Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to live safely in a science fictional universe (Charles Yu)

How to live safely in a science fictional universe (Charles Yu)

Stories that feature time travel are often confusing, but this tome takes the biscuit. I didn’t really understand the end of the book. To be honest I didn’t really understand much of the middle of the book. And while I’m not planning to immediately reread Charles Yu’s novel to see if it can all fall into place second time through, I did enjoy his tale about life as a time machine repairman.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the story of a young man living in a world that allows people to drop out of real life and instead pay to inhabit loops of time that they feel they would enjoy better. Charles’ mother is one such “victim” of this technology, serving dinner to her family on an hour-long loop.

For years Charles’ father worked away in his garage, theorising on blackboards and engineering prototype time machines. While his father eventually disappeared without trace, Charles ended up in the time machine repair business, occupying a small cubby hole-sized craft with only TAMMY – its female operating system – and an imaginary dog called Ed for company.

The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

Or, as Mom used to say: it’s a box. You get into it. You push some buttons. It takes you to other places, different times. Hit this switch for the past, pull up that lever for the future. You get out and hope the world has changed. Or at least maybe you have.

Of course, without family complications, time travel has many conundrums. The author’s prose dealing with the kind of abstract science fiction notions that time travellers would have to explore are amongst the highlights of the book.

I get the key from the guy at the front counter. From his stationary, non-time traveling perspective, he sees me almost every day, only each time he sees me, I’ve aged a year or two or five or nine. I rented the room when I got the job, ten biological years ago for me. To him, it was last Wednesday. My whole life will probably amount to about a month’s rent by his calculations.

Given that it’s explained on the back cover of the book, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that one of the major plot points is when Charles meets a version of himself stepping out of his time machine … and shoots him(self) in the stomach.

Charles Yu has written a book of many layers. Underneath the science fiction is a story about the relationship between a son and his father, and the son’s search for his missing father. There’s an exploration of the mind of someone who works alone and receives instruction from computers.

Typing this, and thinking back to reading the book, I wonder if it is partially autobiographical, or perhaps just meant to be the delusional thoughts of someone who spends their life hiding in a small box refusing to engage with the real world. A kind of Second Life becomes No Life?

Worth a read if you like challenging science fiction. But it you like completely understandable novels, give it a miss or else you’ll be left feeling that part of the plot fell through the fabric of the grammar engine and into the author’s waste-basket.

I’m just not convinced it totally deserved the following comment from time-travelling author Audrey Niffenegger on its back cover:

Tremendously cleaver... marvellously written, sweetly geeky, good clean time-bending fun.

Update - My colleague Norwin has subsequently posted his musings on this book over on his blog.


Dan said...

I love time travel, even with all of it's confusions. I will definitley have to check this book out as it sounds like a fun and interesting take on it.

theoncominghope said...

I really tried to get into the book, but ultimately found it a little too obtuse for my liking.

Here are my thoughts, if you're interested: