"The Complete Cosmicomics" by Italo Calvino (2009)
"So it was indispensable to clear up the misunderstanding as quickly as possible. And to clear it up, I could hope for only one thing; that, after that occasion, I had been seen other times, when I gave another image of myself, the one that was - I had no doubts on this score - the true image of me that should be remembered. In the course of the last two hundred million years, there had been no lack of opportunities, and for me just one, very clear, would be enough, to avoid confusion."
Have you ever gone to what you thought would be a really great party, only to be stuck in a corner with the most boring person there? Reading "The Complete Cosmicomics" was a lot like that for me. I've read several of Calvino's books before this one, and began "Cosmicomics" thinking that it would be more of the same - only to discover that even the greatest author can be a complete bore.
"The Complete Cosmicomics" is a series of short stories that Calvino worked on up until his death in 1985. All of these stories take their cues from scientific concepts such as genetic determinism, the Big Bang, and so forth, and very few of them feature actual plots or characters the reader might identify with.
The first set of stories in this collection are not bad as short stories go, but they are a far cry from other works by the same author. As the stories progress they become increasingly pretentious, to the point where I began wondering how anyone could have ever found them entertaining. There is a great amount of intellectual vanity in these tales of evolution and macroscopic distances, both on the author's part and, I assume, on the part of those who take pride in "appreciating" them.
It's just like at that party when the boring guy corners you and starts talking about Sartre or Kierkegaard or someone like that. Maybe they don't even know what they're talking about, but the boorish nature of their ongoing monologue serves to mask their misunderstanding of the subject. After a few minutes you're only listening for the sake of politeness, and not listening so attentively at that.
I had exactly the same feeling when reading "Cosmicomics." However verbose his ramblings on the themes of time travel and cosmology, there are several embarrassing misunderstandings present in his stories, as when he attempts to discuss evolution in the absence of mutation, or biological determinism in the absence of an older order of natural law. It's not a case of overlooking the paradoxes that form the "whimsical" nature of his stories, since the presence of these misunderstandings undermines any consistency the stories might have had.
Calvino wrote some great stories in his day, but I wouldn't say his "Cosmicomics" are to be counted among them.