Saturday, 1 February 2014

Italo Calvino - The Complete Cosmicomics (1997)

"What each of us really is and has is the past; all we are and have is the catalogue of the possibilities that didn't fail, of the experiences that are ready to be repeated. A present doesn't exist, we proceed blindly towards the outside and the afterwards, carrying out an established programme with materials we fabricate ourselves, always the same. We don't tend towards any future, there's nothing awaiting us, we're shut within the system of a memory which foresees no task but remembering itself. What now leads me and Priscilla to seek each other isn't an impulse towards the afterwards; it's the final action of the past that is fulfilled through us. Goodbye, Priscilla, our encounter, our embrace are useless, we remain distant, or finally near, in other words for ever apart."

 "I don't want to boast, but from the start I was willing to bet that there was going to be a universe..."

Italo Calvino was an Italian writer who wanted to write stories that adequately reflected the rapid growth of scientific knowledge in the 20th century. Naturally the stories he produced in this mode, mostly between 1963 to 1968, would be at least somewhat SF-nal in nature. But considering Calvino's pedigree of historical fiction, and the narrative experiments he would go on to make, the result was hardly going to be straightforwardly Campbellian. 'The Complete Cosmicomics' collects every one of what Calvino dubbed his 'cosmicomic' stories, from the previous collections 'Cosmicomics' (1965), 'Time And The Hunter' (1967), 'World Memory And Other Cosmicomic Stories' (1968) and 'Cosmicomics Old And New' (1984). They demonstrate a novel way of combining hard science and the mythic and literary, resulting in a series of exquisitely crafted tales overflowing with enough sensawunda to rival any Golden Age SF classic. Mythic hard SF, if you will.
   The short stories in 'Cosmicomics' introduce us to Qfwfq, the protagonist of pretty much all the cosmicomic stories and a large part of why Calvino's central conceit works as well as it does. Described by Calvino himself as a 'cosmic know-it-all', Qfwfq is an ancient being who is as old as the universe, (or so he claims). In his time, he has been the primordial matter in the big bang before it exploded, unicellular organisms, mollusks, dinosaurs, human beings.... Qfwfq has been around and seen it all, and is not shy about telling you so, with many cheerful diversions. His homespun, folksy tone is paradoxically exactly right for talking about the unknown wonders of existence, as he bitches about supernovae like they were eccentric family members or smirks about coming up with an idea before his fellow bacteria did. The end result is not unlike listening to a cosmic Ronnie Corbit talk about the formation of the universe. In this way, Calvino makes quantum physics and evolutionary biology immediate and relatable, allowing us to experience the world bursting into colour with the formation of the atmosphere in 'Without Colours', contemplate the vast amounts of time taken for a full galactic revolution in 'A Sign In Space', or experience the cramped living conditions before the Big Bang in 'All At One Point'.
   The cosmicomic approach to science is worthy of note. Each story is prefaced with a quote, detailing the scientific concept central to this particular story. But outside of the core concept, Calvino throws scientific accuracy to the wind, allowing the story to play out with a mythic or fairy tale quality, or even with a daffy cartooniness. And so fishermen can climb up poles to reach the moon, Qfwfq can play marbles with atoms or, as a dinosaur, hide in plain sight in front of the mammals, and run around the moon with a pirate as it emerges from the earth. This serves to make sure the stories are always fun, however abstract or complicated the physics gets. However it also allows Calvino to experiment with the narrative structure, as in 'The Origin Of Birds' where he asks the reader to imagine the action happening as in a newspaper comic, with Qfwfq manipulating the edges of the frame to make good his escape. The mythic qualities mean that when Calvino retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as he does more than once here, the mixing of SFnal concepts and ancient myth feels natural as opposed to jarring.
   By 'Time And The Hunter', Calvino's experimentation moves from the realm of mixing language with science to mixing language with maths. The Qfwfq stories in the first section seem almost conventional in light of what follows. 'Priscilla' conceives a love story as the life cycle of a single cell, through the stages of Mitosis, Meiosis and death, whereas the stories in 't zero'  reduce and simultaneously amplify a warrior attacking a lion, a car chase, a man driving to meet his lover before his rival, and Dumas' 'The Count Of Monte Cristo' to mathematical expressions, single crucial moments as vital junctions of possibility. The latter, with Dantes considering Dumas writing 'The Count Of Monte Cristo' as part of his escape plan, is particularly reminiscent of Borges. The same could be said of 'World Memory', which is about reification and the impossibility of objective observation.
   Calvino's cosmicomic stories manage to be fun and entertaining, and at the same time effectively illustrate their central scientific conceits. But there is more to them than that. Throughout them all, with their reiterations of love and loss, and the recurring image of what exists being the mirror image of what does not, a kind of sadness for the path not taken - Qfwfq, for all his love of the new, is prone to fits of nostalgia - serve to give the stories more emotional depth than you might think. Calvino fought in the Italian Resistance during World War II, and 'The Dinosaurs' explores Europe's struggles with the specter of fascism.
   My favourite story in the whole collection is 'The Light-Years', in which Qfwfq sees a sign in a galaxy a hundred million light-years away saying, 'I SAW YOU', and works out that at the time two hundred million years ago when the light they saw him by must have traveled there he was doing something unspeakably embarrassing, and so after much agonising writes back, 'WHAT OF IT?', and then has to wait another two hundred million years for the reply. For me, this perfectly sums up the marriage between humour and high concept that makes these stories so compelling.

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