Monday, August 27, 2012

Book review: Charles Yu "How To Live Safely In A Science-Fictional Universe"

seudo science fiction with a certain melancholy beauty -- that's what we concluded about Charles Yu "How To Live Safely In A Science-Fictional Universe" at the Center For Inquiry book club discussion. It is pseudo science fiction, because while it has science fiction trappings, most of it is author's exploration of how he feels about things. It felt self-indulgent, and for a good reason: the protagonist is the author himself, or at least his namesake. That's not to say that many of us wouldn't be able to identify with the protagonist sometimes. He is a technician who travels in a time machine, and attends the most heartbreaking moments of people's lives. It also means that he doesn't spend almost any time in the present -- most of his life is spent outside time, and he is a stranger in his own era. His capsule, barely big enough to stretch out, is completely bland and featureless. I was all the more surprised that I found its description compelling. Something about it resonated with me. Could it be because many of us spend most of our days in similar blank rooms, a.k.a. office cubicles, performing actions that are, in a way, outside of time? Their impact on other people is softened by many layers of infrastructure, depersonalized, not traceable directly to us. So it's not hard to identify with the protagonist's alienation. I found his father, a quietly brilliant, stoic, underappreciated Asian engineer, to be a more vivid character than the protagonist himself. But that may be just because I identify with an immigrant engineer's experience. That said, the explorations of the character's psyche did not make up for plot shortfalls. It seemed that the author intended for the time-travel mechanism to make sense (it wasn't just a vessel for psychological exploration), but in that sense it failed. At the end, we are expected to believe that the protagonist resolved a deadly time loop he accidentally created. But the ending is so ambiguous that we didn't understand what was going on. It's as if the author tried to hand-wave over the fact that no real resolution was possible. This book has a few interesting science-fictional tidbits, which I can't really call ideas, since they are way too undeveloped. For example, what does it mean to time-travel by grammatical tenses? Or what does it mean to live in a universe that's only 93% installed? Each of those ideas could be tantalizingly interested, if properly developed, but in the book they are just throwaway sentences. One of the book club members said that while he enjoyed the book enough, he wouldn't recommend it except to someone who really wanted a "different" kind of science fiction. This book may be best enjoyed for its melancholy mood, an exploration of a father-son relationship, and a tragedy of a brilliant, but modest person without an ability to sell himself well (the father). That last plotline is where the book really shines.

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