Science Fiction ≠ Science Fiction


As a kid I loved to read science fiction. Even though I have not read any Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Herbert or Fredric Brown lately, I still have fond memories of it all. I believe, though I couldn’t prove it to you, that it had a lot to do with my present attitude towards science. Certainly, I didn’t particularly like my science classes in school (until I got to college and took Geology) and my best grades were not in any of those courses, so I can only attribute my current fascination with all things scientific to the fiction I read as an adolescent. In turn, my love of science has underpinned my atheism, so indirectly, there is a definite link between Dune and my religious viewpoints.

Italo Calvino clearly loves science too. Especially (with apologies to Darwin) what might be called Creation Science. He wrote a book of stories in a unique, one-of-a-kind genre that might be called Creation Science Fiction, entitled Cosmicomics, the latest in the Nonbelieving Literati’s ongoing book discussion group. I say unique because this is science fiction unlike any science fiction I have ever read. Clearly there is science involved in each and every story. Indeed, without the science there would be no story. And no doubt it’s all fiction. But it’s not what I grew up reading as science fiction.

I was fully prepared to hate this book, which is a perverse way to get me to rave about it. I read the blurb on the cover, and a synopsis on Amazon, and thought it was a book I’d never pick up and read on my own. My idea of science fiction involves warp drives, and desert worms, and black holes and super computers named HAL. This book involves eyewitnesses to the scientific processes that gave birth and continuity to my ultimate existence. They couldn’t be farther apart. The normal conventions of science fiction are not employed.

Most science fiction utilizes existing science, and tries to extrapolate it, or add to it in a way that doesn’t stretch credulity, while making no bones about the fact that it could be true some day. It’s visionary in its undertaking, as attested to by the fact that much science fiction of yesterday is science fact today.

Calvino, in this series of short stories, takes science and dumps it on its ear, by creating characters (actually, just one main character)  who bear witness to  the scientific process involved in creation. In many instances, existing science fact is totally disregarded, in favor of the plot, while at the same time teaching  us about the science underlying the plot.

Take for instance the story told in The Light-Years. There the narrator is being observed in the present by someone in another galaxy, indeed, many someones in many galaxies, who are 100 million light years away. He (I presume it’s a he) is observed doing something embarrassing, and called out for it. He responds, but since he’s 100 million light years away, he has to wait 200 million years for a response. This goes on for presumably billions of years. While creating the impossible, Calvino ingeniously instructs us about the sheer magnitude of space and time, with the simple conceit of creating people who communicate over such great distances and time frames, something scientifically unfeasible, but conceptually understandable, given our limited grasp of reality.

There is no extrapolation of scientific principles, no visionary undertaking of the future. Just a simple fictional rendition of scientific basics with the end result leaving us with a greater understanding and appreciation for how the universe created itself.

I loved this book.

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7 thoughts on “Science Fiction ≠ Science Fiction

  1. I completely agree that categorizing this as “science fiction” is problematic. Science? Check. Fiction? Check. And yet, way outside the usual range of the genre. Something extraordinary.

  2. SI, I’m thrilled that you loved this book. I picked it because it’s one of my favorites, even though it gets me tongue-tied to try to talk about it.

    Nice post, and the graphic is cool.

  3. I love the graphic. I was never a science fiction fan until Star Wars hit the theaters. Then I met the deacon, a die-hard Trekkie. There must be something in his genes, because both of our sons are Trekkies too. So, I’m now pretty well-versed in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Qfwfq’s universe is something entirely different again. I just wish I could figure out how the hell to pronounce his name. I’ve just been making do with K-Fuck.

  4. I never read Calvino’s “Cosmicomics”, but I have read some of his other works, which I found to be both challenging and deeply satisfying.

    His work is typically classified as “post-modern” rather than science fiction (although I’m not quibbling with its designation here). He may have ignored the science because he was more interested in the idea of language and its multiple meanings. Perhaps his use of the science fiction motif was to “play” and explore how messages might change or remain invariant across vast amounts of time?

    He was one of the most prominent Italian writers post-WWII who was later labeled “post-modern” because of his style of writing.

  5. Count me in with the ones who liked ‘The Light Years’ — although, as related on my blog, there is probably a specific reason why I enjoyed the stories more as I went along. I can understand Joe’s comment about it being “more postmodern than science”. He seems to take single scientific ideas and then build around them every-which-way in a not-necessarily-scientific fashion. The results are certainly funny and moving, though.

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