In a very harrowing historical and political period for Italy, well known Italian SF authors, along with beginners, offer their literary contribution to a legitimate longing for the freedom that seems to be missing in everyday life in this country.
Ambigue utopie: 19 racconti di fantaresistenza (loosely translated Ambiguous Utopia: 19
science-fiction resistance short stories) is an anthology of alternative history containing 19 Italian short stories, published by Edizioni Bietti a few months ago in Italy.
In the following interview, Gian Filippo Pizzo and Walter Catalano, who edited the book, explain the creative and working process.
Francesco Troccoli – Hello, Gian Filippo and Walter. How did you come up with the idea of Ambiguous Utopia?
Gian Filippo Pizzo – In a very simple way: since Walter had already written a book released by a left-wing publisher, I suggested he inquire about this publisher’s interest for a sci-fi release with a strong political impact, motivated not only by our common passion for sci-fi, but also by the harrowing political situation we’re living here in Italy. The publisher initially accepted, but then something went wrong and we had to look for another one. Eventually, we learned Edizioni Bietti were interested, so signed on with them.
Walter Catalano – Our intention at the beginning was to speak to the general public through a non-specialized publisher in order to present the socially committed dimension of Italian SF. But problems with the first publisher turned the whole project into a sort of inventory of themes that have driven SF as a stimulus for political and social rebellion since the ’70’s, 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 one). However, it’s nice to feel we share a vision of our country’s political and cultural rebirth. I think this vision got lost in recent years, and SF is able to map new tracks, show alternative ways to go, and warn, as usual.
FT – A publisher well known for its political essays, Edizioni Bietti, is now beginning to publish sci-fi. . .
GFP – Actually, Edizioni Bietti has changed a lot in recent years. The former publisher leaned heavily to the right (just take a look at the old website: www.bietti.it, while the new one is www.edizionibietti.it). The liaison between the two is still unclear to me, anyway, this anthology isn’t their first sci-fi release for it comes after two novels written by Pierfrancesco Prosperi, as well as one by Carlo Bordoni and another by Errico Passaro. The kind of sci-fi subgenre they are accepting is mainly uchronic (i.e. alternate history) / utopic, which is probably the best choice for a mainstream publisher.
WALTER C – Edizioni Bietti proves, if need be, that small and brave publishers are the only ones 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, doesn’t really deserve them.
FT – You two were in charge of editing the anthology. How did you select the nineteen authors? And what sort of relationship is there between the anthology’s political theme and the authors’ past literary experiences?
GFP – Actually, we didn’t make a selection of authors; we were just interested in good stories. I simply got in touch with all the authors I could, even following suggestions coming from some of the writers already in the project (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 animated discussions, rejecting 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 draft or even re-write the whole story. I am very happy Valerio Evangelisti accepted enthusiastically our invitation to join us, to have persuaded Daniele Ganapini to get back to writing after his 30-year silence, not to mention to have included an old story Vittorio Curtoni had written as far back as 1972. I’m also happy the anthology includes a short story by Claudio Asciuti that he wasn’t 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 enterprise. 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 I got back to writing after 20 years. In the original project, I wasn’t supposed to be among the authors, but as I was reading more and more stories submitted by others, an idea popped up suddenly in my head and then I changed my mind. . .
All this happened under the strong push of political passion, and by saying this I think I also answered the second part of your question.
WALTER C – We just wanted left-wing people as authors, which means, we weren’t interested in having Farneti or De Turris on board. We said it from the start, partisanship is a strength of the project. Beppe Fenoglio, one of the best writers of the 20th century, said, “Partisan, like poet, is an absolute word, with no shades in between.” 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 haven’t 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.
FT – The subtitle of the anthology is “Nineteen science-fiction resistance stories,” a fascinating expression. Does it mean utopia is something belonging to the political left-wing?
GFP – Yes, absolutely, but I’m not the first who said it. Maurice Renard (author of Les Mains d’Orlac) argued about it already in 1928, and after him, Darko Suvin and other critics did.
WALTER C – 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 reality. 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.
FT – Can you explain the adjective “ambiguous” in the title of the anthology?
GFP – The title, Ambiguous Utopia, was the name of a magazine, which was published in the 70’s in Italy, “An ambiguous utopia”, the first to consider 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 this kind of attitude is very unusual among rightist people, more “stone-like” in their beliefs. Leftists are aware of how difficult and complex the search for real social justice is; they know 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 isn’t a political essay. It’s just an anthology of short fictional stories, which is ambiguous by definition, and because the final message you get is up for interpretation.
WALTER C – Ambiguous Utopia refers to a philosophical and social tradition of the best science fiction, but with the addition of “ambiguity”—which doesn’t mean hedging our bets—it means self-criticism. In our opinion, among the left-wing’s best qualities are 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.
FT – Which indications did you give the authors about their stories?
GFP – None. We just asked them to produce good stories, well written and with a clear political meaning, but we let them free to choose contents and themes. This is why I personally decided to explore the relationship with the Catholic Church in my story, because no other author in the anthology had covered this area. 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 C – We just asked them to write good stories, not only driven by the plot, but with interesting characters as well.
FT – The chosen theme, utopia, and the proposition of scenarios of alternative history seems to compensate, in some way, the lack of innovative spirit and the theoretical crisis which are affecting today’s left-wing culture. If someone had described today’s Italian society 20 years ago, it would have been an excellent example of a dystopic world. . .
GFP – No doubt, but I’d 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 C – This is exactly why I think it’s important to get books like this one published and the largest number of readers able to take advantage of them.
FT – In your opinion, is SF always conveying a political message, or do you also feel comfortable with its more recreational and escapist forms?
GFP – Science fiction, like all fiction in general and all forms of art, must primarily be intelligent, spontaneous, and also technically well done. It shouldn’t appear to have been “built”, not more than any other human achievement. The scope for which it has been developed always comes after, whether it’s to make people laugh or cry, think or have fun. What I look for when reading is primarily intellectual honesty. Once it’s 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 purely escapist books. But I usually prefer the ones that make me think, as they discuss social or psychological issues, the so-called “politically committed literature.” I’d probably no longer have read science fiction after my youth if SF did not turn into a more mature narrative thanks to authors like Dick, Ballard, Silverberg and others. On the other hand, I don’t refuse to read amusing and exciting narrators like Heinlein or Fredric Brown.
WALTER C – As in any other genre, in SF I prefer books that convey a strong message, either political or not, a vision of the world, a proposal of a life model. However, this kind of message can also be found in authors apparently far from our ideological premises. Who said that Heinlein or Fredric Brown belong to the other side? Who decided that Lovecraft isn’t one of “us”?
FT – Are you planning on translating and publishing the book in other countries?
GFP – I’d love to spread our idea beyond the borders of Italy, but this is our publisher’s business and its contacts with publishers from other countries.
WALTER C – Why not? I’d love to! I think many people abroad would enjoy this book. Italy is now a strange country, ruled by a mutant, so people from other countries could be attracted by the chance to read 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.
FT – Why should a SF reader buy Ambiguous Utopia?
GFP – For the bunch of reasons I have listed so far, it’s a very good book, which includes qualified authors and multi-subject stories, and it can be read with no reference to the main theme that is just a sort of common background. You’ll find stories taking place in space, in the future, in the past or in an alternative today, in and out of Italy, with robots, paranormal activities, aliens, virtual reality. All elements of SF are there, plus there is this political point of view, as a criticism of the western social model, the Italian one in particular, and a severe judgment of the official left-wing as well. As I have written in the preface, our objective is to take a step further into the acceptance science fiction is finding also in the academic world, to show that SF goes beyond just “monsters, spaceships and robots”, and it’s a genre that covers social and political issues as well, which makes it a tool to analyze and deal with the actual situation. I guess we have succeeded.
WALTER C – Because it’s a nice book, in line with what we expected and full of amazing stories.