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Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece

By posted at 6:00 am on July 25, 2014 8

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Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre.

And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.

covercoverImplausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities.

But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader — indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text.

I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk — one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos.

Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire — all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism.

The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story — I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories — and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre — yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf.

In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky — this time of his short novel The Gambler — but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t…but Calvino can.

In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity — I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.





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8 Responses to “Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece”

  1. Robert
    at 6:47 am on July 25, 2014

    An excellent article. I discovered “Cosmicomics” at my library about 40 years ago. I’d never heard of Calvino, but I was intrigued by the name. I’ve read it (and its sequel “t zero” many times since and while I’m not sure I’d say it’s Calvino’s best work (that might be “If on a Winter Night a Traveler”), it remains my favorite.

  2. Simon Lavery
    at 8:03 am on July 25, 2014

    This is on my TBR pile, and now I want to read it – thanks for an interesting piece. I enjoyed Our Ancestors and wrote a piece on Calvino’s The Literature Machine here http://bit.ly/1sFY2Sm – he’s always thought-provoking but full of feeling, too.

  3. James Cappio
    at 7:52 pm on July 25, 2014

    Science fiction fans–and writers, who are after all also fans–are perfectly familiar with COSMICOMICS. If you think otherwise, you’re talking to the wrong fans and not at all to writers.

    To take just one example, observe how often Michael Swanwick (never read him? you should) refers to it on his blog:
    http://floggingbabel.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=calvino.

  4. Jim
    at 9:09 am on July 26, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your life. What you related was beautiful and touching. It is reminiscent of my own experience when my wife became Ill and subsequently died six months ago. I will be reading a few books which she read and which positively distracted her …”Endurance” by Alfred Lansing. This will be as a way to somehow connect with my wife’s psyche and possibly to re-live her thoughts or feelings.
    I have found “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” helpful. I will certainly be reading Calvino soon.

    Jim

  5. Ben
    at 4:22 am on July 30, 2014

    To an avid reader of both what passes for “literary” fiction and what is boringly stigmatized as sci-fi, this article induces… mild irritation. The claim that “Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.”…is pure and naive speculation in the absence of hard data. For example: my love of LeGuin, Gibson, Morgan, Corey, etc. is predated by immersion in Roth, Bellow, Morrison, Calvino, etc. How and why these different writers should preclude each other is beyond me, as I see literature as an exploration/experience machine, which is precisely not delimited by the parochial discrimination we often find in reality.
    As whimsically entertaining as the above article is, it is the ditch-drawing between the simplistic&imaginary factions(tribes) of literature that irks one. The notion that the ethereal genre named SciFi (often simply a term of abuse for those unfamiliar with it) needs the blessing of an acknowledged High Priest of serious lit is at the very least… counterproductive. Calvino himself might have had a laugh at this notion… sitting at a table and yukking it up with S. R. Delany.

  6. Ethan Robinson
    at 9:59 am on August 1, 2014

    1. Science fiction people talk endlessly about how Calvino “is” science fiction. To say that “sci-fi readers” haven’t read him is absurd, unless you specify what group of “sci-fi readers” you mean.

    2. Unless you define what you mean by the term, to say this or that work “is” science fiction (even more so, to say that it is “in the sci-fi genre”!) is equally absurd. Though parallels can be drawn, and certain aspects of his writing will appeal to the same people to whom science fiction appeals, there is no reason to aggressively claim Calvino, and every other writer of whom the same can be said, for science fiction. To do so is to erase the very different things Calvino (and others) are doing. Even in your own extremely superficial description of Cosmicomics, let alone in the book itself, it’s clear that the reason Calvino doesn’t “show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf” is not that he “is deemed” (by who exactly?) “too respectable” (science fiction has not been disreputable for decades now, and it’s time its more aggrieved partisans realized that), but rather that he is doing something entirely different.

    That such basic, aggressively incurious pieces that refuse to ask even the most beginner-level questions of themselves continue to get published is a mystery, and a shame.

  7. C
    at 8:28 pm on August 8, 2014

    Completely in agreement with Ben. I deem “literature” as any and all works of, y’know, literature. I have Cormac McCarthy on the shelf right next to Thomas Disch, Theodore Sturgeon, Orhan Pamuk, Le Guin, Murakami, I have Brian K Vaughan and Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore with Ishiguro, Gaddis and Auster, Eco, Pynchon and Georges Perec and Gene Wolfe…it’s foolish and limiting to look at it any other way, and it’s disappointing there are still people so isolated within the bubble ordained by “respectability”–read, the so-called Canon with a capital-C–that they are prevented from being in a REAL dialogue with an art form they presumably love. Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Homer…these writers are very much at home in Fantasy, yet we dare not place Astro City or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on the shelf beside them because…reasons.

    I think Calvino would have laughed at these designations. It makes me yearn for a time when the world of literature actually engaged in the world and, indeed, the entire universe, exploring ideas and issues that actually enrich. A book as insane, funny, and insightful as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas probably couldn’t get published today. No, one needs to write some insular, navel gazing “saga” of an affluent individual–likely a English professor–dealing with the banal mediocrities of middle-class faux depression. Just mix in a dysfunctional family life, an extramarital affair, a dying relative, dead straight forward prose, make the characters discuss political and religious issues but never push too far or criticize too hard lest we offend this society’s delicate sensibilities, and give every character the vocabulary and cadence of an MFA graduate and presto! And though it might upset the establishment literati, while “literary” literature has gradually drifted into this sad state, “genre” fiction has always embraced the grand ideas that make literacy matter.

  8. tdenevi
    at 1:53 pm on September 10, 2014

    Great, necessary article. A favorite passage of mine, from “An Aquatic Uncle”:

    “It was a hard blow for me. But, after all, what could I do about it? I went on my way, in the midst of the world’s transformations, being transformed myself. Every now and then, among the many forms of living beings, I encountered one who “was somebody” more than I was: one who announced the future, the duckbilled platypus who nurses its young, just hatched from the egg; or I might encounter another who bore witness to a past beyond all return, a dinosaur who had survived to the Cenozoic, or else—a crocodile—part of the past that had discovered a way to remain immobile through the centuries. They all had something, I know, that made them superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre. And yet I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.”

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