“t zero” by Italo Calvino

This is a bit of a strange mix of stories. Some are narrated by Qfwfq, who tells in first person stories of his experiences as various entities such as a unicellular organism at the creation of the universe. Others read like a well-written, literary version of a physicist’s thought experiments.

All are interesting and thought-provoking, but get a little bogged down in places because of the very foreignness of the experiences Calvino is describing. In “Mitosis”, for example, Qfwfq is telling of his time as a unicellular organism, but at every word he uses he must stop and explain that really, of course, time, space, identity and other things had no meaning for him then, as he was unaware of anything beyond his own being. Even to speak of being unaware doesn’t make sense because it implies an awareness of being unaware, etc etc etc. Basically nothing can be said to really exist or happen in the way we understand things, so it makes it very difficult to tell the story. Good on Calvino for trying, and it mostly comes off, but not always.

I very much liked the imagery of the blood and the sea – the sea being the place where our lives originated, and the blood being the life inside us now. The external becomes internal, the shared becomes separate, cut off from each other. The closest we get to return is death, but even that cannot get us back to the shared, mixed sea in which we all once swam.

The title comes not from the beginning of the universe, as I at first thought, but from one of the ‘thought experiments’ towards the end. A hunter is shooting an arrow at an attacking lion, and Calvino freezes the action at the moment when the arrow is unleashed but the outcome is still unclear – will it hit the lion, killing it and making the hunter famous, or will it miss, allowing the lion to pounce on the hunter and tear him to pieces?

With time paused, the hunter has time to consider the philosophical implications of his situation. He has a feeling he has been in this situation before, and attributes it to the theory in astrophysics that the universe is currently expanding, but will at some point start to contract again back to a single tiny point, before expanding again. The process is not one of continuous expansion, then, but of a regular pulse, in and out, in and out. To complicate things, it’s not just space that contracts and expands, but space-time. So as space contracts, time will also go backwards. In theory, then, the hunter will experience this situation with the lion not just at the current point t zero, but again in reverse, and again as the universe expands again and contracts again (t1, t2, t3, etc.). And he might already have experienced it in past cycles (t-1, t-2, t-3, etc.) In fact, he has no way of knowing whether he is going backwards or forwards in time.

It’s all interesting stuff, and I think it’s the use of this algebraic notation which gives it a physics thought experiment feel. Even when describing a night-time drive to meet his girlfriend, he calls the girlfriend Y and his potential rival Z, and the towns between which he is driving A and B. The result is a weird, heady  mixture, not always entirely satisfying but always innovative and thought-provoking.

2 thoughts on ““t zero” by Italo Calvino

  1. This book sounds super heavy…. I’m not sure I’d make it through! I do have his other book on my list, though, and I’m excited to read that one.

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