Friday, August 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 205 (8/27) -- How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

The boundary between science fiction and literature has always been a disputed territory -- for as long as those two terms have existed together, there's been a long list of border works, which might be in one realm or the other, both or neither, depending on who's doing the surveying. Even after parts of the literary world admitted that science fiction could have interest and value, they didn't necessarily understand science fiction, or focus on the elements that created the particularly SFnal virtues of the best stories of that world.

The literary world, in particular, has a fatal fondness for metaphors -- for language of interest for its pure language-less, and for texts that encode close relationships to the mundane aspects of life that the literary world usually concentrates on. Science fiction, on the other hand, must always treat metaphors gingerly, like unexploded bombs -- in a work where "her world exploded" can easily mean literally that, a metaphor has to be worth its weight in confusion to pay its way, or be finessed so that the literal meaning can't possibly be taken as true. Literary writers, dazzled by science fiction's ability to make metaphors concrete, and to allow them to hit audiences over the head with ever-larger hammers of obviousness, have often gone much too far down the road of metaphor, thinking that they're writing science fiction when they've just committed literary fiction under an elaborate code.

Charles Yu shows dangerous signs of literary self-absorption from the very beginning in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe -- there's that terribly self-referential, po-mo title to begin with, and then it turns out that Live Safely is the story of a young man named Charles Yu, about the same age as the author, and his relationship with his parents. As the novel goes on, the reader has the creeping sensation that this universe is not science fictional at all -- that Yu-the-author has utterly misunderstood science fiction, and thinks that calling something a "time machine" is enough to plant his novel in that territory. But what little science there seems to be at the beginning drains away by the end, and the reader comes to doubt that Yu-the-character's activities are anything more than the thinly coded reality of Yu-the-author's real life.

It doesn't help that Live Safely has the thinnest plot of any 233-page book that I've ever seen; Yu-the-author has taken a novelette's worth of activity -- and I'm being very generous there -- and stretched it out to novel length through the literary novelist's version of Volstead Gridban Disease:
And what had we done? We had plugged away, scrap by scrap, paper scrap and metal scrap, we had plied our trade, journeymen, not even a trade, we had our little hobby, and now we were a curiosity. That was it. We have still never gotten anything right. We are dreamers who have stuck around long enough to have one semi-interesting dream. This is not going to work out. I know it on some level. This us us, in relation to the world. If I could draw it, it would look like my father and me very small, world very big, with a barrier between us and the world. We are too slow, too methodical, too square, too plodding. We are naive. This is how it has always gone with us. (p.173)
That's a page and a paragraph I chose randomly; open up Live Safely anywhere and you'll find prose like that -- groping blindly, like a nest of worms, around the few thematic elements that Yu-the-author wants to hammer on, and always in those carefully-written sentences that say the same nothing over and over again. The plot that finally emerges is this: Yu-the-character is a "time machine repairman" (though the ending of the book makes this job seem unlikely, if not impossible), who has a paradoxed-out-of-existence dog and the occasional presence of the holographic head of his computer-program supervisor to keep him company in the ten years he's spent in his closet-sized TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. He remembers his childhood -- not so much specific events and actions, but how he felt towards his father and mother at particular times. He then returns to his base for maintenance. After briefly visiting his mother, he returns to the time-machine landing field in time to see himself appear, shoots himself (with a gun Yu-the-author clearly thinks is very science fictional), and runs away. Yu-the-character agonizes about the "loop" he's caught in for a while, but goes back to get shot at the required time. Afterward, he finally finds his father, which was the whole point of traveling in a time machine for ten years. The end.

That's it: guy goes back to HQ, shoots himself, runs away briefly, comes back to be shot, and finds his dad. I haven't even left out any minor events; the bulk of Live Safely is endless paragraphs of Yu-the-character obsessing about his relationships with his parents, or talking about "science fiction" and "Mirror Universes" in such metaphor-encrusted literary language that it's impossible to read any of it straight. The reader has to swiftly realize that Yu-the-author is using "time machine" to mean "memory" -- though Yu-the-author makes this far too clear later on -- and translate all of the science fictional jargon into the most mundane, and dull, of human concerns: do my parents love me?

Yu-the-author has done something impressive here: Live Safely is a novel that anyone who identifies as a science fiction reader on any level will find tedious and obvious. Literary writers coming to SF always have to write off the half of the SF readership that prefers the sign to the signifier, but Live Safely torques its few metaphors up to levels that will make even lovers of John Clute begin to roll their eyeballs. Though I may be giving him too much credit; his "time travel" is alternately metaphorical or real, depending on the needs of a particular scene, and Live Safely doesn't entirely make sense either way -- time travel in Live Safely, like light, must be both a wave and a particle at the same time.

I was inclined to have sympathy for Yu-the-character's failed inventor father -- who never gets a first name in Live Safely, but presumably is named whatever Yu-the-author father's name is -- since I'm descended from a famously too-early and not-quite-right inventor myself. (John Fitch, twenty years and the wrong propulsion mechanism ahead of Fulton in the steamboat sweepstakes.) But Yu's father never comes into focus; Yu-the-character is so relentlessly self-absorbed that none of the other characters register at all as a person. Of course, it doesn't help that half of the supporting cast is either non-existent (Ed the dog) or a computer-generated personality (the TM-31's operating system TAMMY, Yu-the-character's boss Phil) -- those are almost literally the only characters in the novel other than Yu and his parents.

Live Safely consists of a long string of pseudo-scientific metaphors, all to the end of saying that it is possible to find your lost father, but you might have to hurt yourself first. It is the literary equivalent of traveling around the world to get to the next block, and simultaneously manages to pretend to be a time travel novel -- a science fictional form essentially about change -- while forming a narrative utterly tied down to stasis, dullness, and the endless present moment. (I'm not convinced that Yu-the-author knows what a time loop is, either, nor that he's constructed one here.) The sentences in this novel are all admirable, and each individual paragraph is pleasant to read. But, in aggregate, their effect is less than impressive.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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