Along with his brilliant Invisible Cities (1972 in Italian, 1974 in English), one of Italo Calvino’s most enduring creations was his series of whimsical and erudite stories inspired by the origins of the universe and scientific principles, labeled Cosmicomics (1965 in Italian, 1968 in English). They are narrated by a mysterious being called Qfwfq, who tells of the Big Bang and the time before that when the universe was a single point without space or dimensions. Qfwfq has a refreshingly frank and humorous attitude towards such momentous moments as the birth of our universe, the origins of life, the extinction of the dinosaurs, the first animals to crawl onto land, the early days of the Moon, etc.
If you seek out these stories, you will find that the most recent edition includes much more than the original 12 stories. Now, for the same price you can buy in print or e-book all 34 collected Cosmicomics stories, published as The Complete Cosmicomics (2009). This comprises the original Cosmicomics (1965), t-zero (1967, also published in English as Time and the Hunter), and World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories (a collection never published in a single English volume with eight new stories, seven of which are translated into English for the first time for the 2009 collection).
It’s an overused expression, but these stories defy easy description. Calvino believed that modern fiction was not addressing the most important new developments in cosmology and science in the context of the mid-1960s and amid the space race between the US and Soviet Union. So he took it upon himself to address these topics with a literary approach, and on top of that to add a whimsical tone to otherwise dry concepts like the Big Bang and dimensionless space. He also added a romantic element to these stories, as his protagonist Qfwfq is often pining after an elusive female companion, pursuing her across lunar landscapes, deep in the primordial earth, or in the farthest corners of the universe. So the big distinction with science fiction is that Calvino is fascinated with our origins, and at the same time uses the lens of literature to inform his comic tales. I will split my review into three parts to do justice to each section.
Cosmicomics (5 stars)
These are probably Calvino’s most accessible and enjoyable stories, and the first US edition translated by William Weaver won the National Book Award for a Translation in 1969. The first story in particular, “The Distance to the Moon,” combines all the elements I’ve described in a delightful tale of the early days when the Moon was much closer to the Earth, and the poignant love story that enfolds around it. It’s tells the story of Qfwfq, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, and Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who took little boats on the ocean to harvest the milk of the Moon using a ladder, big spoons, and buckets. The distance between the Earth and Moon is so short that a tall ladder is enough to get there, and gravity reverses midway so you are drawn to the Moon past a certain point, and appear to be hanging upside down from the Earth perspective. Calvino’s descriptions of this bizarre and fantastic situation are wonderful:
In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.
There they harvest the milk of the Moon, which is a truly unique and somewhat stomach-churning concoction:
Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue.
There develops a strange love triangle between Qfwfq, the Captain’s wife, and Qfwfq’s deaf cousin whose only passion is harvesting the Moon’s milk and exploring its scaly and alien terrain. I was surprisingly moved by the ending of this story, as I had initially expected Calvino’s story not to be centered on human relationships. This story is creative, literate, whimsical, and magical, and if you are interested in this collection I think it will win you over.
The remaining 11 stories are of equally high quality and charm, and explore a wide range of concepts and themes. Taken as whole, they are an amazing achievement and unique in the annals of fantastic literature.
Time and the Hunter (2 stars)
This set of stories is a very different creature indeed. It consists of three parts, “More of Qfwfq,” “Priscilla,” and “t zero.” These stories are far more experimental, formalistic, complex, mathematical, and frequently impossible to follow. In many ways they bear little resemblance to the stories from Cosmicomics, and I regretfully gave them a 2 star rating. I will separately review each part.
“More of Qfwfq”
This part consists of four stories: “The Soft Moon,” “The Origin of the Birds,” “Crystals,” and “Blood, Sea.” These stories ostensibly are narrated by Qfwfq, but his presence is fairly limited, and the stories often occupy modern environments, but still explore Calvino’s themes of the romantic pursuit of the Moon, the evolution of birds shown via cartoon strip, the elements that make up the Earth’s core juxtaposed onto New York, and the story of how life in the oceans made its way into our bodies via blood cells. It’s a much more cerebral literary experiment, and much of the playfulness is gone, but it does represent Calvino’s tireless drive to reinvent literary conventions to tackle scientific themes.
This is a set of three linked stories: “Mitosis,” “Meiosis,” and “Death.” I find these stories almost impossible to read or understand, as this passage will show:
So I am speaking then of the initial phase of a love story which afterwards is probably repeated in an interminable multiplication of initial phases just like the first and identified with the first, a multiplication or rather a squaring, an exponential growth of stories which is always tantamount to the first story, but it isn’t as if I were so very sure of all this, I assume it as you can also assume it. I’m referring to an initial phase that precedes the other initial phases, a first phase which must surely have existed, because it’s logical to expect it to exist, and also because I remember it very well.
My mind was reeling after pages of this type of exposition. It just went on and on, without any apparent storyline. It’s very much a literary experiment, but for me these stories had no appeal.
This is the set of four stories that really go off the deep end of mathematical experimental literature, and I challenge anyone other than a theoretical mathematician with an advanced literature degree out there to make any sense of the stories at all. It was so completely impenetrable that I just skimmed through the pages until they became a blur. You’re welcome to give them a try, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Again, a sample may help to illustrate what I mean:
I find myself in a random space-time intermediary point of a phase of the universe; after hundreds of millions of billions of seconds here the arrow and the lion and I and the bush have found ourselves as we now find ourselves, and this second will be promptly swallowed up and buried in the series of the hundreds of millions of billions of seconds that continues, independently of the outcome, a second from now, of the convergent or divergent flight of the lion and of the arrow; then at a certain point the course will reverse its direction, the universe will repeat its vicissitude backwards, from the effects the causes will punctually arise… it will be forgotten in the dispersal of billions of combinations of neurons within the lobes of brains, so that no one will know he’s living in reversed time just as I myself am not now sure in which direction the time I move in is moving, and if the then I’m waiting for has not in reality already happened just a second ago, bearing with it my salvation or my death.
World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories (4 stars)
These stories represent a welcome return to the tales of the world’s early days, narrated by Qfwfq in his inimitable style. After the incomprehensible mess of “t zero,” it was nice to read more of the fables of how the moon formed from the sea, waves of land thrusting themselves up from the primordial seas, carrying various odd characters on their crests (“The Mushroom Moon”), and a very haunting story of the decrepit old Moon and its encounter with a modern-world junkyard and the efforts of an army of young women in an ultra-modern ultra-consumerist New York to save the Moon (“The Daughters of the Moon”). Here is a memorable image:
We crossed one of the bridges that link Manhattan to the mainland. Now we were going along a multi-lane highway, with other cars alongside us, and I kept my eyes fixed on the road ahead, fearing the laughter and crude comments that the sight of the two of us was no doubt prompting in the cars on either side. But when a saloon car overtook us, I nearly went off the road in surprise: crouched on its roof was a naked girl with her hair spread out in the wind. For a second I thought my passenger was leaping from one fast-moving car to another, but all I had to do was turn my eyes round ever so slightly to see that Diana’s knees were still there at the same height as my nose. And it was not just her body that glowed before my eyes: I saw girls everywhere, stretched out in the strangest of poses, clinging to the radiators, doors, mudguards of the speeding cars—their golden or dark hair was the only thing that contrasted with the pale or dark gleam of their skin. One of these mysterious female passengers was positioned on every car, all stretching forwards, urging the drivers to follow the Moon.