“Mare Nostrum,” by Bruce Sterling (2022)
- The English-language version of my contribution to the recent Italian fantascienza anthology, “Fanta-Scienza 2.” This story was directly inspired by the work of the Italian scientist, Dr. Antonio Bicchi, a professor of robotics at the University of Pisa and director of the “Laboratory of Soft Robotics.”
by Bruce Sterling
I had the sea before my robot’s prow, but now I pass my days marooned on an Italian island.
How bad can a dystopia be? Once, I was the captain of the “Olga Scheinpflugova,” a ship built by my grandfather, the great tech mogul. This automated luxury yacht was the rich man’s high-tech toy and tax-hideout. The Olga was a floating luxury fortress. She was fit for a world-class oligarch.
Most other fine super-yachts simply sank with the many passing decades: from the many cruel burdens of our history, the wars, plagues, famines, the police or pirates. But the Olga never failed us, because her onboard robots repaired her faster than she could decay.
My wise grandfather had designed the yacht with that philosophy. His maritime robots, installed on board, were great-armed, swivelling, headless machines, painted bright aviation orange, with multiple elbows and many plug-in tools. They maintained and repaired the ship’s engines, and also managed the rigging, rudder, radar, the solar panels, sun awnings, the grand galley, and even the jacuzzi.
Every object and service onboard was designed to be robot-manufactured and robot-serviceable, including the shipboard robots themselves. In theory, this was a perfected technological system. In practice, problems always arise.
As the troubled world grew more dire and perilous, my grandfather’s heirs lost everything we owned — except for our self-repairing yacht. After my father’s death, I became the skipper of this noble work from a lost era, this floating robot museum, this wandering robotic monastery of the blue Mediterranean.
The “Olga Scheinpflugova” still looked superb, but everywhere we moored, there were vistas of abandonment. We humans — with our immoral minds and our too-busy hands — had degraded our garden planet into a dark world of polluted junk. We were sullen about that stark fact of our history, we felt ashamed of ourselves. In our 23rd century, our robots were humble, reliable devices, but we humans felt worse than useless. Every year there were fewer of us. We knew that the Earth’s other living creatures were far better off without us.
I owned many fine old books about robotics, neatly stored in my ship’s capacious library. They made melancholy reading, for they had imagined a better future world, nicely built by fantastic, ever-improving robots, rather than our gloomy, despairing world, propped up by simple, humble robots.
My ship herself was a robot — and yet, I was Captain.
I was Captain, and in a proper system of robot-human interface, the human Captain must be the strategist. The human Captain must set the ship’s course. The Captain must weigh the choices, rank the priorities, assemble the resources, maintain shipboard order and be the source of decision and command. Robots did not do that. Because robots could not do it. The robots just gripped tools, and moved themselves and their effectuators in three-dimensional, geometric tool paths. The robots excelled at doing that, but they could achieve nothing else.
The robots had many merits, but they were never alive or conscious. They had no blazing will to understand, no gnawing hunger for knowledge; in short, they weren’t scientists or engineers. The robots never speculated or invented. Alas, the robots were without sin.
Such was my situation, until, one day, a storm forced us into harbor in Beirut. There was not much left of that ancient city, but Beirut was simply too old to die. Then along came my worst enemy, who is the antagonist of this, my dystopian tale.
“So, Captain Rossum,” the stranger told me, saluting me politely, “I’ve heard many tales about your fabulous ship, the ‘Olga Scheinpflugova.’ What a romantic name, for a beautiful woman!”
“You recognize the name of my ship?” I said, because no one ever did.
He nodded sagely. “Have you ever heard the name of ‘Sylvester Glory’?”
I took a careful look at Mr Glory. I could recognize his type: he was a gentleman drifter. Someone had wasted an education on him, and he was polite and well-spoken. But he lacked manly purpose, discipline and self-command. Mr. Glory was certainly not a robot, but he was human driftwood.
Glory boasted no more worldly wealth than his one small, wrinkled duffle bag. His bell-bottom sailor pants were quite ragged, while both his sleeves were ink-stained. There was some gray in his windblown hair and his narrowed, squinting eyes had seen one horizon too many. But at least he was sober, and he even had a certain boyish charm about him.
“I have never heard your name, Mr Sylvester Glory,” I told him. “What’s more, if you will discreetly join my crew, no one will ever need to learn who you are.”
“Excellent! I was sure you would be a man of the world, Captain. I’m eager to explore your fine vessel, and participate in the colorful life aboard.”
“You don’t strike me as a proper scholar of robotics,” I said.
“That’s true,” he admitted. “I was never a scientist. Instead, I want the legends…. the myths and tales of robotics — that dreamy lore that captures the human heart! Your ship is so old, yet she is still so beautiful! She still sails the high seas when her sister ships have foundered in the briny deep.”
“Should I book you aboard as a passenger?”
Of course he couldn’t afford the fare. Sylvester Glory was a penniless vagabond. Feckless and dreamy, he was just the type to die on some drunken bender, alone in a foreign country, without a friend to help him or a coin in his pocket. No wife to love him, no family, no fixed address, no prospects of any of that. And yet — Glory told me — he searched the Earth for its wonders.
Having arrived in Beirut, at the eastern rim of the Mediterranean, Glory hoped to reach the Straits of Gibraltar, far away at the western extreme of the sea.
I was touched by this confession, which had a strange dignity. “Well,” I told him. “I myself have seen the Straits of Gibraltar. They’re indeed a sight worth seeing.”
“Is that feat of engineering as magnificent as the legends declare? They say that the dam of Gibraltar is Europe’s greatest technical feat! Because that dam preserved the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘Mare Nostrum.’”
“That Gibraltar dam is the only feat of climate terraforming that was ever practical, “ I said, because it was true. “Mr. Glory, you may or may not reach the great Straits of Gibraltar, but if you sail under my command, I can promise you’ll see plenty. If you can follow my orders, do your duty promptly, and keep your hands off guns, drugs and women, then I’ll sign you aboard as crew.”
Glory shook my hand. Then, with a stately flourish, he opened his duffelbag and produced a pair of prosthetic yachting gloves.
I should have had the good sense to throw him off my ship at once. But I’d never seen such handsome robotic interfaces — manipulators so mathematically optimized, with such widely variable mechanical impedances.
Once we cast off from Beirut — our destination Cyprus — we found that Glory’s deft robotic gloves could tie sailors’ knots, pull lanyards, even gut and scale fish. So his robotic gloves were terrific tools, but he himself was a major problem. Whenever it came to human-robot collaboration — to a human-robot integration, for that’s the ideal — Glory simply failed to keep the human side of that bargain. Glory was so dreamy, so absent-minded, that, with his robot gloves on, he could easily maim or even kill his fellow crewman.
The crew complained to me about him. I had to call him in.
Meek and polite about his scolding, Glory told me that his strange robot gloves were of Australian make, and that he was Australian, too.
Why Australia? Because no dystopia — so Glory told me — can ever be entirely and utterly dystopian, for everyone, everywhere, uniformly, all at the same time. That’s not possible. No matter how bad life may be, somewhere, some people and places, just have to get lucky. Such is the nature of the world.
Once, the continent of Australia had been mostly one big barren desert. However, when Antarctica melted, huge monsoons arrived over Australia. The sterile continent quickly blossomed. A new, frontier society had appeared, settling into this wild and verdant new landscape.
Sylvester Glory was a self-appointed ambassador from this newfangled society. In his own remote continent, far from old Europe, new people with new beliefs and attitudes approached life quite differently.
Glory declared that he still loved his native Australia, but he knew that his home was a raw and uncivilized place. He knew that mankind had built wonders elsewhere, so he had to travel, and match himself against those historic marvels. He had to take their measure with his heart and soul, so as reach a deeper understanding of the world. This was his spiritual quest.
Using his robot gloves to work his way through sea-passages — said Glory, warming to his theme — he’d sailed up the drowned coasts from Canberra. He’d sailed through the many storm-torn, smoldering islands of southeast Asia. He’d somehow reached China by sea, and then sailed up the Chinese rivers. There, he marveled at the famous giant dams, and he also did homage to the legendary Great Wall of China.
These great works of the past — Glory declared, eloquently — offered us redemption in our dystopian world of ruination. Whenever Glory found hope and meaning, he meant to tell other people about it. So that the veil of despair could fall from their shrouded eyes, and they would see that human life could be rich with visionary promise and poetic meaning. Seen with the awakened eyes of the human soul, even a single crystal grain of sand might have the wonderment of the Egyptian Pyramids!
Naturally Glory had already visited the Pyramids. The Pyramids were in grave disrepair, he said, but they were great constructions, anyway.
Sylvester Glory was a vagabond for the great works of engineering — mostly because he’d failed at doing anything else. For any normal, manly life of work and duty, he was useless. He’d dabbled in trade, but he always lost money. He’d written fine speeches for politicians who failed to take office. He courted unobtainable women who were too old, too young or wanted nothing to do with him. Glory begged me to pity him, if I couldn’t understand his lamentations.
I did understand his griping — because I knew that he was a no-good. However, he was always full of fascinating anecdotes. Glory always talked too much, and yet, he didn’t know how to be boring; he’d seen too much, and been to too many strange places.
Even when Glory repeated himself (which was common for him), he could never tell his stories the same way twice. His stories always evolved, as he told them over and over, and lied more boldly. He was choking the facts to death, while constructing his sentimental fables.
Also, Glory kept notebooks. Ten or twelve times a day, he was scribbling in a little diary with the stub of a pencil — his impressions, or maybe his confessions. The little notebooks were his best friends, maybe his only real friends.
A ship’s captain has to be a good judge of men. I sensed that events would surely take a bad turn with Glory. But once on board my ship, Glory soon became popular. He had no practical skills, and he was clumsy enough to maim people, but somehow everybody always had a smile for him.
The “Olga Scheinpflugova” had rooms for guests, because the shelter of a rich elite always did. With his smooth, glib tongue and his eye for telling detail, Glory became the shipboard tour-guide for the ship’s passengers. Glory gave them long tours of the yacht. He praised the luxury accommodations from a vanished era: the long-extinct hardwoods, the aircraft aluminum, the defunct carbon-fiber composites.
My ship’s passengers were mostly rich migrants. The wealthy always knew when any trouble was brewing in a Mediterranean city. So they would pack their treasure-chests, and ship themselves to some different, safer town. Even in a dystopia, the best neighborhoods are always nicer.
The Mediterranean, our “Mare Nostrum,” was our civilized sea. Robots had dammed the Straits of Gibraltar and also closed and sealed the Suez Canal. So, during our 23rd Century, the Mediterranean was the only sea that had never suffered any dreadful, destructive sea-level rise. The Mare Nostrum persisted, historically preserved, as Europe’s very own museum lake.
The legendary port cities such as Genoa, Athens, Barcelona, Nice, and even much-imperiled Venice — they had never drowned. Those towns had persisted. They were, in short, Mediterranean cities holding out in the midst of a Dark Age. Not for the first time, either.
Whenever we docked in port, Sylvester Glory would disguise himself and rush ashore, because he was eager for European civilized erudition, quirky cultural habits, and refinements forgotten elsewhere. Glory was a human sump for the eccentric, the far-fetched, and the improbable. As I watched him entertaining our passengers — enchanting them, even, because he always watched his audiences with care, and he improved at entertaining them — it dawned on me that he was infamous.
People had no good reason to adore this sinister character, but they did. He pretended to be a simple, roving sailor, a warm-hearted fellow with the common touch, and yet he had a sway over people that he never deserved. He had a dark, priestly, occult charisma, like a wandering Brahmin. In his attentive presence, people felt an urge to confess to him.
With a foreigner’s seeming naivete, he would ask them simple, even child-like questions, and then — seduced by their urge to enlighten him — they would gush out their secrets.
Glory wanted nothing that any normal man would want. He never asked people for their money, their respect, their political support — instead he asked people for their stories, and somehow, whenever he asked, they always had one. He coaxed those stories out of them — awful things, dire tragedies, commonly — yet their traumas never upset him. On the contrary, with his brief, too-knowing smile, he would offer them some diabolical tale even darker, some counterstroke that made their darkest dreams seem sweet.
Instead of fearing Glory, as they properly should have feared him, people felt blessed by him, happy to be heard and understood. Like some dystopian druid, he brought them a catharsis.
I had taken a snake into the bosom of my robot ship. As I conveyed him from the ports of Split, Trieste, Brindisi, I began to realize that I was the swimming frog, while he was the scorpion on my back. Even without his open malice, it was in his nature to fatally sting me.
I somehow knew all that, and yet, one night I drank too much. Then I told him the story of how, and why, my father jumped overboard from our robot ship, and how my father had drowned.
And Glory offered me forgiveness. He solemnly told me that I wasn’t to blame myself any more; that my father’s sad end was merely one part of a much larger historic tragedy. This was a story of humanity refusing parenthood, of men who might have become the fathers of sons, but had refused those human entanglements with the future, because human beings had lost their sense of purpose. We suffered in a world mankind had gravely damaged, yet it was our famine of meaning and feeling that blinded us to our human potential for joy and aspiration.
Glory said that we humans were choosing extinction in an unspoken solidarity with the hosts of our fellow animals that we had killed in the mass extinctions. He said that we had invested our hopes and our ingenuity into elaborate machines, so as to sidestep the necessary human task of improving ourselves.
This was quite a lot of fine talk after a few words of drunken confession from a ship’s captain. I was moved by his sermon, though. At the time, it sounded truly profound to me; it wasn’t until next morning, when I woke hung over, that I realized the verbal tapestry he’d woven wasn’t even “good advice.” It was just a story. A fable. A myth.
I didn’t know what to do about him — it seemed wicked to just kill him — but it consoled me that his charms did not work for everybody.
The gypsies on board my ship were wanderers even more crooked than Glory. Gypsy families were common on board big ships, for they always needed to travel. Also, they were useful to me. In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.
You see, despite all the robots aboard, the “Olga Scheinpflugova” simply had to decay, at least a little. Perpetual motion is not possible, due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Scientists and engineers understand that dreadful law, which makes myths and fables explode into dust at its touch. In theory, no one needs black-market gypsies, but in practice, everyone does.
The gypsies did not care that they lived in a dystopia. Because life for them had always been like that.
They lacked coins, and flags, and laws, and any national literature, but they always had plenty of children. Whatever evils had been done them, they just forgot. Their greatest merit was that Glory’s eloquence bored them. They complained that all his stories had too many ideas in them.
The most charming gypsy aboard my ship was “Carmencita, the Spanish flamenco dancer.” That was not her real name and she was by no means Spanish, either, but Carmencita was seventeen and intensely wicked, with a girlish genius for faking up every sordid, yet romantic cliche about Romany people. Also, Carmencita danced for money, because flamenco is not a hard dance to perform, especially when you’re young, shapely, and uninhibited.
“My Romany family respects you, Captain Rossum,” alleged the so-called Carmencita, “so I don’t like to tell a bad fortune to you. But this Sylvester Glory — he’s a soul-stealer! He’s a curse to an honest man like you!”
“Carmencita, I’m three times your age. So stop talking your deceitful rubbish, and just tell me what Glory did to offend you.”
“Well, instead of paying me for my dancing, Glory asked me to marry him! He even approached my father and brother for my hand! Now they want to stab him and take his wallet.”
“Glory’s not rich, you know.”
“Oh yes, he is. Even if throws his money in the ocean, because he’s an idiot, we can smell the money on him. He’s rich, and also, he’s famous. But he never tells anyone about his fame and wealth — he always hides the truth! He’s bad luck.”
I smiled on Carmencita, for I’d been seeking a good, solid chance to get rid of Glory, and now I had one. “You were right to come to me. Sylvester Glory is a wicked, jaded and nefarious character, and he should never trifle with a sweet, confiding creature like you. As soon as we dock in Naples, I’ll throw him off this ship, into all those Neapolitan mafia brothels and drug dens. Since Glory is Glory, and Naples is Naples, we’ll never see that rascal again.”
She nodded happily at my hopeful recital, but then she paused gracefully at my cabin doorway.
“Carmencita, run along now,” I urged her. “You’re getting what you wanted, so be a good vagrant and just get lost.”
“Glory told me such a sad story.”
“Oh no. He did?”
“Yes. He told me, that when he was young, he was engaged to a beautiful, spirited girl — just like me. They longed to be happy as man and wife, but she caught a fever and she died. The loss of his beloved wounded him so sorely that his whole world turned to ashes. He said, though, that if he could somehow find some wonders left in the world… and describe them for other people… then maybe, somehow, someone else would feel happy… although he had no joy of his own. He believed that his secret heart of hearts was cold and dead forever — until he saw me, dancing. Me, clicking my castanets and tossing my red skirt, me, the Malaga girl from the Mare Nostrum!”
“Look, he’s a sailor. They always say that to the flamenco dancers.”
“He can’t even sail!” she said, sniffling a little. “He’s nothing but talk.”
So I ordered Glory to my captain’s stateroom, but nobody in my crew could find him.
Glory had stowed away, but I finally managed to corner him.
During his too-curious voyage, with the nosey insistence of a harbor rat, Glory had burrowed into every nook and cranny of the “Olga Scheinpflugova.”
Once, the robotic yacht had been equipped to speak aloud. In other words, the Olga was designed with a verbal interface. But our robots, which lacked any will and consciousness, never had any idea of what they were talking about. Instead of thinking, philosophizing, wondering, dreaming, reading fictional stories, or confessing their moral failings, the robots simply used huge banks of statistics to emit long streams of plausibly connected words. The talking robots just blurted out whatever seemed most popular.
Glory, to his discredit, had found out about this. He’d even found a method to turn the ship’s talk-function back on again. I found him hidden in a dusty, shadowed nook, querying my ship, while writing slogans in his notebooks.
With the passage of many sore decades, the poor yacht suffered from Artificial Senile-Dementia, but this pathetic weakness, this robotic vulnerability to entropic time — that gothic horror intrigued Glory even more.
“Stop torturing the poor robot!” I shouted at him. “That is a neural-net database talking, that’s a haunted slumgully of the voices of people dead for over two hundred years!”
“She talks folklore,” Glory announced. “Because she talks a narrative that once made sense, but it was handed from mouth to ear, mouth to ear, until all the facts were blurred and smoothed by the passage of time, and nothing persists but a deep emotional meaning.”
I pulled Glory out of the old, musty, ergonomic office chair. “Get up. We’re docking at Naples.”
“Yes, Captain? So?”
“So, you should see Naples and die on the spot!” I almost shouted at him, but I had too much discretion to yell that. With a disciplined human effort, I bit back my reflexive curse. Instead, I took a deep breath, and I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
I revealed to Glory that, once a year, the robot scholars of Italy liked to gather in Naples. Academic conferences of computer science were one of their oldest monastic traditions.
Time and again, I had asked those computer-science eggheads to help me to restore the “Olga Scheinpflugova.” Because, although my robot ship could auto-repair herself, the sad truth is that robot hardware, robot software and robot interfaces can never be fully perfected. Code and machinery always have to be maintained — and those scientists were no mere laborers. Instead, they were learned academics. They scorned money, so I couldn’t hire them. Also, a ship captain’s orders meant nothing to them.
“Glory, I want you to venture into the port of Naples. Confront these Italian scientists. I myself can never go there, because I’ve quarreled with them. They have always refused my pleas to repair my ship, because they consider her too old — too extravagant — just a relic. They say that our grim dark age has no more need for any gorgeous, gilded yachts.”
“That’s a shame, Captain. A magnificent ship like this one, and people with the skill to fully restore her to the grandeur of her past…. Why won’t they just do that?”
“Oh, they’re professors. So they’ll offer you all kinds of reasons.” And, I’d heard the scientists talking, so I knew what to say. “The truth is, they have betrayed the great dreams of robotics. They’re not technical visionaries, like my grandfather was. In the winter of their souls, they have declined, into stodgy, dry-as-dust graybeards. They think robots are only meant for dull, dirty, and dangerous work, such as farming and construction. The crass, gross needs of mere food and shelter.”
Glory sternly shook his tousled head. “Man can’t live by bread alone. Without vision, the people perish.”
“That’s just what I want you to tell them, Glory. Go break into this robot conference — even though you’re not a scientist, and you don’t speak Italian, either — and give them a blazing speech that will set their souls on fire! Tell them that they’re the weak and meager monks of robotics, and that they should take up arms, with some robot killer drones! Go make a big scandal, Glory! Go and rouse them!”
Glory’s face was quickly alight with this prospect of mischief for himself, but for a long moment, he hesitated. I feared that, surely, he must be catching on — that I was sending him, a mere charlatan, into the midst of some genuine scientists who had every reason to arrest him, or maybe beat him to death where he stood.
But then he spoke to me, meekly, sincerely. “You know, Captain,” he mused, “I can deliver a sermon to rouse the people — I’ve done that before. But I ask you this — then, what happens? Unlike you, I’m not a practical man. I’m just a poet — I’m a literary artist. I can become famous for what I say, but I can’t build machines, or administer a government, or give prosperity to people. I’ll just be followed round, by gullible fanatics who treat me like an oracle.”
I should have listened to this warning, but alas, I had never seen any deeper truth in any of the fictions he was forever telling me.
Glory left the yacht when we docked in Naples, and he promptly disappeared into the bowels of the city. I dared to hope that a seaside gangster had knocked him on the head and thrown him into Vesuvius.
A few pleasant days passed, in the beautiful Naples harbor. We were ready to weigh anchor for Genoa, when, without warning, at night, a torchlit mob of scientists arrived and they attacked the yacht headlong.
They had brought armed police with them, and also a very large number of Australian sailors. It seemed that Glory had escaped the fame of his home country, but he had never escaped his own countrymen. These foreign boors and hicks were brash, rude, and confident people. They were full of scorn for the traditions of the Old World.
In Australia, people had no memory of how to build robots. They’d forgotten all the historic robot traditions. Robots, by definition, were “autonomous machines with senses, grippers and actuators that moved in three dimensions,” but Australian robots were somehow programmed to move in four dimensions. Those eerie robots hopped like kangaroos and looked like spiny echidnas, but they were profoundly new and different, so entirely alien to any civilized expectation that they were like messages of hope from another planet.
The rowdy Australians, supported by the scientists, and even my own ship’s crew — they commandeered my ship. They boldly confiscated the yacht, as their floating platform to reform the world with their robot renaissance.
Of course they forced Glory to behave as their new Admiral. This figurehead role-of-command did not suit Glory at all. The innovative pirates were merely using Glory as a rhetorical cover for their own disruptions.
Glory knew that, and he was properly ashamed of it. In his ridiculous admiral’s garb, he was already drinking heavily. But the truth didn’t seem to matter to anyone.
The ship’s mutineers chose to put me ashore, marooned, on the tiny island of Caprera. The gypsies carried out this task, because it was dirty work, at which they excelled.
Carmencita came along to taunt and/or console me. Carmencita had never been Spanish, but she had a woman’s tender instinct that a bull defeated in his own arena deserved a final coup-de-grace.
“I have decided to marry Glory after all,” she told me, while fingering her new, thick necklace of Spanish Mediterranean filigreed gold jewelry. “My father and brother know that Glory can’t last long, what with the many strains of his duties, and all that booze that he’s drinking. Also, my sexy allure will hasten him into his grave. Then I’ll marry some other fellow much more serious, and also, I’ll have the femme-fatale reputation of having killed off a famous poet. I can never dance very well, but that’s sure to make me a star.”
“What good are your evil schemes?” I demanded. “My beautiful flagship, they’re stripping her naked and making her into a carnival cruiser, like a children’s crusade for demented technological fantasies!”
“Well, you’re an old man, so you’re useless anyway,” she told me, while chewing one red-lacquered nail. “Captain, you believe that we are robbing you, but the truth is, we are freeing you. Instead of going down with your ship, which was always the doom you imagined, you will die in peace on dry land. In a bed. And here on Caprera, too, an island that’s famous for political exiles.”
Then they dumped me ashore, like junk, with nothing but my captain’s hat, my uniform, a canteen of rum, a first-aid kit and some fishhooks.
They also gave me a robot — one of the new ones — as a castaway’s Man Friday. My humble new servant resembled a large pile of wet Italian spaghetti, writhing inside a loose plastic bag. This amazing and ominous soft robot had no eyes, no head, no limbs, no hands, not so much as a computer or a motor. I couldn’t imagine any possible use for it, but since it had no set form and no inherent limits, it was truly revolutionary.
So that is my story. Maybe it’s just another robot story, but I think it’s sad. I should have told it to you in a way that made more sense, but I don’t know how.