DATARAMA

The Complete Cosmicomics

March 10, 2014
Italo Calvino

The Complete Cosmicomics is a collection of … well, cosmicomics … by Italo Calvino. Before I can say anything meaningful about the collection itself, I suppose I should start out by explaining what, exactly, a cosmicomic is: They're basically anecdotes about the nature of time, space, biology, consciousness, evolution, astronomy and romance. Most of them are told from the perspective of Qfwfq, the grand cos(m)ic know-it-all who was there himself - for events as diverse as the Big Bang, the construction of the first sign in space, the formation of the Solar System, the extinction of the dinosaurs, the "invention" of the mollusk shell, the last collection of milk from the moon and the apocalyptic collision of Earth and lunar goop (bearing with it the progenitors of plant and fungal life on Earth, which was previously composed of primordial Earth elements, such as cement, plastic, glass and imitation leather). All stories start with a little encyclopedic science fact presentation.

It's sort of hard to place the cosmicomics. They're definitely a kind of science fiction, but where a Serious Science Fiction Writer thinks up a (mostly) internally consistent setting grounded at least to some extent in real-world science, Calvino just takes an interesting scientific hypothesis (he collected science facts) and spins a tale about it - the hell with concerns like "technological realism" and "suspension of disbelief" and all that other sf babble. The first story, the Distance of the Moon, is based on the observation that the Earth and the Moon are drifting very slightly apart from each other over time, and postulates an ancient past where people would climb to the moon using ladders (to harvest Moon-Milk; a cheesy substance composed of fermented organic matter that the lunar gravitational pull attracted from Earth). The hypothesis that all matter was once compressed in a single point becomes a story about (among other things) how it must feel to share a singularity with people you can't stand. Also, tagliatelle.

Ursula K. LeGuin calls the stories "intellectual fantasy", which I guess is as good a definition as any. They read kind of like what you'd get if you crossed Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince with Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Some of the science is obviously dated. As my precioussss notes in her review of the book, one obvious indicator of the age of these stories is that the Moon had obviously not been explored yet at the point. The exact placement of birds in the tree of life on Earth wasn't known at the time either. The Steady-State Theory hadn't been discredited yet. It's revealing that all three of these facts are relevant points to the stories.

The cosmicomics are highly episodic, with no overarching narrative (some of them even seem to contradict each other, which - given the form - is not really a problem per se, but it does raise the question of how much of it Qfwfq makes up as he goes along). They're also highly personal, although it's difficult to understand exactly which kind of "person" Qfwfq is - he has been the next-to-last dinosaur, a human being, a mollusk, a single cell dying of love, a camel, the first amphibian to ever fall in love with a reptile, a cosmic entity erecting signs in space, a primordial being from before time and space, a steamboat captain.

High points for me included The Sign in Space, The Spiral, The Aquatic Uncle, t Zero and The Soft Moon. There were no bad stories per se, but my least favourite would probably be the Distance of the Moon. I'd recommend not reading too many of them in one sitting.

It actually makes a perfect light-hearted companion for the much more serious (and nonfictional) popular science book A Brief History of Time, which I will review on a page near here, when I finish the rest of it.

Highly recommended.

As an aside, Italo Calvino was kind of a badass. He refused military service under Mussolini, successfully evaded capture and fought in the Italian anti-Fascist resistance during World War II.

 
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