A nice passing

Italo Calvino in ‘A Sign in Space’1 describes a godly alien named Qfwfq, who creates the first of all signs — a giant glyph installed beyond the edge of the Milky Way in order to mark a starting position for the rotary cycle of the galaxy, thereby giving this point a signature. Qfwfq discovers that, during the rotation of the Milky Way, a godly rival named Kgwgk has erased this sign, vandalizing it so as to replace it with an atrocious facsimile — and over eons, dozens of such gods have evolved to imitate the writing of signs until eventually Qfwfq discovers that, at the site of his original, creative effort, five signs exist (all suggestive of his first glyph, but none recognizable as his own). Over time, the galaxy becomes so filled with semiotic detritus that Qfwfq can no longer tell the difference between cases of natural phenomena and marks of written testimony.

Italo Calvino describes a whimsical fairytale about a demiurge who, in the end, despairs of his own creation, describing a paranoid scenario, in which readers (if attentive enough) might find evidence of alien signs everywhere, at every scale (from the atomic to the cosmic): ‘world and space seemed the mirror of each other, both minutely adorned with hieroglyphics […], each of which might be a sign and might not be.’2 The signature of Qfwfq undergoes both disfigurement and rearrangement because of rivalry among demiurges who dispute each other across stellar distances and epochal intervals, each author asserting an entitlement to write by copying and erasing prior signs in a palimpsest of expression. The premise of the story implies that any suitably advanced technology of writing must eventually look indistinguishable from the very universe itself.

‘A Sign in Space’ by Daniela de Paulis3 takes its inspiration from this work by Italo Calvino, inviting humanity to decipher a cryptic message, avowedly received, via radio, from an interstellar intelligence. While the cosmos at first seems devoid of such intelligence (because we have yet to discover any evidence of its transmissions, via radio), the story by Calvino seems to imply that, in fact, we might find ourselves surrounded by alien signs at every scale (be they in chromosomes or in supergiants). We might have, so far, failed to see any such ‘sign in space,’ because its scale of composition zooms out to vastitudes that graduate from the planetal, from the sidereal, from the galactic, all the way to the cosmical — and yet, like an ant that crawls over a letter carved upon a tombstone, we may, in fact, be too puny to read the epitaph that we inhabit.

Qfwfq writes his own signature against a galactic backdrop too huge for us to fathom — and yet thinkers have sometimes indulged in extravagant speculation about phenomena that might, in fact, represent such alien signs of stupendous expression. At a planetal scale, for example, the unusual topography of the Cydonia Planitia on Mars has intrigued Richard C. Hoagland;4 and at a sidereal scale, the unusual obvelation of Boyajian’s Star has intrigued Jason Wright.5 At a galactic scale, the unusual annularity of Hoag’s Object has intrigued Joseph Voros;6 and at a cosmical scale, the unusual vacantness of the Eridanus Supervoid has intrigued Ruari Mackenzie.7 All these thinkers have flirted with the idea that we might be seeing possible evidence of intelligent inscription — and yet, as the allegory of Qfwfq implies, such anomalies might convey no significance whatsoever.

Taking my own inspiration from ‘A Sign in Space’ by Italo Calvino, I have responded to the artistic exercise of Daniela de Paulis, doing so by writing a series of verses, each of which alludes to the original insignia of Qfwfq. This quintet of stanzas constitutes a set of anagrams that reiterate the plight of Qfwfq in five ways, each verse rearranging the letters from a single phrase uttered by the alien. Just as an interstellar intelligence might answer our own transmissions into outer space by echoing them back at us (perhaps repeating our chatter with slight, but clever, tweaks of enhancement so as to signal awareness of our existence without having to understand our message) — so also have I repeated part of the ‘transmission’ by Calvino, restaging the actions from his own story about such alien signs, rearranging the glyphs of an absent author so as to ‘re-echo’ his own cleverness.


(for Italo Calvino)

When I arrived at the maze

of my code,

I greeted visions

of infinity, suiting

no need.

When I arrived at the seed

of my idea,

I froze, into fiction,

my designs, given

to ennui.

When I arrived at the star

of my omen,

I intuited one effigy,

seizing vision,


When I arrived at the zone

of my icon,

I signed my graffiti,

to see divine

eons, united.

When I arrived at the site

of my sign,

I found five, yet not one

did I recog-

nize as mine.


1Calvino, Italo. 2002. ‘A Sign in Space.’ The Complete Cosmicomics. Trans. Martin McLauglin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver. London: Penguin Books. 32-42.

2Calvino. 2002, 41.

3De Paulis, Daniela. 2023. ‘A Sign in Space.’ https://asignin.space/.

4Hoagland, Richard C. 1987. The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

5Wright, Jason T. 2016. ‘What Could Be Going on with Boyajian’s Star? Part VIII: Alien Megastructures.’ Astrowright (02 Sep 2016): https://sites.psu.edu/astrowright/2016/09/02/what-could-be-going-on-with-boyajians-star-part-viii-alien-megastructures/.

6Voros, Joseph. 2013. ‘Galactic-Scale Macro-Engineering: Looking for Signs of Other Intelligent Species, as an Exercise in Hope for Our Own.’ arXiv.org (28 Nov 2013): 1-17. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1412.4011.pdf.

7Mackenzie, Ruari (et al.). 2017. ‘Evidence Against a Supervoid Causing the CMB Cold Spot.’ arXiv.org (12 Apr 2017): 1-12. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1704.03814.pdf.