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Astral Weeks: Why worry? It's all taken care of in the future

Charles Yu's 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' offers a vision of time travel that's engaging and unexpectedly spiritual.

August 22, 2010|By Ed Park | Special to the Los Angeles Times

It's Wednesday morning, oops, afternoon, and the deadline for this month's column is sort of breathing down my neck, but I'm actually not that worried about writing this review of Charles Yu's time-travel novel, "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" (Pantheon: 240 pp., $24), because reading the book has made me understand that my review already exists in the future. It's really not a problem!

I just need to get the future Ed Park (the impossibly relaxed one, the one who's completed the punishing labor of writing this column and is enjoying his traditional celebratory beverage) to step out of one of Yu's weirdly convincing time machines and hand the piece to me.

Or maybe he can just e-mail it. Because one thing I have to be careful not to do is panic at the sight of my future self and shoot him in the stomach, which is what Yu's narrator does to his future self. Yu is appropriately perplexed:

Apparently, I'm going to write this book, which appears to be, as far as I can tell, part engineering field manual and part autobiography. Or rather, I already wrote it. Now I just have to write it, which is to say, I have to get to the point in time when I will have written it, and then travel back in time to get shot and then give it to myself, so I can write it. Which all makes sense to me, except for one thing: why the hell would I want to do any of that?

Yu's narrator, also named Charles Yu — about which, more later — is a shlubby time-machine repairman, a contractor for " Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structure and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial and residential use." After 10 years on the job, zipping around Minor Universe-31 (a complicated amalgam of New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo), his closest relationships are with TAMMY and Phil, both of whom are computer programs related to his job. ("Phil is an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0. His passive-aggressive is set to low. Whoever configured him did me a solid.")

Yu has a crisp, intermittently lyrical prose style, one that's comfortable with both math and sadness, moving seamlessly from delirious metafiction ("I'm in the self-consciousness industry") to the straight-faced prose of instruction-manual entries. (There's a slight whiff of fanboy in the early innings, with overt references to, or rather intersections with, the Star Wars universe, but it dissipates soon enough.) It's one of those books that I keep wanting to "tweet," except my present self has forbidden me from going online until I've done my work.

My present self needs to stop being so uptight. It needs to be reminded that my future self has already written the column. It's in the bag.

Yu — the Yu in the book, now — is the only son of a marriage gone sour. His mother resides in a programmed one-hour loop, a hologram-enhanced slice of her life that poignantly re-creates one of the all-too-rare family dinners that were actually happy. Yu's father is, or was, a would-be chronodiegetic pioneer whose ambition to build a time-machine ended in tears, a prelude to his disappearing from their lives. Yu's fate is to try to understand this absence.

The Charles Yu of the future, the one who gets shot, is the author of a book, which the present Charles finds inside the machine, a book called…you guessed it: "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe." (As the future Yu crumples from the gunshot, he says to his precursor, "It's all in the book. The book is the key.")

A word here about the book within the book, the book that is also, by means of a hilarious contortion, the book we've been reading. It's like Steve Jobs' ultimate hardware fetish, a dreamlike amalgam of functionality and predetermination. While Yu reads the text, he's also modifying the text to fit as closely as possible the "actual throughput of my conscious act of reading it … my reading is a creative act." It's fun to read Yu dilate on this impossible object:

I'm typing, even though strictly speaking I am using the TM-31's cognitive-visual-motor-sound-activated recording module, which operates, as you might guess, by simultaneously tracking output from the user's neural muscle contractions. It's part keyboard, part microphone, part optical scan, and part brain scan.

Thus he can write by typing, dictation or simply reading and can "switch back and forth among these three modes." The kicker to such elaborately worked-out mechanics, of course, is that the text is completely static: It's the book we're holding, words fixed to the page. (I imagine that those reading "How to Live Safely" on an electronic device would experience an added frisson, thanks to the immateriality of the words — indeed, Yu's so canny that I bet he thought of this too.)

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