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Eco, Umberto

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1932-2016) Italian academic and author active from the mid-1950s, famed for his work in history, philosophy, literary criticism and semiotics. His adult novels are not explicitly sf, the closest he came to the genre being in two children's books, La bomba e il generale (1966 chap; trans William Weaver as The Bomb and the General 1989 chap) and I tre cosmonauti (1966 chap; trans William Weaver as The Three Astronauts 1989 chap), in the latter of which the eponymous trio (from competing nations) gain mutual empathy on Mars after encountering a lonely Alien. His adult fiction shares with much of the best of the genre a central concern with both the nature of ideas and the moral significance of the methods by which we determine what is true. Il nome della rosa (1980; trans William Weaver as The Name of the Rose 1983) is a medieval detective story (and a story about detection), an exploration of the detective's empirical approach to the world and the importance of Humour, set against the fanatical certainties of medieval Christianity. Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; trans William Weaver as Foucault's Pendulum 1989) tells the story of a group of Italian intellectuals who, appalled by the stupidity of the books on mysticism and occult history that they publish for a living, decide to construct their own Paranoid secret history of a world riddled by conspiracies parodically similar to material illuminated by Jorge Luis Borges or Thomas Pynchon or Robert Anton Wilson, and discover that the human Perception of reality is more subtle than they had anticipated (see Equipoise; Fabulation). Their fabrication (or discovery) of a long-lived Templar conspiracy, whose climax would be their becoming Secret Masters of the planet, braids into one confabulation the Rosicrucians (see Johann Valentin Andreae), Francis Bacon, and others, en route to revealing Adolf Hitler's belief in the Hollow Earth.

The Island in L'Isola Del Giorno Prima (1994; trans William Weaver as The Island of the Day Before 1995), as well as the wrecked ship near it, are larger inside than out [for Little Big see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; Athanasius Kircher's version of the Hollow Earth hypothesis is cited here. In sf terms, these Pocket Universes work as almost animate models of the nature of science in the sixteenth century as profound paradigm shifts seemed almost to shake the planet. The eponymous narrator of Baudolino (2000; trans William Weaver 2002) presents his "confession" of visiting Prester John, and of comprehending other fragile marvels, as Constantinople burns: but the story survives. La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana – Romanzo illustrato (2004; trans Geoffrey Brock as The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel 2005) even more clearly than its predecessors creates a polarity between our modes of comprehension, in this case much of the popular fiction of the last century, and the human beings – the protagonist in this tale has lost his memory – who must make storyable the profound Amnesia engendered by the fake prosthetics of popular culture. Il cimitero di Praga (2010; trans Richard Dixon as The Prague Cemetery 2011) is technically nonfantastic, although the unrelentingly contiguous presentation of conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory – the novel describes the long fomenting of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903) – generates a powerful sense that this intense surreality may supply a better snapshot of our times (see Fantastika) than more "realist" texts can manage. Though it suggests that Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) may have been replaced by a double, Numero Zero (2015; trans Richard Dixon 2015) seems essentially nonfantastic, though its play with World War Two conspiracies presses against that restriction, as did the earlier Foucault's Pendulum [see above]. As a whole, Eco's fiction is remarkably inventive, sophisticated and humorous, expressive of a profound love for life over sterile abstraction.

In his prolific career as philosopher, semiotician and journalist, Eco did not focus intensely on the fantastic as such, though many of his individual essays contain material of strong interest. English collections of his work include Travels in Hyperreality (trans William Weaver from various sources, coll 1986), Apocalypse Postponed (trans from various sources, coll 1994) and Costruire il nemico e altri scritti occasionali (coll 2011; trans Richard Dixon as Inventing the Enemy and Other Occasional Writings 2012). [NT/JC/PhR]

see also: Italy.

Umberto Eco

born Alessandria, Italy: 5 January 1932

died Milan, Italy: 19 February 2016

works (selected)


nonfiction (highly selected)


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