How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu started with a very simple and interesting idea. Instead of creating a story about the excitement of time travel, Yu chose his main character to be a normal tech guy. Yu focused his story on an aspect of time travel that pop culture has not explored. And from that idea, the novel offers an observation of our life from the perspective of a science fictional world. That is indeed a very clever and creative idea, which is also the highlight of this unique science fiction novel.

I am not a fan of science fiction, but Yu’s writing has some kind of charm and novelty that interests me greatly. Yu doesn’t spend too much of his book on just creating a science fictional world. He doesn’t spend pages and pages describing this imaginary scientific universe. Instead, Yu draws parallel comparisons between the world we dearly know and the world Charles Yu (the character) is from. To many readers, this novel is a disappointment because it is not really ‘science fictional’; it’s quite “real”. The book’s themes and feelings need not a futuristic setting. But by using “time travelling” as a metaphor for regret and nostalgia, Yu offers a different spin on the topic of time and space travel, while allowing readers to relate to his main character on a human level, instead of trying to imagine him as some kind of robot or alien.

Yu defines his own physical world using the same template as our scientific theory. I enjoy reading his theorems, especially since I study physics and math on a regular basis. With all the fancy words and the paradoxes (especially the non-existing object paradox), Yu’s definitions aren’t just descriptions of the science fictional universe in his novel, they are also Yu’s attempts at explaining human emotions in a scientific manner. What if all emotions can be clearly defined like a physics theorem:

“Nostalgia, underlying cosmological explanation for

weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.

manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been, a place very much like one’s home universe, or as a longing for versions of one’s self that one will never, and can never know.”

These fundamental concepts make up Yu’s own version of time-travelling: it is a process where one observes a different timeline from the timeline one is currently in. It is a process that relies on human memories, because time travelling is very similar to revisiting memories in our head. And once readers understand Yu’s paradigm for time-travelling, they will realize that after all, this science fiction is not a science fiction, but in nature, a novel about the past, mistakes, regrets and how to deal with them.

So perhaps those disappointed readers do have a reason. 

And for that same reason, I am very fascinated with the way Yu perceives and constructs time-travelling. It is not a big fancy action-packed rocket-science process that Hollywood movies make it out to be. It can be, rather, a leisure activity affordable to the masses and allows us to relive over and over again moments and milestones that we want to preserve. It is ultimately an private emotional journey that we experience everyday when we think of a happy or sad moment in the past.

“Time travel is not a technology built outside, with titanium and beryllium and argon and xenon and seaborgium, but rather it is am mental ability that can be cultivated. […] We experience the present and remember the past. We can’t remember the present, except what is deja vu but a memory of the present? And if we can remember the present, why can’t we experience the past? What kind of machine is this? This machine, what my son and I have built, this is a perception engine, and it works on your mind as much as anywhere else.”

As much as I enjoyed the unique ideas that Yu presented, the writing toward the end of the book became heavy and wordy. The verbosity became a flaw instead of a stylistic bonus, and the way Yu wrote theorems was much more appealing than reading paragraphs and paragraphs that present the same thing. That took away from the quality of this impressive debut. However, some lines now and there are such a pleasure to read.

“The good news is, you don’t have to worry, you can’t change the past. The bad news is, you don’t have to worry, no matter how hard you try, you can’t change the past.”

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