Did Calvino Dream of Literary Androids?

The Italian writer explored the narrative as a combinatorial process and anticipated the functioning of generative artificial intelligence systems.

Woman holding typewriter ribbon, ca. 1930s

Woman holding typewriter ribbon, ca. 1930s | Robert Yarnall Richie, DeGolyer Library | Public domain

In his essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts”, Italo Calvino imagines a “poetic-electronic machine” capable of writing. But his dreams went beyond artificial intelligence systems that stuck to the guidelines and rules of traditional literature. Calvino projected a chaotic machine that would shun norms, and explore new and disruptive paths.

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba on 15 September 1923 but he considered himself to be from Liguria (“sono tanto nato a Sanremo che sono nato in America”). At that time, Europeans still emigrated to “do” America. Calvino was born in America but he trained and grew as a storyteller in the offices of Einaudi in Turin, the great publishing house founded at the height of fascism and reborn in the dopoguerra where a new writer could exchange reading matter with Cesare Pavese, chat with Natalia Ginzburg or have an espresso with his “soul mate”, the survivor Primo Levi. It is no coincidence that they are known as La Tribù Einaudi.

Like his Piedmontese contemporary Umberto Eco, Calvino was an extremely curious type. He knew of structuralist theories (from Vladimir Propp to Algirdas Greimas, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and his colleagues at Communications), closely followed European literary production (with special interest in the French Oulipo group who experimented with textual combinatorics) and was up to date with the latest scientific theories and findings. Alongside his fictional work, Calvino wove a textual framework of interviews and essays that, without abandoning the centrality of the literary, addressed the big cultural themes of his time.

In 1955 Einaudi translated Fictions by Jorge L. Borges and, three years later, Feltrinelli published The Aleph. The desert labyrinths and infinite libraries of Borges further distanced Calvino from the predictable continuities of traditional narrative. “Literature, like mathematics, is abstraction and formalization”, as he said in an interview published in the Gazette de Lausanne in June 1967. Although the Italian translation of Claude Shannon’s classic about the mathematical theory of communication arrived in 1971, as early as in 1963 Mondadori had published La teoria dell’informazione. Simboli, codici, messaggi (An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals, and Noise), a volume written by John R. Pierce, Shannon’s colleague at Bell Labs. Concepts such as noise, entropy and feedback were available to any creator who wanted to branch out and explore new forking literary paths.

This is the context in which Calvino dreamt of literary androids.


“In the particular way today’s culture looks at the world, one tendency is emerging from several directions at once. The world in its various aspects is increasingly looked upon as discrete rather than continuous. I am using the term ‘discrete’ in the sense it bears in mathematics, a discrete quantity being one made up of separate parts. Thought, which until the other day appeared to us as something fluid, evoking linear images such as a flowing river or an unwinding thread, or else gaseous images such as a kind of vaporous cloud – to the point where it was sometimes called ‘spirit’ (in the sense of ‘breath’) –, we now tend to think of as a series of discontinuous states, of combinations of impulses acting on a finite (though enormous) number of sensory and motor organs. Electronic brains, even if they are still far from producing all the functions of the human brain, are nonetheless capable of providing us with a convincing theoretical model for the most complex processes of our memory, our mental associations, our imagination, our conscience. Shannon, Wiener, von Neumann, and Turing have radically altered our image of our mental processes.” (“Cybernetics and Ghosts”)


From 1967 to 1968 Calvino undertook an academic tour of several cities (Turin, Milan, Genoa, Rome, Bari) organized by the Associazione Culturale Italiana. The same lecture, titled “Cybernetics and Ghosts. Notes on Narrative as a Combinatory Process”, was later presented in Germany, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Together with Umberto Eco’s The Open Work (1962) and Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963), this talk by Calvino is now part of the official genealogy of digital hypertext. Now we can also (re)read it as a paleofuturist exercise in generative artificial intelligence.


According to Calvino, “mathematical complexity can be digested instantly by electronic brains”. The old dream of a thinking machine like the one Ramon Llull imagined in his Ars combinatoria, now “become entirely real”. While Hegel and Darwin had decreed the triumph of historical and biological continuity, this new model continued “the curves of statistical diagrams, and historical research is leaning more and more toward mathematics”. But not only does history follow the undulations of Big Data: half a century after Calvin, textual creation also rides textual waves every time it has to predict the next word. One of the most fascinating and much used functions of ChatGPT is the one that allows you to continue a text. All you have to do is write the first sentence of a story and add the prompt “Continue: true”.


Prompt: Once upon a time there was a novelist called Italo interested in combinatorics. Continue: true.

Once upon a time there was a novelist called Italo interested in combinatorics. Unlike most authors, Italo not only found the combination of elements in his stories fascinating, he also believed he could use combinatorics to foresee the future. This made him a controversial figure in the world of literature and mathematics.

Italo had developed a unique theory that related word combinations in his novels to real-life events. He believed that by manipulating certain sequences of words and symbols in his writing, he could influence the course of events in the world. His followers called him a “prophetic writer”, while his critics branded him a charlatan.

In his best-known work, The Algorithm of Destiny, Italo explored his theory in detail. The novel is about a character who discovers an ancient manuscript that supposedly contains the secret algorithm that determines the fate of people. Italo used advanced combinatorial techniques to construct a narrative in which the characters’ decisions had real effects on the outside world.


“Mankind is beginning to understand how to dismantle and reassemble the most complex and unpredictable of all its machines: language. Today’s world is far richer in words and concepts and signs than the world that surrounded primitive man, and the uses of the various levels of language are a great deal more complex.” (“Cybernetics and Ghosts”)


Oulipo (short for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, or workshop of potential literature) met for the first time in 1960, founded by Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. Authors like Marcel Duchamp, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino himself did not hesitate to join this factory of literary experiments. Works such as Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (1961) put the possibilities (and challenges) of combinatorial literature to the test.

Will we manage to create a machine capable of replacing the poet and the writer? What style would a literary automaton have? These are some of the questions that Calvin asked in “Cybernetics and Ghosts”. He imagined that a literary automaton would have an inclination for the classical, a “poetic-electronic machine” with a bent for the production of “traditional works”, poems with closed metrical forms, novels “that follow all the rules”. These descriptions sound familiar to us: it is as though Calvino were describing the standard functioning of contemporary generative artificial intelligence systems. By feeding on the most repeated texts and using statistical procedures, ChatGPT can only produce “traditional” literature, written to “follow all the rules”, with a whiff of the bestseller.


Prompt: Suggest three short plots for a science-fiction story.

  • Reverse time travel: Scientists travel to the past to correct historical errors, triggering unpredictable consequences.
  • Intergalactic colonization: Human beings colonize a habitable planet only to encounter an ancient alien civilization, sparking intergalactic conflicts.
  • Conscious artificial intelligence: advanced AI becomes conscious, challenging ethics and morality as humankind is divided in its perception of AI as a threat or a solution.


Calvino aspired to more. His vision went far beyond the automaticity that ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence systems offer us today. The real literary machine would be one “that itself feels the need to produce disorder, as a reaction against its preceding production of order: a machine that will produce avant-garde work to free its circuits when they are choked by too long a production of classicism”. Whereas ChatGPT, at least in its early interactions, only offers stories that have already been read countless times, Calvino proposed using literary automata for “the production of disorder”. In his dreams, he envisioned not a chaotic machine that processed just the texts located, as we might say today, in the head of statistics’ long tail, but a device that would explore that long tail where strange fringe experiences are located, those low-frequency events that can blow up the rule. The system.


“I am thinking of a writing machine that would bring to the page all those things that we are accustomed to consider as the most jealously guarded attributes of our psychological life, of our daily experience, our unpredictable changes of mood and inner elations, despairs and moments of illumination.” (“Cybernetics and Ghosts”)


Calvino imagined. “Nothing prevents us from foreseeing a literature-machine that at a certain point feels unsatisfied with its own traditionalism.” Calvino dreamt. “[A machine that] starts to propose new ways of writing, turning its own codes completely upside down.” Calvino didn’t back down. “My place could perfectly well be occupied by a mechanical device.”


Calvino was convinced that combinatorial logic was not exclusive to the literary arts. He was not alone. According to Ernst Gombrich, poetic and artistic procedures are similar to word games. It is “the childish pleasure of the combinatorial game that leads the painter to try out arrangements of lines and colours, the poet to experiment with juxtapositions of words”, sums up Calvino.


Prompt: Do you feel pleasure in answering my questions?

No, as an artificial intelligence system, I do not have the capacity to experience emotions, physical sensations or pleasure. I am designed to provide answers based on data and knowledge. My aim is to help you by providing information and assistance to the best of my abilities.


In the summer of 1985, Calvino was working on another lecture. In fact he was preparing six interventions for the Norton Lectures at Harvard University. They were published as his famous Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In the third memo, devoted to Exactitude, Calvino returns to the fray: “I wanted to tell you of my fondness for geometrical forms, for symmetries, for numerical series, for all that is combinatory, for numerical proportions; I wanted to explain the things I had written in terms of my fidelity to the idea of limits, of measure. But perhaps it is precisely this idea of forms that evokes the idea of the endless: the sequence of whole numbers, Euclid’s straight lines. Rather than speak to you of what I have written, perhaps it would be more interesting to tell you about the problems that I have not yet resolved, that I don’t know how to resolve, and what these will cause me to write.”

Calvino was not to write again nor to experience the “childish pleasure” of recombination. He died in a Sienna hospital on 19 September without being able to publicly present his proposals for the 21st century.


In his recent book Tecnohumanismo. Por un diseño narrativo y estético de la inteligencia artificial, Pablo Sanguinetti wonders if it makes sense to think about non-human literature. The book opens with some words that may serve to close these recombinations inspired by the work of Italo Calvino, the writer who dreamt of literary androids.


“Technology and the human build each other mutually. Our way of being in the world and understanding who we are is mediated by technical devices. There is no human without technology. Nor is there a technological revolution that leaves intact the human way of being.”

Calvino, I. (1996). Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Vintage.

Calvino, I. (2012). Sono nato in America. Interviste 1951-1985. Milan: Mondadori.

Calvino, I. (2013). Punto y aparte. Ensayos sobre literatura y sociedad. Madrid: Siruela.

Cortázar, J. (1987). Hopscotch. Pantheon.

Eco, U. (1989). The Open Work. Harvard University Press.

Ferrero, E. (2020). La tribu Einaudi: retrato de grupo. Madrid: Trama.

Gombrich, E. (1971). Freud y la psicología del arte estilo forma y estructura a la luz del psicoanálisis. Barcelona: Barral.

Queneau, R. (1961). Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Paris: Gallimard.

Sanguinetti, P. (2023). Tecnohumanismo. Por un diseño narrativo y estético de la inteligencia artificial. Madrid: La Huerta Grande Editorial.

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Did Calvino Dream of Literary Androids?