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