translated by Sally McCorry
April 10, 2020
Winner of the 2015 Urania Award,* Francesco Verso’s BloodBusters is a heady mix of economic and political intrigue and fast-paced adventure, all circulating (pun intended!) around the unique premise that people pay their taxes in blood instead of money. As with his previous novel in translation, Nexhuman, Verso plunges his readers into a dystopian world that is disturbing precisely because it is so close to our own, but with a dark twist. In BloodBusters, we find ourselves in an Italy transformed by this new method of tax collection (and evasion), with the powerful Ematogen Company sending out “bloodbusters” to collect back taxes, by force if need be. The protagonist, Alan Costa, is a jaded but skillful bloodbuster who was brought into the business after a stint in the military (and traumatic injuries fighting in an unspecified location in the Middle East). As the narrator, Costa tells us not just about the inner workings of Ematogen and how he and his colleagues hunt down and (sometimes forcibly) extract blood from tax evaders, but also about the graft and corruption that runs rampant throughout his home territory (Rome). Costa tries to find something ennobling about his work, telling himself often that he is only enforcing the law and protecting the citizens of his city and country.
Costa’s belief in this idea is put to the test in BloodBusters, first by the existence of the “Robin Bloods” (people who illegally donate blood to the less fortunate); and second, by the network of corrupt businessmen and politicians who openly flout the law. As Costa explains, this new method of taxation has changed everything and nothing:
Just like in ancient Rome when, in addition to the Romans, there was a whole population sculpted in marble, a plethora of statues and mythological figures, today as well as the Eternal City there is another city, just as powerful and money hungry, that takes its substance from blood revenue and solidifies in juicy vitamin bars. (107)
Only when Costa meets a dedicated Robin Blood named Anissa Malesano does he start to question his own role in the Ematogen Company and his own boss’s connections to corrupt, tax-evading politicians. In Anissa, he sees a strength and determination that appeals to his own desire to find meaning in his bloody, grotesque work. Ultimately, Costa must decide if he’s willing to give up almost everything he has worked for to save her and reunite her with her son.
The wry, dark humor; meditations on history; and kaleidoscopic views of Rome make BloodBusters the unique and captivating near-future dystopia that it is. The Rome of BloodBusters is a dizzying combination of ruins and high-tech labs, ancient infrastructure and abandoned factories, Verso repeatedly confronts us with the ways in which the past and present coexist in this ancient city, proving his point that the things humans trade and crave and steal may change, but human nature never does.
Us Anglophone readers are able to experience this award-winning work of Italian science fiction thanks to Sally McCorry’s clear and engaging translation. It is stories like these, steeped in rich cultures not our own, that show us the future of international science fiction.
* given each year for the best contemporary Italian science fiction novel