Immortal beings with incredibly long lifespans are old news in science fiction and fantasy. From Dracula to Connor MacLeod to the Doctor to Lazarus Long, people who have seen centuries, even eons of history are as common in speculative fiction as robots and ray guns. But what about beings who have lived forever, but not always in human (or humanoid) form? What if a life form, a person, had also lived once as nebula, an atom, and even a dinosaur? In Italo Calvino’s collection of linked stories Cosmicomics, the non-human and yet all-too-human narrator named Qfwfq has done it all.
First published in 1965 in Italian, Le Cosmicomiche was translated to English in 1968. Though it won the National Book Award in 1969 in the translation category, I’m not sure it was on the collective radar of science fiction people of the time. If I were to describe the basic premise of who Qfwfq is and what he’s claimed to experience, he’d sound like an alien guest star on the 1960’s Star Trek. In the story “At Daybreak,” the narrator paints a bizarre and beautiful portrait of the nebular beginnings of the solar system. As with all the stories, an actual scientific fact precedes the narration, which Qfwfq then brings new insights to.
The formation of the solar system is described less like a stellar event and more like a family gathering, which slowly breaks up. When Qfwfq describes his sister leaving and his grandmother complaining, it’s hard to picture these “people” as the formless masses of swirling dust and particles, but that mental exercise is part of the pleasure of reading the book. At no point do you get a totally clear picture of the cosmos, but Calvino does convey a specific feeling about these big cosmic events he’s pseudo-personifying.
What helps this weird conceit hang together is Calvino’s humor. Science fiction collides with wordplay on these pages while a madman’s wit keeps the course steady. The most laugh-out-loud story in the collection is called “All At One Point” which attempts to describe what it was like when all matter in the universe was contained in a single space. From the story:
I say “packed like sardines,” using a literary image: in reality there wasn’t even a space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn’t even bother one another, except for personality differences…
Stuff like “personality differences” and later references to “the cleaning lady” hit you like a stand-up comedian’s one-liners. If anyone could have turned the origins of the universe and the pre-history of Earth into a routine, I’m fairly certain it would be Calvino. If Kant and Kundera were to occupy the prose of Woody Allen, I feel like they would produce a story like “All at One Point.”
But it’s not all metaphysical and astronomical word games. There’s a dose of tragedy closely connected to the concept of the narrator’s identity or lack thereof. In “The Dinosaurs,” Qfwfq describes his time living as the last dinosaur in time, when the “New Ones” have become the new masters of the planet. These beings seem to be some kind of proto-mammals, while Qfwfq is some sort of generic dinosaur. The New Ones have no actual memory of what dinosaurs look like, causing myths and legends to pervade the new social consciousness.
Because of this information gap, Qfwfq is accidentally accepted into a tribe and labeled as “the ugly one.” At times he worries constantly about being discovered, while other times he’s interested in gaining the affections of Fern-flower, a girl who constantly dreams of a sad, lonely dinosaur. Calvino uses “dinosaur” as a way of exploring who we think we are versus who we really are in a setting in which anyone could feel like a sad, lonely (and undercover) dinosaur. After Fern-flower reveals one of her dreams, Qfwfq reflects on his perception of himself and the perceptions everyone else must have of him.
“But the Dinosaur they imagined was too different from the Dinosaur I was, and this thought made me even more different and timid.”
Later he thinks about these notions again, worrying about not only his own identify, but his safety.
“A general argument began. The strange thing was that the possibility of my being a Dinosaur never occurred to anyone, the sin I was accused of was being Different, a Foreigner, and therefore Untrustworthy; and the argument was over how much my presence increased the danger of the Dinosaurs’ ever coming back.”
For me, the magic of the book all comes together here. Being lost in a crowd as a secret dinosaur becomes no different than being confused as to one’s own shape when your body is a nebula. If we all occupy the same space, are we any different and if we are, how can we tell? Ultimately, by placing these meditations about our human identity into odd non-human structures, Calvino has written a kind of book-length sci-fi version of “I am the Walrus.” Qfwfq is an atom as I am a nebula and you are a dinosaur and we are all together! Flying pigs from a gun and Edgar Allan Poe aren’t mentioned, but I think you get the idea.
The biggest achievement of this special short story collection is that it’s not pretentious. Calvino’s humor makes these stories like dark matter: you can’t really see the mass, but there is a disguised heaviness to these pieces. He doesn’t try to answer the big questions the stories set up, but instead, makes jokes about the moon, wonders how to draw a sign in space, and makes you cry for the dinosaurs. If you want to read something that will make you sadly giggle about your place in the grand scheme of the space-time continuum, this book will definitely do the trick.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. Ryan is the dinosaur, goo goo g’joob.