When my fifth grade report card came, my parents looked at it first. I was sat down on the couch, and my mom showed me the letter next to science: “F.” A big fat F. What followed was ten years of educational angst. I’d become too stressed by school to admit I enjoyed it. When the time came to study for the SATs, I didn’t. I just took the test, and then, having done badly the first time, retook it. Then, when my friends were visiting college campuses, I didn’t. I visited one, and decided I didn’t like it. I told anybody who’d listen college wasn’t for me.
It’s a good thing I changed my mind about school if only because that’s where I first got to read Italo Calvino. For those not yet consumed, one of Calvino’s most famous work, Cosmicomics, takes then-contemporary scientific theories and spins them into fables. The moments before the big bang becomes the setting for a steamy romance, and the formation of hydrogen atoms becomes a game which two shapeless characters play. ‘The Distance of the Moon’ tells of a time when the Moon orbited so closely to Earth that people could jump up on it with a ladder. If this seems familiar, it inspired Pixar’s short ‘La Luna.’
COSMICOMICS: The Soft Moon | Art By Matt Kish
Cosmicomics is Calvino’s clearest rethinking of how science works and how people interact to it, but this theme pervades his work. A crater on Mercury was actually named after him. At the time of his death, he was Italy’s most-translated writer. For me, even though my relationship with science almost derailed my entire education, Calvino’s relationship with science steered me back on what I think is my proper course.
Invisible Cities is essentially a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, with Marco Polo recounting all the cities he’s explored. It’s told as a series of prose poems, each describing a different city. The thing is, each city is impossibly imagined. They can’t actually exist. One city, Octavia, is suspended above an abyss with just a net to protect them. Argia, another city, has earth instead of air. For Calvino, cities are not physical places, but extensions of ideas.
If Cosmicomics plays with scientific theories, then Invisible Cities deconstructs the very principles of science. Things like space and time don’t apply to Calvino as a writer. If they don’t apply to his writing, then they also don’t apply to his readers. Reading Calvino is like turning off gravity. Or maybe it’s like entering a supermassive black hole and somehow being able to exist just fine in it.
Art By Eda Akaltun
For example, take the short story ‘The Light-Years.’ The inciting scientific idea for Calvino is how fast light travels from distant stars. The speaker, Qfwfq (a fundamentally unimaginable protagonist), believes someone on a distant star somehow saw something embarrassing he’d done a hundred million years ago. He must therefore write a sign to them to try to find out what they know, but the light from his sign will only reach his observer in millions more years. Then, if they respond, their message can only reach him in millions more years. Time and space are never out of the question, but Calvino does twist them into distinctly unfamiliar concepts. Time doesn’t work the way we expect it to because Qfwfq is apparently eternal. Space doesn’t work the way we think because somehow someone on a planet hundreds of millions of miles away can witness a single embarrassing act and respond to it.
In books like t zero (a continuation of Cosmicomics), Numbers in the Dark, The Cloven Viscount, The Nonexistent Knight, and Mr. Palomar, Calvino plays with his readers’ understanding of the physical world. And I mean it when I say “play.” He’s playful and funny and irreverent. He’s also intimidatingly, sometimes frustratingly, intelligent.
His mom and dad were both accomplished botanists and his younger brother became an accomplished geologist. He was always surrounded by science and even studied botany at the University of Turin. Because he’s a literary punk rocker, though, Calvino took his askew perspective and mashed up his two favorite subjects: literature and science. From that came he most mind-bending books available.
Books, as a medium, allow for almost totally unrestrained entertainment. Even in today’s blockbusters, with their expensive CGI budgets that can make dragons photorealistic, there are still restrictions. Budget, technology, manpower. There will always be restrictions to what we can see. But literature has no restrictions. Calvino’s proof. Even science doesn’t apply to his stories.
In fifth grade, my love of education was almost obliterated by science. But because of Calvino, science (or the deconstruction of it) taught me how to love reading, writing, and just basically everything about learning things. It’s weird how the things you love can reduce you either to being totally mute or unintelligibly verbose. For Calvino and science, he wrote books and books on science. For me and Calvino, expect more articles.
Feature Image Via Pixar