym sounded more high-tech and space-age back in the 1960s.
A lot of American science fiction has flowed into Italy, but for an American science fiction writer himself to flow into Italy, that’s a different chess gambit, as my friend Dario Tonani rightly points out in his afterword.
Still, the only guy really fooled by this Argento stunting seems to be me. When I type Bruno Argento’s name into the by-line, I start writing things that surprise me. It’s like I become a two-headed monster whose other head is the nation of Italy.
Are there any stories in Robot Artists & Black Swans where, before you published them, you debated whether to put it out as Bruce or Bruno?
No, I’ve pretty well got that one figured out by page one. I’ve yet to have an any multiple-personality mental breakdown, but I suppose that’s possible.
I’ve spent most of the 21st century as a global nomad, so these multi-culti, postmodern hijinks of mine are pretty true to my life. When I read “Bruno Argento,” I can see my own lived experience emerging there. Literary pseudonyms are a long and honored tradition because they’re masks that allow the writer to tell the truth. “Mark Twain” is the authentic Samuel Clemens, even though Mark’s name is a pun, and it’s a joke any steamboat captain would laugh at.
So, is this the first time these stories have been published in the U.S. or in English?
In these days of electronic publishing, it’s flat-out impossible to tell. I thought everybody who cared had already seen my story “Black Swan,” because it was in some best-of-the-year collections a decade ago, but its effect seems more novel and shocking than newer stories of mine. Some stories were commissioned by Italian editors, and published only in the Italian language in Italy, but they’re no more or less exotic than the other ones — they’re all the work of Bruno.
Also, one Italian story written by a Texan is just a novelty, but a whole passel of Italian stories from a Texan seems like a mission-statement. When you can pick that up as a cultural artifact, and hold it in your hand, it feels odd, like “Why is such a book even possible? Why does our world allow this nowadays?”
So are there any writers who were an influence on any of the stories in Robot Artists & Black Swans, but are not someone you’d consider an influence on your styles as whole?
Italo Calvino is all over that “Black Swan” effort. He’s even a character in the story.
There’s a living and active group of influential fantascienza writers, mostly working in Rome, called the “Connectivists.” I’m on good terms with the Connettivismo movement, so I like to think of Bruno Argento as a fringe Connectivist from Turin. I use many of their favorite themes in “Robot in Roses,” which is partly set in Rome.
How about non-literary influences; were any of the stories in Robot Artists & Black Swans influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
I’m not much of a cinema guy, most of the time, but in Trieste they have the “Trieste Science + Fiction” SF film festival every year, and I’m a regular attendee. I’ve even been a judge there. The long novella Pirate Utopia, which is not in Black Swans & Robot Artists, has a lot of Italian silent-film references.
I’ve been helping out some Milanese game developers with an unpublished game called “Cyberdeck.” I’ve been known to consult with gaming outfits, it’s fun to go and mix it up with them.
What I like best, though, is electronic art, digital art, network art, and interactive device art. There’s a lot of that in Italy and I’m quite involved.
So do any of the stories in Robot Artists & Black Swans have any narrative connections to any of your novels?
Well, I’ve got this elaborate novel in the works, and let’s just say that it’s plenty connected.
Art Credit: John Coulthart
Now, along with the short stories, Robot Artists & Black Swans also features illustrations by John Coulthart. Why did you want to have illustrations in this collection, and once you decided to include them, why did you pick John to do them?
That’s the publisher’s job, but those John Coulthart interventions in “Pirate Utopia” were really insightful. Those were some genuine “illustrations.” They illuminated the text and produced a kind of “gesamtkunstwerk” that was more than the sum of the parts.
So I’m grateful for his artistic efforts. If the pandemic kills me and Robot Artists & Black Swans with the Coulthart illustrations is the last book of my mortal lifetime, I’ll be going out on a high note.
I’m sincere about that, too, since I’m in Turin at the moment and the neighbors are dropping like flies from Covid-19. There are pop-up emergency hospitals in some of my favorite places in town.
Robot Artists & Black Swans also has an introduction by Neal Stephenson. Was this your decision? If so, why did you want Neal to do it?
Well, Neal gets it about baroque historical fiction. The first time I was sitting around a table with Neal, we had a long talk about Gibbons and “The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire.” We don’t meet as often as I’d like, but he’s a good guy to introduce a work of this kind because he understands the genre’s means, motives and opportunities. Neal is more than just with-it, he’s ahead-of-it — you never have to hold his hand about it.
It’s been my experience that short stories are a good way to get to know a writer. But given that Robot Artists & Black Swans is full of your Italian fantascienza stories, do you think it works as a good introduction to your writings as Bruce Sterling?
Well, no. It’s not a good introduction at all, it’s more of a peculiar, off-the-wall tour-de-force. But I’ve been at it for decades, so it’s kind of dumb of me to ask for any introduction. If anything, at this point I should be asking people for a pardon. “I blame cyberpunk science fiction! The high-tech dystopia that you’re living, it’s all my fault!”
So then which of the short story collections you’ve put out under your own name do you think serves as a better introduction to your writings under your own name?
That book would be Ascendancies: The Best Of Bruce Sterling, which assumes by its very title that I’m washed up and will never write anything better, but it’s got some heavy-duty, nuclear-core Bruce Sterling material. Ascendancies doesn’t have some of the particularly manic and astral stuff that I myself like, but writers are never their own best critics. If you’re a young science fiction writer and you think “I wonder what this Bruce Sterling guy was about? I bet I could dust off some of that and do it better!” then Ascendancies is the book for you.
Finally, if reading Robot Artists & Black Swans turns someone into a big fan of fantascienza stories, what fantascienza book of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I read fantascienza myself, but there’s not really a five-foot-shelf of English-language translated fantascienza. The proper response is something like, “Go read Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the science fiction of Primo Levi,” but that stuff’s too highbrow and toney — that’s like the “ready for export” stuff, and that doesn’t capture what fantascienza does in Italy for Italians. Real Italian fantascienza is an authentic expression of Italian culture, which is brainy, nerdy, gutsy and pulp, it’s far-out but down-home, and raw but civilized. I would not proclaim that it’s the best fantasy writing ever created in the world, but it encourages and motivates me. It’s good to see that my genre can put down authentic, long-lasting roots, and flower in Italian society. It’s a sign that the genre is not just a fan-scene or a publishing category, but a form of expression that can aspire to universality, and, here and there, now and then, it can even achieve that.