The Infinite Matrix

Stories Columns Archive FAQ Home
  Schism Matrix by Bruce Sterling



Week 55


I've never been happier to be in Amsterdam.



Amsterdam sure beats hanging out with Italian Communists



Be nice to Olia. She's a net.artist.



Boy, that's weird. The European Space Agency is commissioning sci-fi space stories. And in English.



I wrote this presentation for an Italo Calvino celebration at the Milanese Triennale.

I don't have any other place to put it, so I guess it belongs in my blog.

Invisible Cities

Thank you for having me here, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Bruce Sterling, I am from Texas, I am a science fiction writer and a journalist.

I first discovered the work of Italo Calvino, at random, by accident, in a very appropriate place, a  public library.

This was not the Biblioteque National or the Ambrosiano. It was a modest Texas library in a moderate-size Texan town.

I pulled a book at random from the shelf, and I found myself reading Cosmicomics at the age of 14.  Very quickly I learned that science fiction didn't have to be anything like American science fiction.

That was a lasting and very valuable lesson for me. Especially valuable, considering that I  got that lesson for free in a library and I never had to pay for it.

Of course, now I understand that this was no common book. This was one of the most advanced and clever literary artists of the 20th century, using hypothesis, speculation and imagination to expand the boundaries of potential literature.

I didn't talk that way as a teenager, however.

When I was a teenager, I just knew that Italo Calvino was some guy could tell jokes about the universe. They were really good jokes, too. Jokes that were almost as weird as the universe actually was.

Later, as an impoverished university freshman, I bought a used copy of Invisible Cities for one dollar.

I still have that book and in preparation for this event I found it and I read it yet again.

In all honesty, ladies and gentlemen, I have to ask you this: how is it possible that one American dollar brought me such  wealth? It's  hard to believe that this event could ever take place in the world of modern capitalism. It is like some wild tale of luxury and riches out of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo's book of marvels is the work of a man in prison. A man who had once been an astute trader and a very busy businessman. Marco Polo was way too busy to spend much time reading books of marvels, much less writing them. One imagines this great, tireless traveller there in the small stone cell with the rusty chains.

In the Inferno, really. A prisoner of war. A prisoner, struggling for a new value system to give meaning to his cramped existence.  Struggling for some other time and space. He is mentally cherishing any memory that is not of his prison. Any thought or narrative that transcends those stone walls. Anything not the inferno.

You see, in his situation, Marco Polo has a great deal of time on his hands. Even more time even than an impoverished college student who buys used books for one dollar. He is a commercial businessman, not a literary fantasist. However Marco Polo has a cellmate who had a good literary education. This cellmate somehow has a pen and paper. He stole the pen, probably.  Maybe he bought the paper already used. Posterity is lucky.  We get all this wealth for almost nothing.

Given better circumstances, Marco would not have bothered to tell us anything. Mrs Polo and the three little Polo daughters had the first call on his valuable time and space. Marco would have been busy buying silk or perfumes, or maybe inventing and making some Chinese-Italian spaghetti. But circumstances favor us, and out it comes, this torrent of astonishing experience.

Italo Calvino clearly felt the presence of a fellow spirit here. Calvino was always keenly aware of his spiritual ancestors. This marked him out powerfully from most modernists and revolutionaries. Those people always grow so old and obsolete so very rapidly. This very literary man saw his own parallels with Marco Polo. No, not that the enemy had Calvino captured as a prisoner of war. But there was a time when young Italo Calvino was up in the hills as a partisan, with a machine gun over his shoulders. With his parents, the two scientists, taken prisoner by the oppressors who had occupied his beloved San Remo. An armed rebel whose parents were hostages.

Then there were the years of Calvino the ardent, engaged political activist. He was not content to sing the theoretical praises of Marxism. Calvino took the trouble to travel to Russia to actually look around and  tell people what he saw.

In the year 1957, this witty, amusing man  has a dark night of the soul. There are grim political developments for this  committed activist. He has to write his friend Franco Fortini and tell him that all is lost and his disillusionment is complete. Hungary has been invaded, his convictions are shattered. He tells this philosopher Fortini that his only consolation is that life is short. It's a witty remark, but no, it's not a joke.

It is 1957, and the world is already crumbling in the Inferno, and I am only three years old.

I know that Calvino never meant to have that letter published. It's yet another gift that I received from him completely without his awareness. But I take great consolation in it.  Because it was bad and he felt it deeply, but all his best work, and his marriage and his child, they were all ahead of him.  He endured.

Many critics talk about Calvino's imagination. Of course, as a science fiction writer I don't find this the most praiseworthy thing about him. The thing I like best about Calvino is his intellectual generosity. It is rare for a man of such intense intelligence to have such kindness toward his readers. He plays difficult games, but he doesn't make it unnecessarily difficult for us.  It is just as difficult as it needs to be, and never any more.

As a 14 year old I was hardly likely to follow the literary doctrines of the OULIPO group. I had never heard of Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec or Roland Barthes. But as a 14 year old foreign boy I was reading Italo Calvino, with a sense of sympathetic joy and understanding, even in a language that was not his own. Now I am 48 and visiting his country to honor him and his vision, and I am still reading Italo Calvino. As Calvino wisely says of the classics, they are works you do not read but re-read. And yes, I  do re-read Calvino.

Because he played intense literary games, because he is a writer's writer, people sometimes accuse Calvino of being very abstract and dreamlike and bookish. Lost in  his books, remote, even unhuman. He was human. But he was very, very far from limited or parochial. He was a man with a truly cosmopolitan understanding of history and culture, of language and human expression, and, especially, with a profound understanding of space and time. Of course everyone understands  Italo Calvino as one of the glories of Italian national letters. This collector and editor of Italian folktales, the learned commentator on Dante and Galileo and Ariosto.

But this was a man born in Cuba who married a woman from Argentina who lived for sixteen years in Montparnasse in Paris. An important contributor to French literary theory. He even edited a volume of 19th century tales of the fantastic written in English. Its erudition in the obscure byways of English-language fantasy is quite astonishing.

So Calvino was a generous man with comprehensive gifts. He is not one of these unworthy and unpleasant national chauvinists Crouching nervously within the iron fortress of his own borders.

His work INVISIBLE CITIES is almost entirely a celebration of foreigners. A celebration of travel and novelty. A dialogue between two men foreign to each other. One the celebrated traveller and narrator of distant marvels, the other an Emperor who is struggling to comprehend  his own empire. There are dozens of strange cities in this book. Inviting cities with the pleasing names of women. Foreign places, marvelous places. Impossible places, whimsical places. Happy cities hidden within unhappy ones, waiting for their time.

The world doesn't offer enough foreignness for Italo Calvino. He will range across continents and centuries just to make cities up for us. To put them into mathematical frameworks like a wine steward racking up bottles from dozens of vineyards on every continent. He knows just where each bottle belongs. He knows its merits and demerits as a vintage. Not because he is a vagabond. Not because he lacks cultural roots of his own, or that his nation lacks fine wines. No, because he is a connoisseur. He is a grand master.

He is a master of space, but time does not intimidate him. Of course no mere mortal can ever be the master of time. Calvino wrote only five of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. But, since it is the next millennium these days, I read these memos recently. They have aged very well,  like 17 year old whiskey.

I have to quote him now. Unfortunately I don't speak or read Italian. Therefore you will have to hear him bounced from the stone wall between languages and back to you again, comically distorted, like the funhouse mirror at the carnival. However, this experience would be even more painful if I myself tried to read the original Italian to you.

Try to understand that this is a visionary speaking in 1985 before the birth of the Internet or the World Wide Web.

Calvino tells us, speaking to us as his successors: "When other fantastically speedy, wide-spread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication into a single homogenous surface the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they *are* different."

I am pretty sure Calvino  wrote those words with a pen. That was his favorite implement. When I quoted him, I typed the words with a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the Internet at broadband speed.

But yes I understand that prophecy and that warning and that wise recommendation. I admire its clarity and depth of thought. I understand what communication looks like when it has been flattened into a single homogenous surface, because I live in the United States of America in the year 2002.

It's different here in Italy under the Cavaliere Berlusconi, that king of speedy, wide-spread media.

But it's not so entirely different, ladies and gentlemen. No, not so different that we in the literary intelligentsia should fail to communicate about that, in our languid, thorough, literary way.

This man Calvino has been dead for some seventeen years now. He remains very different. It is very, very hard to write a Calvino pastiche or a parody. He cannot be assimilated or melted down. This editor, reviewer, translator, great critic, this antiquarian futurist, this child of scientists who told jokes on the universe. Light jokes, but not the easy, silly jokes. "Molto pensato." Much thought-out. Light, swift, exact, visible, multiplicitous, and consistent, and always molto pensato. His work persists into this millennium because he deserves that.

Many writers who grow older become loquacious and never shut up. As his own time passed, Italo Calvino grew more compact and brief. I am not going to keep you unnecessarily, ladies and gentlemen. It is a difficult matter to listen to a foreigner who does not speak your language. The love of foreign rhetoric is a very "difficult love".

So I will conclude now by quoting and distorting Calvino's most famous statement about space and time.

It is the world-famous ending of INVISIBLE CITIES   in which he speaks of our world as the Inferno. Not in despair, but in a matter-of fact way.

A practical way.

Calvino says the remedy is to be found in space and time; in a gift of your own space and your own time.

He says this:

"There are two ways to escape the suffering. The first is easy for many: accept the Inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the Inferno, are not Inferno then make them endure, give them space."

When I was first discovering books as a young man I knew immediately the Calvino was in this world but not of it. So I was very pleased and honored to cross the space between Austin and Milano to give him some time. I appreciate the gift of your own time as you listened to me. I am properly grateful to you. Thank you very much for listening.


Bruce Sterling writes books like Darwin watched animals. Find out more about him, and read tattered electronic copies of Cheap Truth, at the Bruce Sterling Online Index. He lives with his wife Nancy and their two daughters in Austin, Texas.

home | stories | columns | archive | faq |