The other novel published together in the same volume with Francesco Verso’s Bloodbusters (see my post of December 14) is Sandro Battisti’s L’impero restaurato (Mondadori, November 2015). Both received the Urania Award in Italian Science fiction, and this decision to publish them together could not offer a better view of what Italian science fiction is today: the range, themes, scopes, languages, visions of future are widely different, distinct and thoughtfully enjoyable. While Francesco Verso’s characters often enjoy a tongue-in-cheek, down to earth, palpable human (human/machine) interactions, Sandro Battisti’s world belongs to all-powerful aliens, capable of controlling quantum energies and use this power to achieve their ends. Thus, near human future on one side of the literary continuum looks across to alien shenanigans at the other.
L’impero restaurato (The restored empire) is part of a cycle of novels dealing with various themes, but one of the leading concerns is the answer to the question “What could/would an all-powerful, alien, male being do to/with humans?”. To make the answer more concrete, Battisti endows the protagonist, Totka_II, emperor of the Connective Empire, with the ability to capture quantum emanations from earth of any historical period and allow them to be embodied. Totka_II is one of the most powerful of Nephilim (in the novel, this race of biblical echoes is responsible for human ‘progress’). He is smitten with Byzantium’s power, opulence, military prowess, and therefore while he is looking to found another capital city for his empire, he is bent on establishing a new Constantinople. Using the ability to control quantum fluctuations he observes the court of Justinian and Theodora, the meeting between Justinian and a papal envoy, the triumphant entry to the city by general Belisarius. The most powerful pull on him, however, turns out to be Theodora, whose checkered past he knows.
The novel proceeds as evil forces gather to attack the positions of Totka_II’s empire, while the emperor is busy planning the new capital city. One of his envoys who was to report to him the augural liver reading does not return, and his vice, Sillax almost loses control while he is overwhelmed by the fluctuating energies which his technicians try to channel properly. The augur whose observations of the sacrificed animal’s liver do not give a unequivocal answer to the emperor’s envoy turns out to be an enemy whose military ability almost destroys the Connective Empire. I will stop here not wanting to spoil the pleasure for those who have not read the novel.
In an interview (with both Urania winners, published together with their novels in the last pages of the book, pp 298-301), Sandro Battisti claims that “l’umano non mi ha mai affascinato: è l’inumano la grande frontiera da indagare, così immenso nelle sue potenzialità da sovrapporsi, nel mio pensiero di uomo, all’infinito.” (the human never fascinated me: the great frontier to be investigated is the non-human, so immense in its potentialities that it superimposes itself as infinity, in my thoughts as human.) The novel clearly shows this interest: human beings exist as fluctuating energies, as posthuman entities bidding the will of the Nephilim and treated worse than slaves. But humans are also very attractive to Totka_II, especially Theodora, who in her desire to learn about the Connective Emperor’s real identity, abandons her earthly life. However, to imagine, let alone describe in verbal language, an alien world of vast complexity is impossible, and here is where the non-human empire meets its challenges. Battisti is careful not to be too technical, and leaves a lot to the imagination. But he also uses unexpected (almost deus-ex-machina) strategy to have Totka_II emerge victorious. One could quibble with Battisti’s mixing, on one hand, the utterly out of this world aliens able to travel on quantum fluctuations, with, on the other, their need to hang on the words of an augur. Also, the human language in the alien world rears its head now and then, as in the case of the directional metaphor which uses the direction of the hands on the clock (!) (“passeggiando in rigoroso senso antiorario”: walking strictly counter-clockwise). Nevertheless, there is no better illustration of Giambattista Vico’s principle verum factum est (we [humans] can only know what we made) as in the predictability of the fact that empires are created, have to be maintained, and fall, whether they be human or alien. The lovers of empires will cherish this aspect of Battisti’s Connective Empire.