In our latest original feature, Francesco Troccoli interviews Gian Filippo Pizzo and Walter Catalano on their new anthology, “Ambigue utopie: 19 racconti di fantaresistenza” (Ambiguous Utopias: 19 science-fiction resistance short stories”), a collection of 19 political alternative history stories Italian, published by Edizioni Bietti.
Is science-fiction pure escapism or should it also convey a social message, if not political? What is the meaning of a “socially committed” science fiction today? Is it still possible? And, is it worth it?
In a very tough historical and political period for Italy, well known Italian SF authors, along with beginners, offer their literary contribution to a legitimate aspiration for freedom that seems to be missing in everyday’s life in this country.
“Ambigue utopie: 19 racconti di fantaresistenza” (Ambiguous Utopias: 19 science-fiction resistance short stories”) is a new anthology of alternative history containing 19 short stories in Italian, published by Edizioni Bietti.
In the following interview, Gian Filippo Pizzo and Walter Catalano, who edited the book, explain how the work was born and carried out.
(Interview by Francesco Troccoli ).
FRANCESCO: Hello, Gian Filippo and Walter. How was the idea of “Ambiguos Utopias” born?
Gianfilippo: In a very simple way: as Walter had already wrote a book which was published by a far left publisher, I suggested him to examine this publisher’s interest into a sci-fi publication with a strong political impact. We were encouraged not only by the passion for sci-fi that we have in common, but also by the tough political situation we are going through here in Italy. The publisher initially accepted, but then something went wrong and we had to look for another publisher. Eventually we learned Edizioni Bietti was interested, and went on with them.
Walter: our intention at the beginning was to speak to the general public through a non-specialized publisher as to present the socially committed dimension of Italian SF. But the troubles with the first publisher turned the whole project into a sort of inventory of the themes that have driven the stimulus to political and social rebellion in the world of SF since the ‘70s, and a call to writers devoted to such themes. In many reviews of the book I perceived a sort of nostalgic feeling which is actually one of the levels of interpretation of the anthology (although not the most important). However, it is nice to feel we share a vision of a political and cultural re-birth of our country; I think such a vision got lost in recent years, and SF is able to map new tracks, show alternative ways to go, and raise alerts, as usual.
FRANCESCO: Edizioni Bietti, a publisher very active in producing political essays, which is now beginning to publish sci-fi…
GIANFILIPPO: Actually Edizioni Bietti has changed a lot in recent years; the former publisher was heavily right-wing oriented (just take a look at the old website: www.bietti.it, while new www.edizionibietti.it is our publisher). The liaison between the two is still unclear to me; anyway, this anthology is not their first sci-fi publication, as it comes after two novels written by Pierfrancesco Prosperi, one by Carlo Bordoni and another one by Errico Passaro. The kind of sci-fi sub-genre they are accepting is mainly uchronic / utopic, which is probably the best choice for a mainstream publisher.
WALTER: Edizioni Bietti proves, if need be, that small and courageous publishers are the only ones who are able to run the risk, get in the game and really believe in a project aimed at defining a new cultural horizon. Sometimes I think my country, which doesn’t do anything to encourage and reward such publishers, does not really deserve them.
FRANCESCO: You two were in charge with editing the anthology. How did you select the nineteen authors? And, what sort of relationship is there between the political theme of the anthology and the authors’ past literary experience?
GF: Actually we did not make a selection of authors; we were just interested in good stories. I just got in touch with all the authors I could, even following suggestions coming from some of the writers who were already in (especially Vittorio Catani, who introduced me to two or three of them). Then, as more and more stories came to my attention, we read and evaluated them, sometimes through very intense discussions. We had to reject many, because they were poor, or not in line with the theme; after completing the selection, we reviewed all the stories carefully and asked some authors to modify the script or even re-write the whole story. I am very happy that Valerio Evangelisti enthusiastically accepted our invitation to be in since the very beginning, and to have also persuaded Daniele Ganapini to get back to writing after his 30-year silence, and to have included an old story Vittorio Curtoni had written in far 1972; I’m also happy that the anthology includes a short story by Claudio Asciuti which he was not able to see published (as far as I know), and to have involved two good semi-beginner writers like Piero Cavallotti and Umberto Rossi. But the thing I am mostly satisfied with is to have obtained brand new stories from authors who had nothing already prepared, and produced a story specifically for us, fully understanding the spirit of this initiative. This is the case of Alessandro Vietti and Milena Debenedetti, who is the only female writer in the book (although we actually tried to involve more women). And to be honest, I am also proud that I got back to writing after 20 years; in the original project I was not supposed to be among the authors, but as I was reading more and more stories submitted by others, an idea was suddenly born in my head and then I changed my mind…
All these things happened under the strong push of political passion, and by saying this I think I also answered the second part of your question.
WALTER: We just wanted left wing people as authors. Which means, we were not interested in having Farneti or De Turris on board. We said it since the beginning: partisanship is a strength of the project. Beppe Fenoglio, one of the best writers in the 20th century, said “Partisan, like poet, is an absolute word, with no grades”. Either young or old, all the authors in the book share our vision and our story (obviously with slight differences and individual nuances): it was a pleasant reunion of friends, or, please forgive me, “comrades”; a term once abused and forgotten today. They were all very patient with us: they have not been paid, they had to re-write, or modify the story according to our indications and, above all, they have always believed in this project and encouraged us. This is why we are grateful to them.
FRANCESCO: The subtitle of the anthology is “Nineteen science-fiction resistance stories”. A fascinating expression. Does it mean that utopia is something belonging to the left political wing?
GIANFILIPPO: Yes, absolutely. But I’m not the first who said it. Maurice Renard (author of Les Mains d’Orlac) argued it already in 1928, and after him Darko Suvin and other critics did.
In Italy we are living a new incarnation of fascism, and our country is drifting into dystopia. The nightmares we had a few years ago turned into real life. Science fiction can help give us directions: the weapon of criticism, as Marx wrote. We hope the time of criticism by weapons will never come.
WALTER: Today, more than ever before, we have to resist. In Italy we are living a new incarnation of fascism, and our country is drifting into dystopia. The nightmares we had a few years ago turned into real life. Science fiction can help give us directions: the weapon of criticism, as Marx wrote. We hope the time of criticism by weapons will never come.
FRANCESCO: Can you explain the adjective, “ambiguous”, in the title of the anthology?
GIANFILIPPO: The title, Ambiguous Utopias, recalls a magazine which was published in the 70’s in Italy, named An ambiguous utopia, the first to cover the liaison between sci-fi and politics; the name of the magazine derived from Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia. Anyway, the choice of this title reflects the fact that leftists are always open to criticize and discuss their ideas and principles, while at the other extreme, this kind of attitude is very unusual among rightist people, who are much more “granitic” in their beliefs; leftists are aware of how difficult and complex is the search of real social justice, they know that the balance among the elements of a society is always unstable, even in leftists regimes. At least, this is my point of view. Anyway, this is not a political essay, it is just an anthology of short fictional stories, which is ambiguous by definition, because the final message you get is up for interpretation.
WALTER: Ambiguous Utopias refers to a philosophical and social tradition of the best science fiction, but with the addition of “ambiguity”, which does not mean hedging our bets; it means self-criticism. In our opinion, one of the best qualities in the left wing is the awareness of our limitations, and the ability to always ask yourself if what you do is right or wrong. This is ambiguity. On the other hand, the right wing is certainly never ambiguous, with its abiding beliefs and oversimplified solutions: the immigrants? Just throw them out. Crime? Let us apply the death penalty. Long life to ambiguity.
FRANCESCO: Which indications did you give to the authors about the story?
GIANFILIPPO: None. We just asked them to produce good stories, well written and with a clear political meaning, but we let them freely choose contents and themes. This is why I personally decided to explore the relationship with the Catholic Church in my story, because this area had not been covered by any other author in the anthology. I think this is a strength of the book: even though all the stories are consistent with the background political theme, each author has created a peculiar setting, so that the stories vary from satire to drama, from adventure to psycho-thriller. I guess such a degree of variety is the dream of any anthology editor!
WALTER: We just asked them to write good stories, not only driven by the plot, but with interesting characters as well.
FRANCESCO: The choice of the theme of utopia and the proposition of scenarios of alternative history, seems to compensate, in some way, the lack of spirit of innovation and the theoretical crisis which are affecting today ‘s culture of the left wing. If someone had described today’s Italian society 20 years ago, that would have been an excellent example of dystopic world…
GIANFILIPPO: No doubt. But I would go farther than 20 years into the past, because in my opinion the radical turn which brought us to today’s social order was the birth of private television channels, or, more precisely, their aggregation into national networks. At that time it was possible to foresee what was going to happen.
WALTER: This is exactly why I think it is important to get books like this one published and the largest number of readers able to take advantage of them.
FRANCESCO: Is SF always, in your opinion, conveying a political message, or do you also feel comfortable with its more recreational and escapist forms?
GIANFILIPPO: Science fiction, like all fiction in general, and all forms of art, must primarily be intelligent, spontaneous, and also technically well done. They should not appear to have been “built”, not more than any other human achievement. The scope they have been developed for always comes after, either it’s to make people laugh or cry, think or have fun. What I am after in one’s writings is primarily intellectual honesty; once this is given, I can take advantage of any form of expression. I don’t see fiction exclusively as a political instrument, and I also like to read books of pure escapism. But I usually prefer the ones which make me think, as they discuss social or psychological issues. The so called “politically committed literature”. I would probably no longer have read science fiction after my youth if SF did not turn into a maturer narrative thanks to authors like Dick, Ballard, Silverberg and others. On the other hand I don’t reject to read amusing and exciting narrators like Heinlein or Fredric Brown.
As in any other genre, in SF I prefer books which convey a strong message, either political or not. A vision of the world, a proposal of a model of life.
WALTER: As in any other genre, in SF I prefer books which convey a strong message, either political or not. A vision of the world, a proposal of a model of life. However, this kind of message can also be found in authors who are apparently far from our ideological premises: who said that Heinlein or Fredric Brown belong to the other side, who decided that Lovecraft is not one of “us” ?
FRANCESCO: Are you planning to translate and publish the book in other countries?
GIANFILIPPO: I would love to spread our idea beyond the borders of Italy, but this is our publisher’s business and it refers to his contacts with publishers from other countries.
WALTER: Why not ? I’d love to! I think this book would be enjoyed by many people abroad. Italy is now a strange country, ruled by a mutant; people from other countries could be attracted by the chance of reading stories written by authors living in a place where every day we see body snatchers coming out of the pods… we are right in the middle of a lab where a dirty mad doctor is conducting insane experiments on all of us.
Our objective is to take a step further into the acceptance that science fiction is finding also in the academic world; to show that SF goes beyond just “monsters, spaceships and robots”, and it is a genre which covers social and political issues as well
FRANCESCO : Why should a SF reader buy “Ambiguous utopias”?
GIANFILIPPO: For the bunch of reasons I have listed so far: it is a very good book, it includes qualified authors, and the stories cover various matters and can be read with no reference to the main theme, which is just a sort of common background: you will find stories taking place in space, in the future, in the past or in an alternative today, in and out of Italy; there are robots, paranormal activities, aliens, virtual reality; all features of SF are there. Plus, there is this political point of view, as a criticism on the western social model, the Italian one in particular, and a severe judgment on the official left wing as well. As I have written in the preface, our objective is to take a step further into the acceptance that science fiction is finding also in the academic world; to show that SF goes beyond just “monsters, spaceships and robots”, and it is a genre which covers social and political issues as well, so that it becomes a tool to analyze and deal with the actual situation. I guess we have succeeded.
WALTER: Because it is a nice book, in line with what we expected, and full of amazing stories.
Ambigue utopie. 19 racconti di fantaresistenza. Ed. Bietti, 2010, €22,00.
The authors: Claudio Asciuti, Giovanni Burgio, Walter Catalano, Vittorio Catani, Piero Cavallotti, Vittorio Curtoni, Milena Debenedetti, Valerio Evangelisti, Domenico Gallo, Daniele Ganapini, Francesco Grasso, Gian Filippo Pizzo, Pierfrancesco Prosperi, Franco Ricciardiello, Umberto Rossi, Danilo Santoni, Roberto Sturm, Enzo Verrengia, Alessandro Vietti.