Sunday, March 2, 2008

Cosmicomics + t zero + Without Blood

Three more book reviews ...

1. "Cosmicomics" by Italo Calvino

This is a collection of amusing and surreal stories based on science.
Each story starts with a brief quote from a scientific hypothesis or
statement.  In response to the quote our narrator, Qfwfq, recalls an
episode from his life (or one of his past lives?) that is in some way
related to the subject of the quote.  Many of the stories are purely
fantastical, such as in "The Distance of the Moon".  Apparently there
was a time when the Moon was a lot closer to the Earth.  Qfwfq and his
friends could sail on the high tide, prop a ladder against the Moon and
climb onto the lunar surface.  There they would collect cream cheese to
take back home.

In "How Much Shall We Bet?", Qfwfq and his friend, Dean (k)yK, wager on
events throughout the history of the Universe.  For example, events
ranging from the significant, such as the creation of the first atoms,
to the mundane, such as which horse will win a particular horse race.

As you may have guessed, Qfwfq is not an ordinary being.  He has existed
in some form since the beginning of time (and the universe).  He's been
a dinosaur, a mollusc, and even a human or two.

One of my favourite stories in the book is "The Light-Years".  A being
from another galaxy has noticed something bad that Qfwfq had done a long
time ago.   This being flashes a sign saying "I SAW YOU", which Qfwfq
sees 100 million light-years away, the particular event being commented
on must have occurred 200 million years earlier (at least - in an
expanding universe galaxies are continuing to fly away from each other).
Qfwfq checks his diary, and sure enough, he did do something bad on that
date.  It seems a few other people saw what he did too, because over a
series of "I SAW YOU" signs start popping up in other galaxies.  So how
should Qfwfq respond?  Should he put up a sign explaining himself?  Yes,
he decides, knowing of course it will take at least 200 million years
before he will get any feedback from his response.  Qfwfq replies
contemptuously: "OH REALLY?", "HOW NICE", "FAT LOT I CARE".  Eventually
the response arrives from the first galaxy that posted the "I SAW YOU"
sign: "TRA-LA-LA-LA" - what's that supposed to mean? Qfwfq thinks.
Surely other galactic observers would be more intelligent in their
responses.  But apparently not.  This story makes me think of the
increasing vanity of people in the developed world, as highlighted by
the dominance of reality TV shows.  Everyone can be a star it seems,
and many people are happy to expose themselves in the belief that their
lives are so important that complete strangers actually care what
happens to them.

The author, Italo Calvino, is not usually classified as a "science
fiction" author.  But in this book he was able to write a series of
short stories that achieve what I think the best of science fiction
achieves: to make you think about our world/universe in a different
light.  Without the need to resort to spaceships or ray guns.

A great read for anyone with an interest in science, and who wants to
experience a different kind of story-telling.  Knowing a bit of the
underlying science will help appreciate the humour a bit more, but is
not essential.

2. "t zero" by Italo Calvino

Another collection of short stories, "t zero", continues the adventures
of Qfwfq.  The stories in part 1 are similar to those in Cosmicomics.
They're good, but in parts 2 and 3 the author takes his writing into a
different gear.  The stories still explore scientific themes, but the
style changes to keep the reader interested.

Part 2 is about the evolution of organisms from single cell to more
complex forms, within the context of a love story (I'm not kidding).
The introductory quotes from scientists and philosophers echo through
the narrative that follows.  I found it a bit heavy going, but still

Part 3 comprises a series of stories dealing with time-and-space, cause-
and-effect, and related issues. Again, the stories are both humorous and
thought-provoking.  The meditation on a single moment in time in the
title story (t zero) was a standout for me.

If all the stories in this book were in the style of the first part, it
would be a reasonably good sequel to Cosmicomics.  But the changes in
styles for parts 2 and 3 show that the author was not content with
sticking to a formula, and was willing to continue his bold
experimentation in story-telling.

3. "Without Blood" ("Senza sangue") by Alessandro Baricco

This is a novella about revenge.  Manuel Roca, was a doctor at a
hospital that performed experiments on prisoners of war.  The war ended,
but some of the prisoners' relatives wanted to exact revenge. Three
heavily-armed men (Salinas, Tito and El Gurre) arrive at the farmhouse
where Doctor Roca lives with his son and daughter.  Roca hides the girl
(Nina) under a trapdoor in the floor.  He gives his son a gun and tells
him to run away, but instead the boy hides in another part of the house.
After a few exchanges of gunfire, the attackers manage to get into the
farmhouse and overwhelm Roca.  The leader of the group, Salinas,
explains to the subdued Roca why he wants to kill him.  The son tries to
help, but both father and son are slain in cold blood.  The attackers
then burn down the farmhouse.  The girl, who remained under the floor-
boards throughout the slaughter, manages to survive the fire.

The second part of the story opens with Nina, now a mature woman,
tracking down the last surviving attacker.  The man, Tito, sells lottery
tickets in a kiosk in the city.  She invites him to have a drink in a
bar.  Reluctantly he agrees, and when they get there, Nina carefully and
deliberately tells Tito her life story, starting from the time she was
in an orphanage.  She mentions how two other men that Tito knew (Salinas
and El Gurre) died under mysterious circumstances.  Tito starts to think
he is about to get his own comeuppance.  I won't give away the ending,
but I think it will surprise you.

A fascinating read.  The author could probably have stretched this into
an epic 400 page novel, but he spares us by telling a rather intense
story with economy and skill.  More down to earth and less poetic than
some of his other work ("Silk" and "Ocean Sea"), but it's another
enjoyable page-turner.