(Re)Generating the Cosmos:

Linguistic Constructions of Reality
in the Speculative Fiction of
Pamela Zoline and Italo Calvino

There is a fundamental dilemma that, presumably, each person faces as they begin to develop an understanding of their existence and identity which is something like, "What am I? Who am I? Where am I?" These questions are almost identical because they each address the same essential metaphysical issue of identity, "How and why Am I; why do I exist; what am I? What is the origin of I? Where am I going?" The answers to these difficult questions, whether intellectually satisfying or not, come in the form of cosmologies. Cosmologies create systems with which we understand the existence of the phenomenal world, and our own existence within it. They offer us a map, a concept, of our existence, tell us why we are here, where we are, and most often, where we are going. Of course, the most pervasive cosmologies are directly linked with particular religions, for religions are based upon the same issues: identity, origin, purpose, structure. However, this is not the domain of inquiry that I wish to pursue here, rather, I am interested in how the genre of Science Fiction creates, or recreates, cosmologies with which we might understand the universe and our individual meaning within it. How does SF create linguistic models of the cosmos, and what are the underpinnings of those cosmologies? If cosmological representations are created so that we can understand reality, in some sense, how is it done, and what questions do these cosmologies pose for the disciples thereof? I will look at two works in particular for this inquiry, Italo Calvino's short story cycle, Cosmicomics, and Pamela Zoline's short story, "The Heat Death of the Universe." I have chosen to focus my inquiry on these works for they seem to me to be self-consciously commenting upon the intellectual and psychological construction of cosmologies. I hope that through the lens of their introspective commentary on how cosmologies are psychological constructs, I can achieve some sort of explanation to how we understand the cosmos via linguistic representation.

Perhaps a beneficial way of beginning this discussion would be to generate some theoretical models of what cosmologies consist of, and in what way they function intellectually, psychologically, and sociologically. Beginning with the individual, we can assume that during the development of the intellect (which may not necessarily only be during the formative years) an individual comes to understand his or her existence and relation to the universe via the construction of a cosmology which renders a definable explanation of order within the universe. This cosmology may likely be one that is not entirely original to the individual; in fact, it is most likely that the individual will borrow, or appropriate, certain elements from existing cosmologies (the Christian myth, for example), or completely embrace all the tenets enumerated within a particular cosmology. However, that is not to say that the individual has not (re)generated that particular cosmology, for through the cognitive stages of realizing the cosmos in question the individual will have re-inscribed the perspective, the ideals, that are inherent in that cosmology. It will be a new discovery to that individual, and thus, a re-generation of the cosmos, regardless of the borrowed, or appropriated, understandings that comprise the cosmology. It is equally as likely, in this speculative vein, that an individual may generate his or her own cosmology, perhaps borrowing elements from several different sources, or even generating wholly new concepts of their own.

Perhaps the most important element of that newly discovered cosmos will be the relationship of what is defined as "I" and what is defined as "not-I." This is, perhaps, the most central issue concerning the psychological formation of a cosmos, how is the Self defined? Will the individual be an organic element within that cosmos, related to it not as a separate entity, but as a part of the whole, inherently. If so, then that cosmological perspective will be one of unity and holism and the individual will most likely feel as if he or she is an essential element of the cosmos, perhaps even seeing him or herself as the cosmos incarnate, and the cosmos as an incarnation of themselves. Conversely, perhaps an anthropocentric perspective will be adopted, thus creating a hierarchy of value within the universe where the individual human assumes the pinnacle of virtue. Yet another vision of the cosmos might find human existence as an absurd mistake. A sense of abandonment, or chaos, may define that person's cosmos, where they have been hurled arbitrarily into a hostile world where they have no transcendent meaning within the universe; they are abandoned in a vessel of flesh that they are bound to for their corporeal existence. All of these perspectives are common characterizations of particular cosmological ideologies, but they are telling, for they reveal a fundamental need of humans to place themselves within some kind of relational context with the phenomenal world, and to ascribe some meaning to the existence therein, even if that meaning is a void.

If the above paragraph describes the individual's dilemma, then we have yet to speak of this same dilemma in the much larger context of society at large. Perhaps it is not so curious that religions have a strong persuasion for large groups of people, for they do often offer a ready-made cosmology, one that has the answers to the questions articulated above. How are the cosmologies of particular religions made available and palpable to people in a consistent and convenient fashion? Through mythology. How is this mythology communicated? Well, in the industrialized countries it is made manifest by the written word. In non-literate cultures it is made manifest by oral communication. So, we can understand that cosmologies are disseminated through large populations, and over large geographical and cultural regions, through language. What is meaningful about this scenario is that as large cultures ascribe to nearly identical, or at least similar views of the cosmos, a communal ethos is constructed as to the meaning of existence and/or relationship of the self to the universe. Hence, a mythology is born that shapes thought and individual perspective as the culture continually (re)generates the myth of the cosmos through time.

However, it is not only religions that have had such an extensive influence over large numbers of people and cultures. Under the crucible of science many cosmological theories have been spawned. And while the findings of particular scientific endeavors have been used to undermine older, more conventional cosmologies, just as many of these findings have been used to uphold conventional cosmologies under new auspices. So, in looking at the constructions of cosmologies on a sociological scale, science can be seen as a very crucial force, both (re)generating conventional forms of cosmology, and generating wholly new ones. This is where Science Fiction, as a cultural and sociological construct, is interesting as we look at how myth is made manifest via language, written and/or spoken. As the industrialized world puts more and more faith into the findings of science, and the meanings that are evoked from those findings, we can see that fictional accounts of the significance of these findings are becoming more and more poignant in explaining how cultures view themselves in light of science's revelations. In fact, as scientific discoveries continually offer us newer and newer insights into our world we are forced to (re)generate newer and newer models of cosmology that conform to these findings. However, while many of the findings may lead to open interpretation of their significances, so to will fiction find an opportunity to speculate upon these ambiguous findings.

This seems a likely juncture into a discussion of how the above mentioned models of understanding the intellectual, psychological, and sociological constructions of cosmologies are related to the fictions of Calvino and Zoline. Let us begin with "The Heat Death of the Universe." While many critics of SF have offered definitions for what is and what is not to be considered SF, "The Heat Death of the Universe" reveals that taxonomies of genre are tenuous, at best. While the title may lead a reader to believe that the story's content will be highly technical and scientifically objective, it is ironically domestic and emotional in nature. In fact, the story subverts notions of clear categorization by melding scientific empiricism with the psychological and emotional states of being. Sarah Boyle, the protagonist, is a suburban housewife with a typically suburban lifestyle--she takes care of her kids, cleans house, shops during the day, etc. However, Sarah is quite anomalous in contrast to the typical depiction of suburban housewives, for her psychological reality is an ongoing polemic between what she perceives as the forces of order and chaos, theoretically and in her everyday existence, "30. Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family, which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death" (Zoline 211-212).

As she struggles with the thoughts of these forces, and her own daily existence, her mental stability becomes a mirror of the theories which she ponders. As she attempts to perform all of her housekeeping duties throughout the day she is burdened by the thoughts of entropical ruin within the universe, and these thoughts begin to correlate to her own mental collapse as she attempts to create order out of what she perceives as total chaos, "50. Sarah Boyle imagines, in her mind's eye, cleaning and ordering the whole world, even the universe. Filling the great spaces of space with a marvelous sweet-smelling, deep-cleansing foam. Deodorizing rank caves and volcanoes. Scrubbing rocks" (Zoline 216). It is interesting to consider whether the depiction of Sarah reveals an innate social flaw of 20th century, American, middle-class, suburban ideology, where women are expected to stay home and attend to domestic chores alone, and hence become psychologically claustrophobic, or whether Sarah, as a highly educated woman is too restricted intellectually in her role as domestic provider. I am not suggesting that these are the only possible renderings of her character, but I would suggest that both of these scenarios are possible readings that might be argued for successfully. As we see her continually without any outside social stimuli (as her husband presumably has at an unmentioned, but probable, white-collar job) it is not entirely implausible that she is simply suffering from intellectual isolation, and subsequently begins to lose her sense of stability as she obsesses over the theories that her education has informed her of.

Through this mental breakdown the narrative offers a psychological perspective of Sarah's particular cosmological perception of reality. So, while the story is indicative of mainstream, mimetic discourse (as evoked through Sarah's emotional condition(s)), it also includes scientific theories of the universe and the forces that exist within it. As each numbered entry of the narrative appears to be an entry, perhaps, into a diary of sorts (either mentally, or actually written) by Sarah, we can conclude that the entries reflect her most prominent thoughts. This combination of discourses creates a curious sort of story where the everyday routine is mingled with the cosmic forces of nature; the upshot of such a perspective is that while we usually consider our everyday routines to be a string of small, insignificant occurrences, they are in fact each events of cosmological importance.

Sarah's psychologically constructed cosmos is presented here to us as her story unfolds. Looking at the narrative from a structuralist point of view we can see a very ordered and logical representation of Sarah's thoughts, as Sarah Lefanu argues in Feminism and Science Fiction, "Sarah Boyle's life is a struggle against disorder. Death and chaos are held at bay by cleaning, ordering, measuring and naming. The numbered paragraphs fulfill the same function, as do the 'factual' or scientific inserts, and the careful precision of Zoline's language" (Lefanu 96). The fact that the paragraphs are numbered reveals Sarah's desire to delineate her world in clear and definable terms. The first entry is revealing of Sarah's attempt to grasp some way of making sense out of her confusion, "I. ONTOLOGY: That branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the problems of the nature of existence or being" (Zoline 205). The significance of this beginning entry cannot be understood until one reads further and begins to understand Sarah's mental dilemma, but in retrospect it reveals her train of thought. Sarah is attempting to place each of her philosophical and emotional responses into categories of human thought. The placement of "ONTOLOGY" at the beginning of the narrative suggests that she is concerned with the nature of her own existence. Later entries, which portray her as struggling with her everyday chores in contrast with scientific principles, are related to her ontological concerns, and while she never makes a direct connection between them, a correlation between them by association; all of the entries begin to merge as Sarah becomes more and more manic concerning her existence in an entropically decaying universe.

The narrative does not explicitly make links between the different entries, but one infers their relatedness as seemingly uncomplementary entries appear adjacent to one another without any explanation. In this way the narrative is nearly, although not quite, lexical in that the entries could almost be read without any particular order. However, while the narrative is lexical to an extent, a reader would have difficulty in understanding the chronology of events if read other than sequentially. The lack of directly relational entries suggests that the entries are all relational to one another, rather than only to adjacent ones. This sort of arbitrary rendering of meaning can be seen in Sarah's naming of objects, "Sometimes she labels objects with their names, or with false names; thus on her bureau the hairbrush is labeled HAIRBRUSH, the cologne, COLOGNE, the handcream, CAT" (Zoline 208). Thus, it is evident that while the narrative contains seemingly unrelated entries, Sarah's stream of consciousness mind-frame reveals that the entries are all related to one another as she tries to connect cosmological forces with her daily activities. In effect, what Sarah does is generate her own cosmos by coupling her everyday life with the theories that she has taken to be physical reality. Alexandra Aldridge offers a useful theory for the construction of cosmologies that may pertain to the character of Sarah Boyle, "But a cosmos, in the less grandiose sense, suggests an ordered system of ideas. The creation of a cosmos is an attempt to transmit a holistic view, one that is recognizable, yet in some way alien to the world we know..." (Aldridge 16). Sarah's cosmology appears to follow Aldridge's ideal of cosmological constructions; Sarah's repeated attempts at ordering her world are the manifestation of her vision of reality, her "system of ideas." Sarah's cosmos is also a holistic view, in the sense that she sees all things as being subject, equally, to the laws of nature, and thus entropy. Where Sarah's cosmology departs from Aldridge's ideal of cosmological construction is that Sarah's cosmology in not "alien to the world we know," in fact, it is entirely familiar. Sarah's cosmology does not differentiate between the mundane and the cosmic; they are equally subject to the forces of nature, and they are equally meaningful.

Sarah Lefanu has suggested that Sarah's central psychological dilemma is one of identity, "Here is no quest for wholeness, rather a doomed struggle against the slippage of self into other, a struggle to set up difference in the face of undifferentiation" (Lefanu 97). Sarah apparently sees herself as being a subject of universal forces, and thus doomed to ruin by them. As Lefanu suggests, Sarah is not attempting to reconcile herself to a role as an element within the unity of the universe, but rather, sees herself as an agent of creating order against the infinite power of entropy. Thus, she begins to lose her sense of self and finds that her attempts to make an orderly existence are futile, consequently losing her autonomous individual status to the throes of an ambiguous infinity:

54. She begins to cry. She goes to the refrigerator and takes out a carton of eggs, white eggs, extra large. She throws them one by one onto the kitchen floor, which is patterned with strawberries in squares. They break beautifully. There is a Secret Society of Dentists, all mustached, with Special Code and Magic Rings. She begins to cry. She takes up three bunny dishes and throws them against the refrigerator, they shatter, and then the floor is covered with shards, chunks of partial bunnies, an ear, an eye here, a paw; Stockton, California; Acton, California; Chico, California; Redding, California; Glen Ellen, California; Cadiz, California; Angels Camp, California; Half Moon Bay. The total ENTROPY of the Universe therefore is increasing, tending towards a maximum, corresponding to complete disorder of the particles in it. She is crying, her mouth is open.
(Zoline 217)

Here we can see a direct correlation between Sarah's psychological breakdown and the scientific principles which she obsesses over.The description of her actions and thoughts reveal the frustration and lack of control that Sarah experiences. She takes eggs from the refrigerator, but it is not enough to simply describe them as eggs, they must be categorized as "white eggs, extra large." Her preoccupation with naming and ordering objects is evident. In an act of desperate defiance (she has found the pet turtle dead in its bowl and this discovery has finally brought her emotions to the breaking-point) of the powers that she perceives as chaotically controlling her life, she throws the eggs methodically to the floor, one by one. It is relevant that she does not throw them all at once, for by throwing each egg individually she once again is exerting an order over her domain; she is in control of the situation, and she decides how the event will unfold--orderly. The kitchen floor is described as being patterned "with strawberries in squares." Here again we see attention to detail and to pattern. Sarah's observations of her surroundings are indicative of her mind-set.

It would seem as though in the midst of her own mental collapse Sarah is attempting to have some control over the situation. However, it becomes clear that her sense of reality has become tenuous when she states that, "There is a Secret Society of Dentists, all mustached, with Special Code and Magic Rings." While it is hard to interpret the various possible meanings of this imaginary society, it is not difficult to see that Sarah is beginning to have illusions of conspiracies. Just as the forces of entropy are conspiring against her, leading her to a state of zero energy, she imagines that clandestine and powerful social structures are also forming that are conspiring against her. Finally, as she smashes her dishes against the refrigerator, and they break-up into shards and chunks (irregular, disorderly fragments), she sees them as representations of different Californian geographical regions; still imposing an order upon disorder, she perceives her world through the rubric of cosmological theories of order and chaos, but ironically, in an act of futility. Finally, in the midst of her hysterical fit, she recounts the theory of entropy. The connection is clear to the reader; Sarah sees her mental disintegration as a function of the increasing entropy of the universe. The fact that she follows the description of her tantrum with the theory of entropy reveals this mental construction within her mind.

As we have seen in "The Heat Death of the Universe," individuals create their own cosmologies by means of linguistic construction. This was made evident in Sarah's case by the associations that she made in the rendering of her narrative. Her cosmology became clear to the reader as Sarah revealed, through the associations of a narrative, her psychological relationships between existence and the forces of nature upon individuals. Their is a similar kind of construction taking place in the narrative of Italo Calvino's short story cycle, Cosmicomics. The character, Qfwfq, is the narrator of these farcical stories, and he manages to bring consciousness to many aspects of the phenomenal world. In "Games Without End" the story is preceded by a scientific "fact," or theory, as each of the stories in the cycle is. The one preceding "Games Without End" is the "Steady State" theory, and it is briefly articulated in very objective language. The story begins, as usual, with Qwfwq offering his historical and experiential remarks on the supposed origins of the reality of such a theory, "I was only a child, but I was already aware of it,--Qwfwq narrated,--I was acquainted with all the hydrogen atoms, one by one, and when a new atom cropped up, I noticed it right away" (Calvino 63). Of course such a perspective is humorous, and perhaps it is so because of Qwfwq's nonchalance and familiarity with an actual event that we usually think of in abstract or conceptual terms. Qwfwq brings these theories to life, gives them consciousness, and makes them absurd by making them familiar. This is only because of the context in which we are used to dealing with science and its concepts. Since we (or scientists, at least) ordinarily speak of scientific concepts in objective registers, just as the factual information given us prior to the story on the Steady State theory, it is ironic and humorous to hear a character speaking as if he were seeing the original atoms of the universe being created yesterday. It brings the awesome cosmic scale of such concepts down to the familiar, almost the guttural.

As Qwfwq continues to explain how he remembers these atoms that are referred to in the Steady State theory as they were being formed, he also recounts how he and his friend used them as toys as they were playing, "Since space was curved, we sent the atoms rolling along its curve like so many marbles, and the kid whose atom went farthest won the game" (Calvino 63). The idea of the universe being formed not from an ordered plan by a God, and not by the objective forces of nature, but by children playing with the components that are the essence of existence becomes utterly absurd, and comical, as Kathryn Hume suggests in her essay, "Science and Imagination in Calvino's Cosmicomics:"

In "Games Without End," Qwfwq and Pfwfp discover new hydrogen atoms in accordance with the steady state hypothesis. But they go on to create new, fake atoms out of "photoelectric radiations, scrapings from magnetic fields, a few neutrons collected in the road" (CC, p.65). The creation of such new, rather unstable elements, and the assembling of new galaxies, which Qwfwq and Pfwfp use to hotrod around the universe, represent productive and imaginative acts, yet are carried out by two young thugs as part of their efforts to outdo each other. By seeing science in such hands, which is to say by such seriously playful association, we learn something about science as a human activity.
(Hume 51).
The universe is no longer something to be awed with, but the arbitrary result of some meddling brats who hadn't anything better to do than create space and galaxies! The absurd notion that we, and our universe, are the constructs of two competitive young boys playing marbles brings the melodramatic ideal of existential angst to its knees:

"'Go on, it's your turn. Aren't you in the game any more?'
'Of course I'm in the game. Don't rush me. I'm going to shoot now.'
Well, if you keep going off by yourself, we might as well stop playing!'
'Hmph! You're only making all this fuss because you're losing.'"
(Calvino 64)

Given this sort of slap-stick snubbery of the transcendent, Darko Suvin's well-known notion of Science Fiction as cognitive estrangement, "SF is, then a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment," is subverted as Calvino juxtaposes two registers of language (scientific discourse and everyday discourse)and creates his own sense of cognition by taking the abstract (the unknown) and making it notoriously familiar (the known) (Suvin 375).

Just as "Games Without End" (re)generates the meaning of the cosmos, and our material, if not spiritual, existence, the story, "All At One Point," (re)generates the cosmos as it reveals that nothing exists that we don't perceive as existing. In this story Qwfwq describes how things went when the whole universe was contained (not actually "contained" since the absence of space does not need to be contained) within a single point. Of course this story is playing off of the theory that before the "big bang" all of the matter that existed within the universe was at a single point. In contrast to the scientific prefatory material of the story, "Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies' velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe's matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space," Qwfwq's opening remarks have an ironical perspective, "Naturally, we were all there,--old Qwfwq said,--where else could we have been?" (Calvino 43). With such a familiar personage as Qwfwq as narrator the abstraction of such theories is immediately diffused and the unfathomable ideal of all matter existing at one point becomes merely amusing. Imagining whole societies of people being crammed into a single point, and yet retaining their social functions is absurd, but what it manages to do, just as in "Games Without End" is to subvert the notion of cognitive estrangement by juxtaposing two conventionally distinct registers, the scientific and the everyday, the result being the synthesis of the abstract scientific complex with the everyday common occurrence.

Perhaps the most prominent example within "All At One Point" and Cosmicomics as a whole, of (re)generating the cosmos is in the actions of the character, Mrs. Ph(i)nko. She is the obsession of all the men in the point, and she is sincerely an altruistic person, so much so that she does not have the petty feelings of jealousy that so many of the others do, rather she feels the maternal desire to make noodles for her suitors:

'Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd like to make some noodles for you boys!' And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed at the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)nko was uttering those words: '...ah, what noodles, boys!'...
(Calvino 46-47)

In the act of imagining the spaces that it would take to make these loving noodles, Mrs. Ph(i)nko and her imaginative suitors had actually created space for all the matter of the universe to occupy; they had generated the cosmos by simply imagining it, showing that reality is a function of perception; they perceived space and space existed. Further, the rendering of their story collapses (ironically) the notion of the "big bang" theory into an absurd scenario where the charitable wishes of a maternal figure set the expanding universe in motion, thus generating the cosmos, and (re)generating the myth of creation through the figure of the maternal character.

In conclusion, Pamela Zoline's "Heat Death of the Universe" and Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics are works of fiction which are articulations of cosmological (re)generation, the construction of cosmologies through narrative. "The Heat Death of the Universe" is a story that succeeds in bridging the everyday with the cosmic. In doing so it problematizes many of the conventional notions of the genre, those which view Sf as a means of speculating the unknown, or the very remote regions of space. In "The Heat Death of the Universe" science is used in conjunction with the familiar, and the two merge into an indistinguishable interaction where psychological reality and scientific theory cannot be differentiated. Cosmicomics functions in a very similar fashion, creating cosmologies using the familiar, and reducing science from objective concept to everyday occurrence. While these fictions undoubtedly deal with the issues that are unique to SF, they simultaneously undermine the unique qualities found therein by (re)generating cosmologies within the realm of the familiar and everyday world. They argue that while existence and the cosmos may be infinitely vast and awesome, it is also as familiar as you are to yourself.