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The Complete Cosmicomics
The Complete Cosmicomics
Italo Calvino
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
432 pp., $24.00

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Alan Jacobs


Lost in the Cosmos

How Italo Calvino created a new genre of fiction.

For fun, though possibly also for illumination, one might conveniently divide the fictions of the past hundred years into two large groups: the ones that don't really care about the developments of science and technology since the Industrial Revolution, and the ones that do. The first group tends to overlap pretty significantly with the kind of fiction we call "realistic," while the second corresponds to a good many other things: most forms of fantasy, all forms of science fiction, and a great many generically ambiguous texts. Tolkien described his fiction as being preeminently concerned with "Fall, Mortality, and the Machine," and when Jacques Ellul wrote of the necessity of evaluating technique by standards other than those of technique itself, he might have been describing the chief thematic impetus of The Lord of the Rings.

Modern mythic narrative—or, perhaps more precisely, modern narrative that interacts with ancient myth, legend, and folklore in any of a variety of ways—seems to be especially concerned with articulating a response to life within a technocratic regime. This can involve turning one's back on modern science altogether, or, and this is the more intriguing and complex response, using mythological narrative as a means of controlling and manipulating scientific accounts of the world.

It is within the orbit of this second approach that we may begin to understand the marvelous stories by Italo Calvino that he called his "Cosmicomics"— as though he were naming a genre rather than titling a collection. And in an important sense that was just what he was doing. Anyone can write a cosmicomic: all you have to do is think of some event in the history of the cosmos and then imagine what it would have been like for Qfwfq to experience it.

What's that? You don't know who Qfwfq is? Well, that does pose a problem. Let's get you up to speed. Qfwfq was there, along with his extended family, ...

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