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Robot Artists and Black Swans

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I like Bruce Sterling essays but not his fiction. This is a book of short stories written in a magical realism style and set in some sort of Italy. Definitely not for me. I received this book from NetGalley and also from an online review site I write for. When I told the manager of the second source that I wasn't able to finish, she said I was the only one or her reviewers who offered to try it.
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I have been a fan of Bruce Sterling's work since his first novel, Involution Ocean, was part of The Harlan Ellison Discovery Series (#4) and I've read nearly all his published fiction (and much of his published non-fiction) since then.  This collection of short stories is possibly my least favorite of his works.
As the book's subtitle indicates, these stories are connected by location and culture. These are "The Italian Fantascienza Stories." But what is confusing here is that author Bruce Sterling takes on a different (Italian) persona and writes as Bruno Argento - who is also a character.

My biggest disappointment is that the stories are so deeply intertwined with Italy that I feel like an absolute outsider. This is not my background or heritage, and that should be okay - I like learning about other cultures - but this is really Sterling's (or Argento's) love affair and I'm invited only to be an observer, not a participant.

The one story that I enjoyed was the final story, "Robot in Roses," in which a robotic wheelchair making art offers up a lot of philosophical contemplation.

Overall, though, for me as a Bruce Sterling fan, I was highly disappointed.

This book contains the following:

Introduction by Neal Stephenson
"Storia, Futurità, Fantasia, Scienza, Torino" by Bruno Argento
"Kill the Moon"
"Black Swan"
"Elephant on Table"
"Pilgrims of the Round World"
"The Parthenopean Scalpel"
"Esoteric City"
"Robot in Roses"
Afterword: "Bruce Sterling, Erudite Dreamer and Pirate" by Dario Tonani
Looking for a good book? Bruce Sterling's collection, Robot Artists and Black Swans, is a series of Italian themed fantasy/science fiction stories that are mostly forgettable.

I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Published in an illustrated edition by Tachyon Publications on April 27, 2021

Seven Bruce Sterling stories are collected in Robot Artists and Black Swans. I liked a couple of them, was amused by a couple more, and didn’t understand the rest. That’s consistent with my experience of Sterling’s work.

A forward explains that these stories of “fantascienza” are written by Bruno Argento, a Turinese writer whose pen name is Bruce Sterling. The stories are linked by their connection to Italy. Neal Stephenson contributes an introduction that extols the virtues of cyberpunk, which some of these stories might be.

The robot artist in the collection’s title is a wheelchair that once belonged to a Japanese artist. Now it roams around the world, making art in various ways, assembling “mosaics of pebbles” or weaving “great lattices from twigs and dry grass, creations like fantastic bird’s nests.”  The wheelchair is followed by Ghost Club intellectuals who document its creations for the appreciation of the Beau Monde. Its current follower is Wolfgang, who defends it from those who view science as being at war with the humanities. Wolfgang is convinced that the wheelchair is producing important art, but he is struggling to find a “clear line of critical attack” to explain to the world exactly why the wheelchair must be valued. He likens the robot artist to beautiful cities like Verona, “authentic entities, growing from landscapes,” loved for their beauty despite (like the robot artist) not being alive or intelligent. A scientist who accuses Wolfgang of belonging to a cult wonders why he would “walk the Earth making up weird artsy bullshit about a cheap parlor trick,” prompting the retort that science is “notoriously useless for seeking metaphysical truth or establishing ethical values.” Both arguments have merit. The story dramatizes culture wars, asks whether there might be artistry in computer code, ponders the role of art, science, and critics in life, considers whether there is a “third state of being,” and asks whether art can be good if we don’t understand it. Add a post-anthropologist who considers herself to be superhuman and you’ve got quite a story. While it sometimes drags in its exploration of plot tangents, “Robot in Roses” showcases Sterling’s far-ranging imagination.

The other story that grabbed me is “Esoteric City,” a tongue-in-cheek tale of the supernatural. A necromancer named Achille Occhietti conjures a demon mummy as his guide to the dark spirits. The mummy leads Occhietti down a spiral staircase to Hell, a “keenly tourist-friendly” path with glossy signs “that urged the abandonment of all hope in fourteen official European Union languages.” Dead Italian journalists and literary critics make the most noise in Hell. Occhietti is fated to return to the world of the living to meet Satan, who has rejected “Cold War-style metaphysics.” To make a deal for souls now, he offers global solutions to climate change — at a price.

“Black Swan” is about a tech journalist whose source, Massimo Montaldo, hacks “chip secrets” to manipulate the industry. Montaldo wants to release his hack of a revolutionary memristor to an Italian company so that Italy will no longer be a second-rate tech power. When the journalist insists on learning the source of the technology, Montaldo explains his knowledge of 64 Italys that exist in 64 universes. In one of them, the tech writer made more of himself than he did in the universe he occupies.

“Kill the Moon” is a cute story about Italians who followed American astronauts to the moon. Instead of sending scientists, Italy sent a billionaire and “his busty actress girlfriend.” Because Italy.

Three other stories did nothing for me at all, so I can only recommend half the collection.

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Le recueil Robots Artists and Black Swans de Bruce Sterling regroupe des nouvelles de science-fiction et de Fantasy qui se déroulent à Turin.
L’auteur décrit des Turin passées, futures et parallèles, ancrées dans des époques de changements historiques ou de mutations technologiques profonds. Ses nouvelles de SF interrogent alors la place des Intelligences Artificielles en montrant leur capacité de surveillance totale de l’humanité, mais aussi la possibilité qu’elles puissent devenir des artistes. Il fait de Turin une ville de magie, mais aussi une ville qui illustre les changements à l’œuvre dans des mondes parallèles dans « Esoteric City » et « Black Swan ». Ces deux nouvelles sont avec « Robots in Roses » mes préférées du recueil.
Si vous aimez la plume de Bruce Sterling, la science-fiction ou la Fantasy, je vous recommande la lecture de Robots Artists and Black Swans !
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5/10 stars

Sterling's foray into Italian themes turned out for me to be at once an intriguing and slightly disappointing venture. Sterling's alter ego, Bruno Argento, is clearly, absolutely enamored of Italy, its history, culture, and people. His indulgent but not uncritical love for all things Italian is contagious: more than once I snorted with laughter at his deft play on national stereotypes, prominent in stories such as Kill the Moon or Esoteric City.

At the same time, however, his fixation can come over as very superficial and heavy-handed, when he focuses on contemporary figures such as Berlusconi (one of the main characters in Elephant on Table), or Sarcozy's wife, Turin-born Carla Bruni (Black Swan). Furthermore, this affectation seems detrimental to the storytelling - both of the stories mentioned above are, in my opinion, among the weakest in the collection.

Sterling's style in the stories collected here reminds me quite a lot of dramatic plays: very heavy on conversation, with plenty of exposition delivered through the dialogues; while in some stories it works pretty well, such as Robot in Roses which is in fact a very interesting, humorous (and quite significantly and openly indebted to classics) discussion on the meaning of humanity, art, and science, in other stories, such as Pilgrims of the Round World it gets increasingly tiresome and meaningless. This story almost made me DNF the whole thing - but I'm happy I persevered, because the best stories were hiding at the very end of the anthology.

My two favorite stories were Esoteric City, a twisted fantastical tale of FIAT's devilish connections, full of impressive Hellish imagery and well-pointed satire; and above-mentioned Robot in Roses. The latter's foundation in the outdated dichotomy of the relationship between male/female and culture/nature is the only serious criticism I have for this story, which otherwise is funny, full of cool quotes and fantastic images, and a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek tribute to Rome, the eternal city.

Scores for each of the story:

Kill the Moon 7/10
Black Swan 4/10
Elephant on Table 1/10
Pilgrims of the Round World 1/10
The Parthenopean Scalpel 3/10
Esoteric City 7.5/10
Robot in Roses 8.5/10

I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.
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Summary: Bruce Sterling is one of my favorite authors, he never let me down since the heights of cyberpunk in the 1980s. He simply delivered time after time, reliably hitting my taste. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I found that this collection is average at best.

The author lived for several years in Turin and published a couple of short stories in Italian language under the name Bruno Argento. Those stories are collected here, some of them for the first time available for non Italian speaking fans.

They all have one element in common: situated in Northern Italy, mostly in Turin, glorifying the Italian way of living, Italian style and grandessa. Most of the stories are SF, but there is also the odd Historical fiction or weird story in it.

Some of the stories were bummers, getting generous two or three stars. The quality went down continuously reaching a low just before the last two stories. Those are the ones I’d like to recommend: Esoteric City, a satirical tale about everything esoteric in Turin (the Gates of Hell, white and black triangles, the Shroud), and Robot in Roses about a artistic robot wandering the Alps to Italy.

Most of the stories are comical, exposing preconceptions of Italians in a friendly way. This is interesting to read, but does one really need those stories? I’d argue that the collection is mostly targeted to the author’s fans. Other fans of SF might want to read novels or different collections by Sterling first – e.g. “Gothic High-Tech” also contains the best story Esoteric City, or the Best Of collection “Ascendancies” from 2007 which has more of his cyberpunk days.

Introduction by Neal Stephenson
“Storia, Futurità, Fantasia, Scienza, Torino” by Bruno Argento
★★★☆☆ • Kill the Moon • 2009 • “Yes, the Gabrielle D’Annunzio is a very beautiful rocket ship. With such superb Italian industrial design, obviously it is the prettiest manned lunar rocket ever built.”
★★★☆☆ • Black Swan • 2009 • Alternate Universe SF 
★★★☆☆ • Elephant on Table • 2017 • Comical Near Future SF short story 
★★☆☆☆ • Pilgrims of the Round World • 2014 • Historical fiction novella
★+☆☆☆☆ • The Parthenopean Scalpel • 2010 
★★★★★ • Esoteric City • 2009 • Weird novelette by Bruce Sterling
★★★★☆ • Robot in Roses • 2017 • SF novelette by Bruce Sterling 
Afterword: “Bruce Sterling, Erudite Dreamer and Pirate” by Dario Tonani
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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 artists 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.
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I will have to admit that I've not read much of Bruce Sterling's work.  I read THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, of course; as much I was not a fan of cyberpunk back in the day (and to this day I don't know how I feel about it - after all, I still haven't read the most influential of all cyberpunk novels, NEUROMANCER, a book that changed the field of sf forever and made William Gibson a household name), I couldn't resist checking out the pairing of two of the most famous writers of cyberpunk back then.  I also read Hugo nominee ISLANDS IN THE NET, but that really was about it.  So yeah, it's been 30 years since I've read any Bruce Sterling, at least that I know of.

Robot Artists (I'm going to shorten the title because typing the full title multiple times just gets in the way) is a collection of Sterling's Italian themed science fiction.  In order to tie the stories together, the reader is introduced to Sterling's alter ego, Bruno Argento, Italy's famed writer of "fantascienza" (Yes, I did look it up, as I was unfamiliar with the term, even though one can figure out what it means just by looking at it.).  Robot Artists, then, is a collection of stories by Bruno Argento.

Several of the stories were indeed published in the Italian market, which surprised me at first.  There are introductions by both  Neal Stephenson (speaking of cyberpunk royalty) and Bruno Argento himself.  As of this writing I'm still not sure whether Sterling actually publishes in Italy under the Bruno Argento name or if this is a marketing tactic - and I guess that's the point, isn't  it?

I have a couple of favorite stories in the collection.  "Black Swan", the story of a technology blogger who encounters a hacker who may have discovered the existence of a Black Swan, something that could affect the balance of world governmental powers.  But is  it just that, or is it something more involved, something more complex?   The blogger and the hacker travel to different versions of Italy, while Luca (the blogger) has to determine if he wants to write about what Massimo (the hacker) has shown him.  It's something of an ethical decision, and something of a, well, moral decision.  

The other story that is a favorite is the last story in the collection, "Robot in Roses".  On the surface, the story is about one Wolfgang of Nuremburg, who is charged with following around the world a Japanese robotic wheelchair named Winkler, which is an artist.  Wolfgang catalogs every place Winkler goes and every piece of art it creates.  Things get complicated when he encounters Dr. Jetta Kriehn, who wants to destroy Winkler.  The story rapidly turns into a dialog about art and science and everything in between.  It's really a lot of fun.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Another story I enjoyed is "Esoteric City", in which time is up for Achille Occhietti.  As a result of his dark arts, he is  sentenced to Hell, which just happens to be conveniently located beneath Turin.  Before he meets with Satan - in Occhietti's back yard, because he had to leave Hell to at least attend his wife birthday party - he retrieves the Holy Grail for his final encounter with Satan.  Enjoyable stuff.

Other stories include "The Parthenopean Scalpel", wherein an assassin falls in love with a two headed woman, and bombs are  involved; "Kill the Moon", a short and silly tale of an Italian bemoaning the fact that his country is the only one going to the moon, and doesn't everyone see the silliness of it all?; In "Elephant On Table", Tullio and Irma are caretakers of a Shadow House, whose owner, the Chief, pops in every once in a while for cards and games and such.  Of course, there is much more to it than that, including the usual elephant on the table; and "Pilgrims of the Round World", a story of the closing of the Inn of Saint Cleopha (who herself is kept in a jar) in Turin.  Along the way we have royalty, armies, wars, inept queens, and all sorts of unusual elements.

A lot of punch is packed into these seven stories.  I didn't know what to expect out of this collection, but in the end I was thoroughly entertained.  If Bruno Argento does indeed exist, then the residents of Italy are lucky to have him.
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In which cyberpunk godfather Bruce Sterling purports to be Italian and specifically Turinese fantascienza author Bruno Argento, who invented the transparent pseudonym of Sterling for the Anglophone market. All of which is demonstrably untrue, but I welcome the Pessoa-esque* puckishness of the conceit, if not the tedious rows about cultural appropriation I can all too easily see it kicking off. In terms of how much of the rest is true, such as whether these stories were indeed published in Italian first...well, from the indicia the answer looks to be 'some of them', which is faintly disappointing.

Neal Stephenson's intro talks about what a boon it is nowadays for an SF writer to be good at short fiction, rather than writing big novels and finding they're outdated every time you check Twitter, but there's little here that catches that spooky prescience of peak Sterling. Kill The Moon is definitely not the worst story called Kill The Moon I've ever encountered, but is very much a squib, and a bit of an outdated one at that, with a Berlusconi type cavorting on the Moon in the 2060s; Black Swan is more substantial, but the basic idea (the guy with tech secrets who turns out to come from an alternate universe) is a very familiar one nowadays, and in positing Sarkozy as the most-wanted man in the broken Europe of another timeline, it can't help but feel like one of those multiversal Hitler stories replayed as farce. There are lovely ideas along the way, though, like the world which instead of our Internet has the more civilised "Semantic Web...built by Italians. They had a little bit of help from a few French Oulipo writers." And not that I know more than the barest details about Oulipo, but that's the main sense here, of literary games being played – even if the notion of being stuck in a battered timeline, a long way from the world in which you thought you'd started, is one with plenty of emotional resonance nowadays. My favourite piece was also the longest, Robot In Roses – which, perhaps coincidentally, ditches Turin for the Tyrol, Verona and Rome. It's a farcical fable of the 22nd century, with age and youth, science and art, man and woman still tussling for superiority well into a somewhat renascent Anthropocene rebuilding in the ruins of the bombs and drone-genocides. Nowhere near naturalism, but then for all cyberpunk's gritty rep, that's hardly the first time you could say as much of a Sterling story. And much like the artworks (or are they?) of the wandering autonomous wheelchair at its heart, even if you can't quite put your finger on why it's so affecting, it definitely is.'s not that the stories aren't fun to read, but I suspect they're more fun if you're also an outsider coming to terms with the particular strangenesses of Italy, and most fun of all if you're the writer. But hey, maybe there's a lot more market than I think there is for Turinese Dante reworks with a mummy playing Virgil and obscure allusions to an unnamed Cesare Pavese.

*Apologies if he already has an adjective and this ain't it.

(Netgalley ARC)
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Disclaimer: I would like to thank the publisher, Tachyon Publications, for providing a review copy of this book.

Although I have enjoyed many of the scifi sub-genres over the year, Bruce Sterling’s “Robot Artists & Black Swans” was my first solid encounter with Italian “Fantascienza” stories. Having enjoyed earlier works by Bruce Sterling, I naively anticipated that this latest collection would simply be cyberpunk with an Italian flair. After reading each of the stories and rereading the introduction, I learned that I had it backward. These are first-and-foremost stories about Italy. Secondly, they are examples of creative genius. Thirdly, they tend to have some aspect of historical fantasy (in Italy) or future history (in Italy) with a seasoning of scifi and/or cyberpunk ideas. Each story was entertaining and thought provoking. Out of the seven stories in this collection, I really liked the four that were recognizable cyberpunk.  The remaining three were good, but not quite what I was expecting. My impressions of each story follow.

“Kill The Moon” - The first story met my expectation of a scifi story taking place in the backdrop of Italian culture. Well written, and entertaining. (This was one of my top three stories for this collection.

“Black Swan” - Unsurprisingly this story takes place in Turin, Italy. As it contains travel between parallel universes, it deeply appealed to my inner scifi geek. (This was one of my top three stories for this collection.

“Elephant On Table” - I would absolutely classify this story as Italian cyberpunk. Very satisfying for readers who like this sub-genre.

“Pilgrims of the Round World” - An ironic historical fantasy taking place in Turin, Italy. A lively story. The story itself was good.  However, I lack sufficient European and Italian historical and cultural background to fully appreciate the inside jokes.

“The Parthenopean Scalpel” - A creative historical fantasy. I lacked sufficient knowledge of European/Italian history to fully appreciate the depth of the story.

“Esoteric City” - A creative magical look at Turin, Italy. A nice story. I suspect that knowing more about Turin would greatly increase my appreciation of this story.

“Robot in Roses” - This story matched my expectations for Italian cyberpunk, and was an enjoyable story to read. (This was one of my top three stories for this collection.)

In conclusion, I am glad that I could expand my understanding of international science fiction, and look forward to learning more about Italy and reading more stories by either Bruce Sterling or his alter ego Bruno Argento.
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Review of *Robot Artists and Black Swans: The Italian Fantascienza Stories* by Bruce Sterling.

(Also appears on goodreads:

Bruce Sterling’s renown as a writer rests on his co-founding of the cyberpunk movement in Science Fiction in the late 80’s and early 90’s, along with William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and others. Cyberpunk found great appeal because it looked closely at the technological trends of the present and extrapolated to how society would evolve in the near future. Sterling is a consummate experimenter with styles, ideas, and approaches to writing, and the depth of his thought makes his efforts worth considering even when they are not completely successful.

In the preface, Neal Stephenson notes his own inability to write in that form, and admires the current effort by Sterling. In SciFi writing, the short story reduces the space for world building. This compression allows the author to explore a wider range of different ideas and perspectives in a collection, but also gives the reader less time to enjoy each world the author has built. 

In the current collection, Sterling writes Italian-style short stories (think Italo Calvino, whom Sterling invokes often), under the alter-ego Bruno Argento. It’s a cute conceit, one that escapes being too cute through solid writing and compelling ideas.

The stories in this collection are very different from each other, and often seem more like Borges in their avoidance of predictable themes or structure. There are times when some drag a bit, but, in general, the writing is light and fun to read.

The collection was satisfying, but at the end I was left a tiny bit dissatisfied, as if there was a joke that I wasn't getting that would tie everything together. Nonetheless, the book is well written, fun, and interesting, and worth reading.

This is a review of a book supplied by [NetGalley]( in exchange for a thoughtful review.
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