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Science Fiction – Voices

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Science fiction and the canon: the case of Italo Calvino

by Elio Baldi (University of Warwick)

At the first publication of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomiche (1965) and Ti con zero (1967) in Italy, the spontaneous and quite explicable reaction was to read them as somehow affiliated to the science-fiction genre, which in the course of a few decades had gained an extraordinary popularity in the United States. This reading was, however, ‘corrected’ by the necessarily authoritative statement of Eugenio Montale, who pointed out that whereas science fiction is concerned with the future, Calvino’s tales all treated the (distant) past.[1] A couple of years after Montale’s review, Calvino himself – in a preface to the new cosmicomic collection of 1968 entitled La memoria del mondo e altre storie cosmicomiche – repeated the same argument to counter a classification of his tales as ‘science fiction’. Although he declared himself a passionate and amused reader of science fiction, he argued that the basic relation between science and imagination in his stories differed significantly from that of science fiction stories.

The combined critical authority of Montale and Calvino, together with the marginal, non-academic position of science fiction in Italy, turned this questionable denial of affinity with the science fiction genre into an almost irrevocable truth. The authority and institutional affiliations of Montale and Calvino in this case merely worked to reestablish the boundaries of the Italian canon, which in terms of genre firmly excluded science fiction.[2] In other words and stated somewhat more bluntly: the value of Calvino’s cosmicomic volumes would have been more difficult to defend if they had qualified as science fiction. Calvino’s hesitation in acknowledging any link or dept to science fiction can in this sense be compared to the attitude of Jorge Luis Borges, with whom Calvino has come to form almost a ‘binary star-authorship’ circling brotherly close around the center of the twentieth century canon and who was equally reluctant to recognize any bonds with the science fiction genre.

If we compare the American reception of Calvino with the Italian reception, we can point out some striking divergences, the most important of which regards the role of science fiction in that reception. Next to the well-known ‘essential’ Calvino that has entered the American canon through the positive judgments of important writers and critics such as Gore Vidal, John Updike, Salman Rushdie and Harold Bloom, there exists a different Calvino, who is a consistent presence in science fiction journals, anthologies and theoretical volumes and it is certainly no coincidence that the ‘In Memoriam’ for Calvino of Teresa de Lauretis appeared in a number of Science Fiction Studies. Moreover, science fiction writers such as Robert Sheckley, Paul di Filippo and Ursula K. Le Guin have acknowledged their interest in Calvino as a kindred spirit.

Interestingly, if one considers the question of canon and genre, we find that in a certain sense the American reception of Calvino can be seen as an inversion of the process of Calvino’s canonization in Italy. Whereas in Italy the overt dissociation from science fiction has arguably facilitated the quick canonization of Calvino, in the United States the opposite can be said to be true. For every non-American writer, the appropriation of a place in the American canon is an arduous task and since the social and institutional position of Calvino was necessarily much more marginal in the United States, the question of finding an audience for his books was not easily solved. In the context of this article it is interesting to note that the Cosmicomiche found a public only at the moment when the volume was relocated to the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ section of bookstores. It might therefore be argued that in the United States a reading as science fiction was even a precondition to the full acceptance of Cosmicomiche.

It would be an overstatement of the case in point to say that reading the Cosmicomiche without recognizing possible connections to science fiction is misguided: rather, a range of interesting and plausible readings of Calvino’s works remains unexplored by Italian critics. To argue that Calvino’s tales do not deal with the future is a sophism which implies that all science fiction is by nature only future-oriented: we can easily disprove this statement by pointing to the numerous science fiction stories that revolve around a theme of the (distant) past, from Dinosaurs to the fall of the Roman empire, or the equally important strand in science fiction of ‘alternate history’.[3]

The fact that Calvino termed his tales ‘cosmicomiche’ – just as he significantly and successfully labeled Primo Levi’s Storie naturali as ‘racconti fantabiologici’, thereby stressing their idiosyncratic nature – has diverted Italian critics from delving deeper into the strata of science fiction that unquestionably underlie Calvino’s stories just as much as the other sources already recognized (by Calvino himself and critics alike). Calvino’s stories open with a scientific discovery that spurs the imagination, stretching the boundaries of knowledge to its most inventive extreme: a new world. This unlocking of the ontological potential inherent in every epistemological shift is precisely one of the defining characteristics of the best science fiction. To point out all the similarities between specific science fiction novels and stories on the one hand and Calvino’s cosmicomic creations on the other would lead us astray and send us spinning off into (cyber)space through lengthy specifications. Suffice it to say here that there are also many thematical and structural comparisons that can fruitfully be made, for example on the basis of the theories which the Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine laid out about the fact that chaos and order are intricately interwoven in the evolution of our universe. The theories of Prigogine are not only assimilated by several science fiction authors, but also by Calvino, whose positive judgment is even reported on the back cover of the English translation of Prigogine’s Order out of chaos.

In the fairly stable universe of Calvino criticism a science fiction reading might in fact prove that the stars which now seem to be fixed stars, are in fact more than able to form new constellations, thereby shedding new light on both Calvino himself as on (the reception of) science fiction in Italy.

[1] E. Montale, ‘È fantascientifico ma alla rovescia (Le cosmicomiche di Italo Calvino)’, Corriere della Sera, 5 December 1965.
[2] Calvino himself was clearly aware of this fact, talking about science fiction as a ‘minor literary genre’ in his essay ‘L’utopia pulviscolare’, in Saggi, 1945-1985, ed. Mario Barenghi (Milan: Mondadori, 1995).
[3] Again we can verify that Calvino was well aware of the traditional temporal complexity inherent in utopian writing (see ‘L’utopia pulviscolare’, p. 309).

Elio Baldi has studied History, Italian and Literature at the Universities of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Bologna. At the moment he is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Warwick. His research interests include the reception of the works of Italo Calvino in Italy and the Anglo-Saxon countries, as well as authorial personae, cross-media adaptations and astronomy in literature.

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This entry was posted on June 3, 2014 by in Voices.
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