(Pantheon Books 2010)
Having read a decent amount of Kurt Vonnegut and holding a violently strong affection for Kilgore Trout, I thought I was prepared to take on a sci-fi book to review. And with an intriguing title like How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I thought this would be a good start. Well, I wasn’t quite ready for it, it turns out.
Author/narrator Charles Yu (a writing technique of author-as-character which Vonnegut also used) is a time machine technician and lives passively in time and space as he waits for calls from people who have tried to use time machines and have screwed up the order of time or have broken rules of time.
Science fiction has always seemed a bit odd to me because of the strange balance between what reality and education tells us is true, and what the author in a science fictional book decides to be true in his/her book. Math equations and physics references are tossed around, and sound like they could be true, but there’s an odd sense of trust/mis-trust that I felt when reading this. However, I also felt this trust/mis-trust in all of my math and science classes, the refusal to believe that the world I see around me can be boiled down to these equations on a board. And so, just as in those math and science classes, I decided to accept it as true and just push through to the more interesting parts.
But what really turned me around in this novel was the conversation between TAMMY (a computer operating system in Yu’s time machine he lives in and works in) and the narrator, where the computer system weeps because we will always have tomorrow, and will never understand the preciousness of today and right now. Especially since time machines are available for people to zip around in, and while they can’t change time, they can go back and visit it, or choose to live in a loop of time of their liking:
I tell TAMMY it will be all right. She says what will be all right? I say whatever you are crying about. She says that is exactly what she’s crying about. That everything is all right. That the world isn’t ending. That we’ll never tell each other how we really feel because everything is okay. Okay enough to just sit around, being okay. Okay enough that we forget that we don’t have long, that it’s late, late in this universe, and at some point in the future, it’s not going to be okay.
And this is the idea that really made my eyes blink open. Americans especially have a complicated relationship with life and second chances. There’s the deep belief in our nation that no matter where we are in our lives, we as Americans possess the ability to change our future and make something better of ourselves. That everything will be all right. That our world isn’t ending. It’s only beginning.
However, our romantic sides would believe differently. So many songs convince us that after tonight, who knows where we’ll be tomorrow, and what if we’re never here again (beautiful song: “Ours” by The Bravery”). There’s the thrill of possibility that this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that you have to either take and make it worth it, or you’ll lose it forever.
This paradox that we live in between living in the moment and living a life that lasts beyond this moment is something we all struggle with. How can we carpe diem and not burn out from exhaustion too early? How can we make life count?
And this is why I love Yu’s novel and the struggles he/the narrator face. There are also some great issues explored about free will and pre-destination, but that’s for another conversation.