It is hard to know where to start with Robot Artists and Black Swans, a collection of Fantasienza short stories by influential science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. Sterling, along with writers like William Gibson (with whom he wrote the seminal steampunk book The Difference Engine) and Neale Stephenson (who has written a foreword for this work) is one of the founding fathers of the cyberpunk subgenre. At some point in time, according to Stephenson, Sterling “decamped” from his native Austin to Turin where he took on the pseudonym Bruno Argento and started to write Italian Fantasienza, some, if the references in the front of the book are to believed, in Italian. This is a collection of seven of those stories and if nothing else can be said about them, they definitely have a European flavour.
The stories range across the gamut of science fiction and fantasy. The two stories that give the book its title are probably the most substantial in that regard. Robot in Rose, the final tale, is set in the 22nd century and is the story of a robotic wheelchair that has become an artist and travels around the world making “natural” art. But it is actually a lengthy, often enjoyable, debate between the poet who is currently charged with following the device and a scientist who is intent on destroying it. Black Swan is an adventure into the multiverse, with a view of a range of alternative timelines.
The fantasy stories are intensely historical. Pilgrims of the Round World is set in Turin during the Crusades. There is not much fantastical here, with the possible exception of the appearance of the spirit of a dead saint, but it is an engaging historical tale about a couple of inn-keepers who have connections to power. The Parthenopean Scalpel, also historical but is a little more ambiguous about timeframe, is about an assassin and his relationship with a two headed muse.
While Sterling exercises a black sense of humour in these stories he saves his satirical eye for the ridiculous Italian’s in space story Kill the Moon and the equally obvious, although more developed, Italians in hell story Esoteric City.
As noted above, Robot Artists and Black Swans is a difficult book to categorise. Some might see it as a form of cultural appropriation but it appears that Sterling has fully immersed himself in his adopted culture. Taking on an Italian persona and writing in Italian, allows Sterling to move away from the standard American-style of narrative and take on a more European voice and approach to the subject matter. And while not all of the stories work as well as he would probably like, it is an experiment that is worth exploring.