Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Science gives us a lot of specificity. We know how the universe began (though we don’t yet know what came before it), and we know an quite a about what’s happened since then--the formation of the galaxy and of the solar system, the geological history of the earth, the evolutionary history of life. It’s all fascinating stuff.
But those old pre-science creation myths have a lot going for them, too, whether stories of Gaia and Uranus, or of turtles and coyotes, or of a God making the heavens and earth in six days. While they may be inaccurate from a factual basis, they capture much of the mystery and awe we feel when we consider the origins of everything. And, because they often center around human desire, love, revenge, or failings, they tell us quite a bit about humans too.
Of course we always have both the scientific explanations and the timeless tales, but in Italo Calvino’s short story collection Cosmicomics (translated from the Italian by William Weaver), we also have both types of stories combined. Qfwfq, narrator of the tales, is a timeless being who relates stories from the big bang through much of evolution on Earth. The stories tend toward the bizarre since they incorporate General Relativity and quantum physics and are sometimes set where and when time and space have yet to come into existence. Calvino has lots of fun with such paradoxes. In fact Qfwfq’s name is unpronounceable for a reason. Qfwfq is less a traditional character and more of a mathematical variable, which can contain any manner of concept. Sometimes Qfwfq is a particle, sometimes a mollusk or a dinosaur, sometimes merely an equation or idea.
But the stories also explore very human themes—love, loss, loneliness, childhood nostalgia, the hope and fear brought on by change. The early universe, r the early solar system, and the young Earth, each, in its turn, changes a lot.
In its own weird way, Cosmicomics is about Qfwfq coming of age, growing up, transforming, emerging. The fact that Qfwfq transforms from a particle into a molecule, or from a fish into an amphibian, doesn’t in the least affect the heart of these stories.