Life Is Hell

By Nancy Powell

Posted January 20, 2011 in Arts & Culture

Charles Yu’s debut novel isn’t one of those mindless alternative reality drones one can swallow in just one sitting. It is a philosophically dense, thought-provoking treatise on the increasing human reliance on our digital age, a statement on the lonely and soul-sucking experience this medium has created for human-to-human social interaction. A mocking phalanx of regret that plays over and over again in an excruciating imaginary playground not unlike Phil Connors’ Punxsutawney nightmare of Groundhog Day.

Charles Yu the protagonist is a Time-Warner time machine technician and repairman who spends his leisure moments holed up in an ontological travel device roomier than Dr. Who’s phone booth. For companions he’s got a dog that really doesn’t exist and a pessimistically proficient operating system known as “Tammy.” Yu traverses the holodeck of time rescuing travelers stuck in an unforgiving loop of their own choosing, attempting to alter events that cannot be undone. And this experience suits him just fine.

At night I sleep alone, in a quiet, nameless, dateless day that I found, tucked into a hidden cul-de-sac of space-time,” Yu writes. “I have gone to sleep every night in this same little pocket, the most uneventful piece of time I could find. Same exact thing every night, night after night. Total silence. Absolutely nothing. That’s why I chose it. I know for a fact nothing can happen to me in here.” Or so he thinks.

Like the alternate reality complexities à la Fringe, one can never be sure one is looking through the lens of reality (the actual here and now) or the shifting fabric of some figment of a person’s imagination in a science fictional landscape. Yu describes this as living at the origin, “at zero, neither present nor absent, a denial of self- and creature-hood to an arbitrarily small epsilon-delta limit.” Maybe too much like our 21st century existence on Earth, where human emotions translate into raw data that can be crunched and computed until it meets the requirements of the disparate special interest groups.

Yu’s novel takes place in P-I, the “Present Indefinite,” and Minor Universe 31, a supposed capital city in real time that melds Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo into a single geographical entity. Minor Universe 31 serves as a militaristic dumping ground for experimental discards in time dimensional research. Yu is intimately invested in this universe as he witnessed his father’s passion turn into reality, the reality he now lives and a reality that entraps his own family: a mother whose time loop replays Sunday supper night after night to a 10-year old Yu, a father whose pursuit of personal fulfillment has him stuck in a dimension Yu tries desperately to reach. Yu himself becomes trapped in his own living hell when he confronts his future and alters his present. Suddenly, his comfort by living in “zero” becomes the greatest mental nightmare he has ever faced, one comprised of reliving the childhood uncertainties brought about by his parents’ own personal demons and his responses to them.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is ultimately a story about chasing elusive pasts. Beneath the existential time loops Yu posits in his treatise are the deeper questions of life, what we demand from technology and how we use that technology to escape from confronting emotional fears.

You can only go to places that you will let yourself go,” writes Yu. “Maybe we go through life never actually being ourselves, mostly never being ourselves. Maybe we spend most of our decades being someone else, avoiding ourselves, maybe a man is only himself, his true self, for a few days in his entire life.”

And with that trippy delivery through space and time, the truth is revealed.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. Pantheon, Hardback, 256 pages. List Price $24.


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