As I noted in my first post, I’m interested in bridging the gap between the scientific view of the world and the messily fabulous, oh-so-irrational realms of the human heart. Towards that end, part of what I aim to do on this blog over the course of the coming year is to explore books that do just that, which is why I really must start off with a tribute to one of the most inventive, imaginative, heartfelt and heady books I’ve read in recent years, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.
I picked up this novel at Portland’s bacchanal of bibliophilia, Wordstock–sucked in, first, by the title, and second, by the rave reveiws adorning its jacket. “This book is cool as hell,” said Colson Whitehead. “If I could go back in time and reader it earlier, I would.” Annalee Newitz, my all-time she-ro of girl-geekery, concurred, saying, “Like watching an episode of Doctor Who as written by the young Phillip Roth.” She goes on to note that the book is “one of the most clear-eyed descriptions of consciousness I’ve seen in literature.”
This book, in my opinion, really does live up to the hype. In it, the protagonist (who just happens to bear the same name as the author) lives in Minor Universe 31, a place composed of unfinished computer code, and plagued by glitches as a consequence. In this version of the future, time travel is commonplace, due in part to technology developed by the protagonist’s father, an amateur inventor who worked for most of his life in a garage lab, failed in the race to commercialize the tech before the next guy, and promptly disappeared. Our protagonist, a time-travel repair man–whose main source of business, it seems, is keeping people who’ve gone back in time from shooting themselves, or their relatives–has been looking for his father ever since.
I expected this story to be funny and smart, which it is. The protagonist’s closest friends in this story are programs governed by artificial intelligence software, one of which is TAMMY, who clearly functions as a kind of girlfriend surrogate, the other of which is his manager, Phil, who has no idea that he’s actually an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0. (“His passive-aggressive is set to low. Whoever configured him did me a solid.”)
What I didn’t expect was the degree to which this novel, as Newitz noted, is focused on the nature of human consciousness, from what I would characterize as a distinctly Buddhist perspective. Sure, all the bells and whistles of time travel are here, but time travel in this novel seems to function as a kind of metaphor for the ways that we all tend to live in the past or the future, rather than ever truly inhabiting the present. Trapped as our protagonist is of his own free will in the limbo of his own time machine–clearly doing himself harm, without allowing anything, harmful or otherwise, to ever actually happen to him–he takes us deep into the murkiest depths of the human heart.
As far as the title goes, it was the ‘science fictional’ that got me, but as the story went on, I began to feel that the story was more about living in general, and the impossible notion of living ‘safely,’ without feeling our most difficult emotions, in particular.
Something else that really impressed me was the metaphysical trick this novel pulls off by being a book about a book–called, as you might have guessed, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe–discovered by the protagonist in his time machine, written by a previous version of himself. In this, the novel has some fascinating things to say about the mysteries of the creative process, and invoking, for me, the strange loop (as per Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader, which the author lists as one of his chief inspirations for the book) formed by one of my other favorite books-about-a-book, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.
The novel itself, it turns out, is a time machine, composed of a programming language and a grammar drive–that simplest of time machines, according to science fictional physics: a sheet of paper printed with symbols arranged according to different tenses, which can send both the writer and reader into the past or the future. But never deeper into the present moment, and that’s the sticker–because the present moment is the only place where more time is ever truly available to us.
This is a brilliant, lucid, funny book, with heartache at its core–as clear a connection between science (albeit science fictional) and the human heart as anyone could hope to come by. While I read it, I was absolutely enthralled. And yet, in the weeks that followed, I found that its impression wore off faster than, say, Daniyal Mueedin’s collection of stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which I had finished around the same time.
Why? I’m thinking maybe it’s because novels that invoke both specific human cultures and a sense of place achieve some kind of deeper resonance–we’re more able to fill in the gaps with our own experiences–while a more intellectual book such as this, however heartfelt, set in an unfamiliar world, tends to burn off in the mind, like fog in the sun.
Do I recommend How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? Absolutely–particularly for anyone who writes, likes science fiction, has a relationship to computer programming, or any combination thereof. However, I’m interested in any thoughts any of you may have on any of this, whether you’ve read the book or not. Do you know of any other books that touch on these themes? Any you’d recommend?