Review of Italian Science Fiction
Simone Brioni and Daniele Comberiati. Italian Science Fiction: The Other in Literature and Film. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Studies in Global Science Fiction. Hardcover. xvi + 289 pg. $84.99. ISBN 9783030193256. eBook ISBN 9783030193263.
The “Anglophone Bias” in science fiction consumption and scholarship is an unfortunate phenomenon whose validity, causes, and outcomes have been discussed at length. Indeed, select a science fiction aficionado at random from any English-speaking country, and generally they would be hard-pressed, if called upon, to provide any detail about the science fiction product of, say, Italy, or why they should know or care about any of it at all. This study provides that reader with a lively, coherent education while leaving a residue of unsated curiosity on their palate. Brioni and Comberiati’s book explores how the speculative fiction of modern Italy, be it in literature, film, or the sequential art narrative, has presented The Other, and to what end. The authors concede that Italian science fiction published post-unification (1861) may on its face seem to be derivative of more well-known English language works, but analysis of it informed by social and historical context reveals truths about definitions of Italian national and regional identity and how Italy’s minorities are perceived and valued. These insights extrapolate to postcolonial and neocolonial situations, and point the way to the latent value of science fiction, in “other” settings.
The monograph begins chronologically, with an examination of the relationship between colonialism, exploration narratives/travel writing, and early science fiction produced after the unification of Italy in 1861. Even before the birth of the nation, science fiction writers imagined an Italian future where outsiders such as Germany and the Vatican had been dispatched. Later, travel periodicals such as Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare [Illustrated Journal of Travels and Adventures on Land and Sea] (1878-1931) set up a dichotomy between the idealized civilized Italian explorer and the savage indigene. An important function of this dichotomy was to justify colonization and to represent it as a righteous endeavor so that the explorer was not merely appropriating land, resources, and labor, but instead providing scientific progress, order, and moral direction to beings who were perceived/depicted as little more than animals and thus lacking in any legitimate right to the exotic paradises they inhabited and the precious natural resources therein. Writers such as Paolo Mategazza, Emilio Salgari, and Yambo published science fiction stories in the early twentieth century that had all the trappings of travel writing, but these journeys were either to other planets or the Earth’s future; the protagonists continued to be Italian or European adventurers who were left to contend with and bring a civilizing force to aliens that were merely exaggerated contemporaneous racial stereotypes of Earth’s colonized peoples. Thus, early Italian science fiction provided some of the fabric in the curtain that was placed between “Italian-ness” and “Other.”
Later chapters look at narrative reactions and responses to the perceived challenges Italian national identity, calcified by tradition, faced by merely existing in the proximity of other cultures. In the decades following World War II, Italy endured a monkey’s paw-like material prosperity followed by profound political turmoil. Apocalyptic films explored the resulting fractures to Italian culture with varying levels of success and ambiguity. In Omicron (1963) the advance party for an alien invasion observes Italian society through the eyes of a southern migrant factory worker. L’ultimo uomo della terra (The Last Man on Earth ) shows the last stand of an isolated white middle-aged male in the ruins of a world overrun by zombie-vampire hybrids in black shirts. In I cannibali (The Cannibals ) a young heroine and her foreign companion push back against the constraints imposed upon them by the older generation in an authoritarian near-future Milan. The discussion of these latter two films affords the reader insight into how works from other times and places—Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954) and Sophocles’ Antigone (442 BCE)—translate into and comment on the anxieties of modern Italy.
Comberiati discusses Michele Medda, Antonio Serra, and Bepi Vigna’s dystopian science fiction fumetti Nathan Never (1991-present), which “focuses on the fear of contamination, and the borders that separate ‘pure’ humans and aliens, mutants, or cyborgs” (169). Never exists in a complex vertical society where the privileged live high above and away from the downtrodden. His adventures have him mix it up with the spectrum of social groups, and he sometimes serves as the “white messianic figure” that protects the helpless in a cyberpunk world (170). Another popular sequential art narrative, Stefano Tamburini, Tanino Liberatore, and Alain Chabat’s RanXerox (1978-97) features a title character who is as far from a charismatic white savior as one can get—he’s a hybrid of a human and a copy machine making his way in yet another vertically stratified and unequal society. RanXerox is more durable than humans in moving about his violently chaotic setting, and thus, useful to employers, allies, and friends, but is not valued as a human would be. As they move forward in time, Brioni and Comberiati explore anxieties related to the increasing presence of Chinese residents in Italy and Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Tommaso Pincio’s Cinacitta (Chinacity ) and Pierfrancesco Prosperi’s La casa dell’Islam (The House of Islam ) speculate as to what an Italy ruled by Chinese and Muslim majorities, respectively, would look like.
Aside from demographic dread, uniquely Italian issues are discussed within the context of the contemporary science fiction narrative. One such example is the economic disparity and political tension between the North and the South. Booms and upswings have not distributed prosperity equally across the country. Antonio Pennacchi’s Storia di Karel (Karel’s Story ) “is the struggle between those who want to modernize and those who want to maintain the traditional way of life, a key theme in debates on the Southern Question” (186). In Gabriele Salvatore’s 1997 film Nirvana, the separatist dreams of the Lega Nord have come to pass and the resulting Northern Conglomerate is the economic and political center of the world. Quando le radici [When the Roots 1977]) shows how even economic boom times can devastate rural communities. The protagonist of that story is able to find meaning and authenticity only by adopting the way of life of the Romani, an oft demonized, misrepresented, and thus, misunderstood minority that has inhabited Italy since the Middle Ages, and has been the subject of persecution for just as long.
The study closes with an exploration of alternate histories that struggle to reckon with the legacy of the Fascist Era. The revisions of Italian history focus on Italy, in one way or another, joining the Allies and exiting World War II as one of its victors. While works by Enrico Brizzi (L’inattesa piega degli eventi [The Unexpected Turn of Events, 2008], La nostra Guerra [Our War, 2009], and Lorenzo Pellegrini e le donne [Lorenzo Pellegrini and The Women, 2012]), and Stefano Amato repudiate fascism, Mario Farneti’s “Fantafascist Trilogy” (2001-2006) celebrates it as a source of energy and power that can repel potential invaders. In Amato’s Il 49esimo Stato (The 49th State ), Sicily becomes the 49th state of the United States and is thus more baldly susceptible to neocolonialism and Cold War machinations (including the collusion of corporations, the CIA, and organized crime). Brizzi’s version of postwar Italy gains new colonies in Africa and Europe, but when Mussolini, upon his death, is succeeded by the moderate wing of the Fascist Party, the result is a contemporary Italy that in many ways resembles our own.
Brioni and Comberiati’s text is of great interest to both the scholar and the general reader who has more than a passing interest in Italian history and culture, postcolonial studies, and the effective use of science fiction to explore and uncover the important social and political issues to yield insights. Even when coming to the book’s subject, Italian science fiction, with healthy skepticism and modest expectations, readers will find that the information presented here is quite fascinating and leaves them wanting to know even more. Since Italy has been home to such a diversity of political entities, institutions, and systems of government over time, contemporary studies of it are not interesting just for their own sake, but also may provide revelations that can be applied to other subjects. Going into the book, many readers will have no context for uniquely Italian terminology, concepts, and historical events such as “Piano Solo,” “Lega Norda,” and the EUR neighborhood, but the authors do an excellent job of quickly and clearly explaining them and their relevance. The book itself is well-grounded in postcolonial theory and by the end readers have seen, as promised, just who “The Other” is via the prism of one nation’s contemporary science fiction and are well-equipped to apply what was learned to other subjects. The authors have provided a sound template to anyone who might do a similar study featuring sf works from another country or region on a particular topic, and they offer up to the scholar suggestions of authors and works for study and possible future translation.
Sean Memolo is a lover of comic books, SF, jazz, Boston Terriers, and calcio. He studied and lectured at East Carolina University in the earlier part of this century and now works in the software industry but writes the odd review or conference paper about science fiction here and there. Currently he lives a rather happy quiet life with his wife, two children, and two dogs in the land of Northern Alabama.