What a revelatory experience it has been to read this 400 page compendium of ground-breaking vignettes.
Cosmicomics are an invention of Italo Calvino and, fortunately, they have been rendered into English by a suite of excellent translators, and compiled into a volume called The Complete Cosmicomics. There is nothing like them in modern literature.
How may one describe something as unique as this volume? Its relationship to the genre of fantasy would have to be that of a bible, a blueprint, a template. In much the same way as Dante’s The Divine Comedy could be described as a bible blueprint or template for the afterlife, or Shakespeare’s collected works could be described as a bible blueprint or template for tragedy, for comedy, and for language itself.
Calvino’s Cosmicomics are absurd. To say most of them are based loosely on science, would be an understatement. In Cosmicomics, science is extrapolated to its ludicrous extremity. Science, as it comes across in Cosmicomics, is invariably less than accurate, and willfully so. It’s like science fiction on steroids. Sometimes, these Cosmicomics invoke superseded science, such as the steady state theory of the universe. Some of them play tricks on the mind of the reader with what is known in mathematical circles as Game Theory.
The word ‘play’ is apposite here. Cosmicomics are always delightfully playful, full of paradox spiced with wry humour, and evocative of wonder. Some of them have a final sentence or paragraph that turns everything that comes before resolutely on its head. Which leads me to ask the rhetorical question, Is Calvino playing games with us (his audience of readers), or is he playing games with us?
Calvino’s gender assignment will not please everyone, but his use of it is a source of fascination to me. Eschewing any nod to LGBTQI+ identification, he would have us believe that much of the universe, whether an everyday, a celestial, or a prehistoric manifestation, is either male or female. Solar flares, gametes, molluscs, dinosaurs, and – closer to home perhaps – ordinary human beings facing cosmicomical challenges, have one or other of the two conventional genders, which Calvino is typically careful to specify. In this way, he satirizes ever so gently the literary genre of gender-based romantic relationships. Reference the menage a trois suggested in the illustration at the top of this blog. You may need to look closely at it to see all three protagonists.
To what might Cosmicomics be compared? The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy springs to my mind. Though Douglas Adams had doubtless read Cosmicomics, his expanded Hitchhiker’s Guide – what he called his ‘four part trilogy’ – is nothing more than a clever and entertaining poor cousin. Cosmicomics is the real deal. It is seminal. Hitchhiker’s Guide seems like a mildly amusing extension of it.
I loved Cosmicomics. Like that other masterpiece by Calvino, Invisible Cities, it will stay by my bedside at all times, so that I can dip into it whenever I feel inclined and/or find myself in a bad space.
I endorse Salman Rushdie’s comment in the blurb on the back cover of my copy. Rushdie reputably says ‘If you have never read Cosmicomics, you have before you the most joyful reading experience of your life.’
There’s a promise for you. And it comes, I assure you, with a challenge or three.