Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday 3 October 2013

"How to live safely in a science fictional universe" by Charles Yu (Corvus, 2010)

The author has a law degree, has been published in "Harvard Review", "Alaska Quarterly Review", etc and has won the "Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award". The book can be read as an SF novel. Or a comedy. Or the SF material could be read as metaphor enlivening a mainstream novel. Or the book could be a thinly veiled treatise on the theory of reading.

The page on the right is a copy of the one where the table of contents would normally be. On p.3 we're told that "The Tense Operator has been set to Present-Indefinite for I don't know how long". He found 39 alternative selves in other universes. His mother is in an hour-long timeloop. His father is lost. He returns to where time's elapsing - "The lurching forward, the sensation of falling off a cliff into darkness, and then landing abruptly, surprised, confused, and then starting the whole process again in the next moment, doing that over and over again, falling into each instant of time" (p.63). He gets into a paradox-induced time-loop. Free-will and paradox-resolution are dealt with.

  • "Either he shoots me and creates a paradox, or I shoot him, and cut off my own future" (p.100)
  • "This, then, is my choice:/ I can allow the events of my life to happen to me./ Or I can take those very same actions and make them my own. I can live in my own present, risk failure, be assured of failure./ From the outside, these two choices would look identical. Would be identical, in fact" (p.218)

The time-aspect of the plot is summarised on p.213. There's also a diagram on p.91. It's no surprise that in the Acknowledgments he mentions Hofstader's "Godel, Escher, Bach". In the time machine he finds he book called "How to live safely in a science fictional universe", opportunities for recursion exploited. Minor universe 31 could be this book or the universe of readers -

  • "physics was only 93 percent installed" (p.11).
  • "Reality represents 13 percent of the total surface area and 17 percent of the total volume of Minor Universe 31. The remainder consists of a standard composite base SF substrate" (p.28)
  • "The conditions of a place like 31, with its incomplete conceptual framework, regions of exposed wireframe structure, lack of complexity in terms of story line geometries, and dearth of heroes, provides an ideal environment for corporate operators to test out new ideas, allowing them to proliferate without worry of what will happen to the generally expendable, low-self-esteem human population within the space" (p.67)
  • Minor Universe 31 has 3 regions - "reality"; and area where people expensively imitate reality, and the middle-class "subdivided science fictional zones". Upward mobility from Reality to SF become possible a few decades ago, though in practise many remain stuck between the two, living a life less satisfying than living in the regions. (p.77)

Time travel and memory are compared -

  • "from the point of view of this man being pulled into the past, it is impossible to know if he is at rest in a narrated frame pulled by gravitational memory, or in an accelerated frame of narrative reference" which leads to "The Foundational Theory of Chronogiegetics/ Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine/ I.e., it is possible, in principle, to construct a universal time machine from no other components than (i) a piece of paper that is moved in two directions through a recording element, backward and forward, which (ii) performs only two basic operations, narration and the straightforward application of the past tense" - general relativity and Turing Machines. (p.33)
  • "Everyone has a time machine. Everyone is a time machine. It's just that most people's machines are broken" (p.164)

Navigating time is like navigating text

  • The narrator lives in a TM-31 machine that allows "free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe" (p.4)
  • On p.5 we find out that the narrator was "studying for my master's degree in applied science fiction".
  • "my reading is a creative act, the product of which is being captured by the TOAD" which re-writes the text (p.106)
  • "This idea is consistent with the current understanding of the neuronal mechanism of human memory, i.e., every time a user recalls a memory, he is not only remembering it, but also, from an electrochemical perspective, literally re-creating the experience as well" (p.149)

At times I suspect the SF genre is gently mocked - in the "Chrono-adventurer survival kit" there are filler items "that a ten-year-old me would have found half-lame and half still-pretty-cool and possibly endowed with some kind of secret technological features just by virtue of their inclusion in the kit" (p.203). There are jokey anachronisms.

I don't get the "New Angeles/Lost Tokyo-2" thread though, and "module δ" dragged.

Other reviews

I could have listed more. Both SF readers ands mainstream media have commented.

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