Cosmicomics is a collection of 12 fantastical short stories set around the evolution of the universe. Each story begins with a short scientific hypothesis followed by a narrative by the old Qfwfq, who takes on a unique form in each story. In one of the stories, Qfwfq is a dinosaur; in another he (for Qfwfq often takes on the male persona) is packed with others into the singular point where all matter was concentrated before the big bang.

The early universe, where matter is still nebulous, where the orderliness of orbits has yet to be imposed and gravity behaves in strange ways in strange places, is a fantasy world in and of itself. Calvino uses this as the canvas on which he lets the quirky, geeky, and mostly delightful stories of his narrator, Qfwfq, unfold. The story, A Sign in Space, begins with the following scientific hypothesis

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution around the galaxy

Recent measurements peg the number at 226 million years. The Sun and its planets circle around the center of the Milky Way at about 135 miles per second; to put that in perspective, in the few minutes that it takes you to read this post, you would have moved a few thousand miles away from the point in space you occupied when you started reading this, without any conscious movement on your part. In the above story, Qfwfq leaves a sign in space, so that he can see it again after the 200 million odd years that it takes to circle the galaxy. Perhaps Calvino’s italicized nugget of scientific wisdom (as of 1965, when the book was published) at the beginning of every story is meant to help the reader discern the fantastically real from the purely fantastical, in addition to setting the backdrop for his narrative.

In The Form of Space, Qfwfq and two other characters, Ursula H’x and Lieutenant Fenimore are falling in space, ‘indefinitely, for an infinite length of time’. Qfwfq narrates:

I didn’t take my eyes off Ursula H’x: she was very beautiful to see, and in falling she had an easy, relaxed attitude. I hoped I would be able sometimes to catch her eye, but as she fell, Ursula H’x was always intent on filing and polishing her nails or running her comb through her long, smooth hair, and she never glanced toward me. Nor toward Lieutenant Fenimore, I must say, though he did everything he could to attract her attention.

One senses the makings of a love triangle, one that traces out an infinitely long prism through space as it falls. The characters go about their lives, longing, envying, speculating, passing constellations, polishing nails, falling through space along their parallel paths separated from each other. All hope is not lost, though.

Of course, if I chose to be an optimist, there is always the possibility that, if our two parallels continued to infinity, the moment would come when they would touch.

In a review of The Complete Cosmicomics (a book that includes Cosmicomics and three other books by Calvino) in the Guardian, the writer Ursula Le Guin finds fault with Calvino’s character names

If I can’t say or hear “Qfwfq” (kefoofek?), how can I hear the cadence of the sentence it occurs in? Here Calvino’s abstracting bent threatens language itself, reducing it to the literally unspeakable symbology of mathematics. That game gets chancy.

In contrast to the above view, I find Calvino’s palindromic and somewhat mathematical names endearing. For anyone that has done their share of equations, the lack of vowels is rarely the cause of intractability; one learns to call out the individual letters rather than fit an appropriate pronunciation. In the NPR series You Must Read This where writers recommend their favorite books, Salman Rushdie recommends Cosmicomics, calling it “possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve”. Readers of Rushdie’s works, particularly his children’s books Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life, may find parallels with Cosmicomics in the choice of peculiar character names and a world not governed by the rules of reality as we knows it.

Cosmicomics has been translated from the Italian by William Weaver, also the translator for several of Calvino’s books, including Invisible Cities, reviewed earlier. Weaver’s translation of Cosmicomics, his first translation of Calvino, won the National Book Award in 1969. Weaver writes about his association with Calvino in this insightful piece.