The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino is a collection of short stories, bringing together into one volume many stories from across the author’s bibliography. Within this collection are the 12 stories included in the book Cosmicomics, the 11 stories from the book t zero, 4 stories from Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, and 7 other tales translated into English for the very first time in this collection.
Often following the ageless narrator Qfwfq, each story covers natural phenomena in our universe, specifically drawing inspiration from real-world scientific discoveries as they were understood at the time each respective story was written. Be it the extinction of the dinosaurs, the separation of the Moon from the Earth, or the formation of the very atoms that make up our universe, each tale takes these scientific concepts and mythologizes them into a surreal exploration of the natural world.
Before this book, my only experience with Calvino’s writing was his 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, which left a significant impression on me due to its captivating metafictional qualities. My attention was drawn to this book as soon as I learned of its focus on telling science fiction, especially that of a more absurdist quality. That was all I really knew going into this book, and while it lived up to this promise in many respects, I found myself at odds with the text more often than I was hoping.
As I mentioned at the beginning, these stories weren’t originally published together like this, and an introduction to this book does a great job of putting the “Cosmicomics” into context, explaining some of Calvino’s motivations and serving as a primer for the deeper concepts of many of the stories. The most valuable takeaway I had from this section was understanding just how ambitiously experimental these stories were meant to be, with Calvino trying to broaden the scope of fiction by incorporating newly discovered facets of reality. Though I will get into some things that vexed me about this book, there is no denying a dimension of brilliance to it, something I wish I could have appreciated more.
I found that the bulk of these stories could be divided into two more general types. The first, which dominated the early sections of the book, had the most mythical quality to them. They were often very abstract, following a sort of fairy tale logic whilst also exploring concepts of theoretical physics in a way that fit with the narrative’s logic. Many of these stories had a helpful paragraph serving as a prologue, which would briefly cover the scientific concept that the respective story would be exploring.
I found something to enjoy and capture my imagination in each of these tales, though some more than others. I found that the less abstract the ideas were, the better. For example, Qfwfq living as the last remaining dinosaur during the rise of mammals in “The Dinosaurs” was a nicely poignant story about an era coming to an end and the way its legacy is remembered, presenting a fairly grounded story. “All at One Point”, on the other hand, was about Qfwfq living with his family and other beings when all the matter in the universe was contained in a single point, before the Big Bang. While I would hardly say I took nothing from the latter story, I definitely gravitated more toward “The Dinosaurs”; I could simply relate better to the world being depicted.
However, across the board, these stories had a problem with just how abstract they could be. Though some were more grounded, like I said, even those stories feel like they keep you at arms length from the characters and world. They read more like a story being told to the reader, rather than an immersive narrative. Knowing the author’s intentions, I understand why they were written this way, and there is something to be appreciated about the folkloric qualities they evoke, but this also made them a lot more boring than I was hoping. Ultimately, these are tales more about concepts than characters, which struggled to resonate with me.
On top of this problem was the second general type of story, which were often very stream-of-consciousness and difficult to follow as a result. Many of the stories like this could be found in the Time and the Hunter section of the book. Though not without their own intriguing elements, such as the story “Mitosis” which depicts the first-person perspective of a cell dividing and explores how such a process destroys the original organism, I had a consistently difficult time engaging with these stories. Oftentimes, in fact, I would be momentarily distracted from reading, lose my place on the page, and pick it back up again from around where I thought I left off, only to eventually realize after about a page that I was rereading text I had retained very little of the first time around.
During this middle section of the book I sincerely struggled to find the motivation to read for longer periods of time. Fortunately, the latter sections of the book were more similar to the first section, once again telling more mythologized tales. This allowed me to finish the book on a comparatively more positive note, with a few of the remaining stories striking a chord with me, but there was no denying that in many respects the book just did not resonate with me.
I’m regret that I did not like The Complete Cosmicomics as much as I was hoping I would, especially because it is easy to see a mark of brilliance within the book, even when I had my most difficult times engaging with it. In the hands of someone with different tastes, interests, and/or understanding of the science being explored, this book may offer a profound reading experience. There was plenty I could appreciate in Calvino’s craft as a writer and the ways that he formed modern understandings of physics and the natural world into a collection of postmodern science folklore. However, I found the bulk of the stories a little too unrelatable to fully appreciate and at times even vexing or boring to read.
My Rating: 3 out of 5