HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu

How to live safelyKind of an odd, quirky novel.  Science fiction, but not quite.  A tale of a relationship between father and son, well, OK, yeah, that.  A musing upon life, liberty, free will, memories, and time. Definitely that.

I snagged this book mainly on the basis of the title, without delving much into the plot, because I thought, hey, sci fi, how to live in a sci fi universe.  But although there are plenty of sci fi elements — we have time travel, space, and lots of nifty gadgetry,  a closer reading of the title reveals it to be a science fictional universe.  I confess to having a bit of a problem understanding just what was going on.

The basic story is this:  the father of a young boy — our protagonist — is an engineer, and is working on inventing a time travel machine.  Then spends the rest of his life trying to get it to work.  He finally does, and one evening, he just disappears, never to be seen again.

The son then spends his life trying to find his father.  A large corporation has bought up the rights to the machine and has gotten it to work.   Our boy gets a job as a time repairman.  He travels in a TM-31, and tells us that

transport through some amount of space-time  is a physical process.  Even if it has metaphysical and fictional implications, it is still a physical process.  Time travel takes time.

It is well established within the field of diegetic engineering that a science fictional space must have an energy density at least equal to the unit average level of a Dirac box, multiplied by pi.

He travels around, fixing rents in the space time.  People experience these as double vision, hallucinations, etc., and are terribly grateful when he shows up.

Well, turns out the universe where he lives is some kind of alternate universe, one of many.  It is a grammatical universe and that

Weinberg and Takayama each working independently and without any knowledge of the other, set forth the proposition that a universe, in order to sustain the conditions necessary for the development of narrational sustainability, can be no bigger than a certain maximum size.

Yeah, I don’t understand it either.

Well, he gets himself involved in a infinite loop where he sees himself getting out of his TM-31 and himself shoots him, and he rushes past himself to get into the ship, and then becomes involved in this loop thing and decides to write a book that has already been written about what happens to him in the future and that is already happened and the book is already written and…..

He does tell us that when engaging in time travel, you can’t get to the past and change any of it. Then there is a lot of mulling about time, how it is a massive flow, a self-healing substance,  that nostalgia is just an underlying cosmological explanation for Weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.  It manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been, and can never know.

He has a dog which is not real.  In fact, it does not actually exist, except it does.  It travels with him on his repair jobs.

Ed [the dog] sighs.  Dog sighs are some form of distilled truth.  What does he know?  What do dogs know?  Ed sighs like he knows the truth about me and loved me anyway.

Ed wants to see the meson-boson show, so we cross the street and stand outside for a while, watching a replay of the Big Bang.  At the top of the hour, they open a box and every color in the universe comes pouring out, refracted and reflected, bouncing around inside the window display.

If you have come for the plot, it is kind of fragile and disappears from time to time.  But if you have come for the philosophical ruminations, you have come to the right place.

We are all time machines.  We are all perfectly engineered time machines, technologically equipped to allow the inside user, the traveler riding inside each of us, to experience time travel, and loss, and understanding.  We are universal time machines manufactured to the most exacting specifications possible.  Every single one of us.

I think I will leave it at this point.  It is the kind of book you will either like, or hate.  Or something in between.  I am on the ‘like’ side of the equation.  I have gotten comfortable over the decades with not fully understanding things.

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TO READ OR NOT TO READ, THAT IS THE …. OH, NEVER MIND

reading slumpI’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately.  Well, not really a slump, more of a ‘I don’t like any of my books on my 1,000 title TBR list.   OK, maybe that counts as a slump.

I think it is more of a depression.  I have been doing too much Facebook bingeing because of the upcoming USA election.  It has been really interesting, but also really depressing.  How can a humanoid reptile like Trump actually achieve the Republican party nomination?

And Hillary.  I am so excited by the prospect of the first woman president of the USA!!!  But I wish I could believe she had more integrity.  I wish both of the two main parties weren’t so obviously in the thrall of Wall Street.  I wish I still lived in never never never-actually-was land.

I spent a fair amount of reading time watching convention speeches.  And reading political pundits.  Does reading political pundits count?  As reading?   Everything is so terribly serious.  I would like to see more fun and less dire warnings.  As I posted,  too many pundits, not enough puns.

reading-slump2

Actually, I feel motivated to read, I just can’t get into anything.  I swear I started 12 books.  Four of them I tossed because they were awful (figuratively, because  digital), three I have open on the carousel, because I am sure I will like them if I can get my mojo back to doing whatever it is mojos do, and one is a review read for an author I really like, so I know I will like it, just am having trouble getting into the zone.  The rest I put back in the list.

reading

I also have two books for which I need to write up blog entries, which I promise to do for tomorrow and Monday.

Now that the primaries and the conventions are over, I think I can get back to my old routine of having my nose in a book when I should be doing many other things.   Hey!  That’s the secret!  I will make myself a To Do list, and in order to avoid doing any of the list, I will read.  Always worked before.

nose in a book

THE DEMON AND THE CITY by Liz Williams

demon and the cityThis is the second of the Detective Chen books, set in some future sci fi-ish Singapore III.  You may remember I talked about the first book in the series, Snake Agent, here.   I recommend you go read that review because it gives you a lot of background that I am not going to repeat here.

The landscape in this book is filled with temples and places of Chinese mythology, and just chock full of Chinese dieties, demons, and metaphysical places, like Hell, and a boring Heaven, and Dogtown, which seems somewhat like a purgatory.

Detective Chen works with a Hellkind, a demon assigned to him from the Vice Squad of Hell, and in this story, they get themselves involved with a creature who looks like a woman but is actually some kind of catlike being who is on her way to being the richest person in the city.  She has her lab working on altering celestial beings she has captured, and it all gets really crazy.  She wants to take over Hell and Heaven as well.  Talk about ambition!

It involves a dowser, not for water, but who dowses for the meridian lines, the energy lines crisscrossing the city.  His patron goddess was once a human and has become a bovine personage, but is beginning to lose her power, and finally turns into a placid cow.

No, really.  I don’t make this stuff up.  Liz Williams did.

So it is more of a fantasy thriller than a mystery, and a lot of fun, and goofy, and a world you cannot possibly ever imagine living in. But I want the tea kettle/badger who lives with Detective Chen.  If I remember correctly, it was a demon or something that got stuck in a spell and now spends its life in this altered state, traveling around with the Detective and helping out.  You would be surprised how much a tea kettle/badger can do in the way of spying and biting enemies.  Really.  Almost as good as a pit bull.

 

EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville

embassytownA science fiction book published in 2011, and guess what…. it is not already outdated!   Sci fi writers always face the danger that Real Life will catch up with their imaginations before the book is even distributed.

This was a great story, about….. it was about….. Um, about …..

If there ever is a book that will stop me from writing up the books I read on the blog, it would be this one.  It is about another planet,  whose original life forms on it when the humans arrived to colonize it, are the Ariekei, beings that look somewhat like very large insects, and who speak a language that was not understandable or translatable for many many years, until finally it was discovered that they only spoke in reality…. not in similes or metaphors or the past or the future.  They could not lie because they had no concept of what not speaking the truth was.

The humans inhabiting the planet built a city outside the main city of the Ariekei, in which they used their technology to produce breathable air.  They created altered pairs of humans called Ambassadors who are able to speak with the Ariekei.

The protagonist is a young woman who becomes one who travels all over the universe, and eventually comes back to her home planet and gets involved in a war between the Ariekei and the humans, with the humans trying to teach the Ariekei how to think differently in order to speak the humans’ language, Anglo-Ubiq.    It is really about taking over an established and functioning culture that humans consider less than their own, and rejoicing when they succeed in changing the fundamental tenets, the core of that society.

Wonderful world building, rather a complicated story, lots of interesting characters.  The book is much more involved that I want to get into.  Have you ever had that happen to you?  You read a great book, and then when you are finished, you don’t want to talk about it.  You want to keep the experience all to yourself.

This was one of those.  Or maybe it is just me getting lazy.  Yeah.  Could be that.

 

A SEVERED HEAD by Iris Murdoch

severed headClassic Murdoch, her fifth book, actually.

Adultery.  Incest.  Divorce.  Oh, did I mention it is satire?  Sort of?   What a crazy book.

Our protagonist, Martin, has a lovely mistress.  And a delightful wife.   He is pretty darn pleased with his life, feeling superior, in fact, until his wife comes home and tells him she is leaving him.  She has fallen in love with her therapist (who is also Martin’s friend), but they still want to remain friends.  Well, now Martin realizes just how much he loves his wife, and begins falling apart, leaving Georgie, the mistress, ignored while he sorts out the mess of his marriage.  His wife and sister insist on helping him by finding him an apartment and arranging for furniture from his marital home to be delivered to his apartment.  While the furniture is being installed in his new digs, the wife bursts in and declares she no longer wants a divorce.

The furniture is returned to the original home.

Martin complains that everyone is interfering in his life.  One character tells him

If people interfere with you it’s because you like it.  You’re dying to be interfered with.  You’re a sort of vacuum into which interference rushes.

Into the picture comes the sister of the therapist, a strapping Germanic figure, whose existence in the story seems to be as a counterpoint to the delicate and ethereal figures of the other two women in Martin’s life.  She is an expert with the Samurai sword, and there is one scene in which we truly fear for the continuance of Martin’s head being connected to his body.

Martin develops a bizarre crush on this woman, and at one point she tells him

I am a terrible object of fascination for you.  I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies.

He stalks her to her house and goes in uninvited, and catches her en flagrante with ….. gasp….. her BROTHER!

It has the feel of one of those farces,   a play which is funny, not exactly laugh out loud funny, but funny in a British farce kind of way.  If you like Iris Murdoch, you will like this.  It feels just a smidge culturally dated because it was written in 1961,  and I guess we might call it a drawing room absurdity.

I had some thoughts and opinions on a couple other of Murdoch’s work, here, and here.

 

 

DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER by Elizabeth Zelvin

deathBruce Kohler, part time temp worker and full time drunk, wakes up in detox in the Bowery one fine day near Christmas.  He makes ‘friends’ with another bleary-eyed alcoholic who turns out not to be a penniless bum but the drunken scion of a wealthy family who has pretty much turned their back on him.

Fortunately, our guy has a couple of really really good friend,  whom he hasn’t seen much of because he can’t stay sober and they can’t take it any more.  But this time, it looks like it might stick.   He is roomies with the wealthy dude, and one night, after coming back to detox from a pass, the roomie becomes violently sick, and eventually dies right there in the room!.  Our boy, due to be released the following day, is pretty distraught, as you can imagine, but is determined to hang onto his friends and his sobriety.

He gets a job, but can’t get over the death of his friend, which he is coming more and more to believe was not from natural causes, and decides to investigate it, partly as a means of keeping from being bored and falling off the wagon again.  He is aided by his two friends, and this mystery, built around recovery, AA and the lifestyle of the career alcoholic turns out to be pretty darn good.

Lots of stuff in the book about how AA operates, drinking, recovering, enabling, and the fragility of sobriety.

Really good book that builds some intricate and likable characters, has a decent mystery, and a whiff — just a whiff — of perversion.

 

WHITE GOODS by Guy A. Johnson

white goodsThis is a story set in the south of England in the 80s.  It is told by a couple of different narrators,  the principle narrator being a twelve year old boy.  The other is his 16 year old brother.

It is related to us in the way that kids tell things., with important information missing, or simply hinted at, complete fabrications, wishful thinking, and a skirting around the truth while at the same time searching for the truth.   It is a fine example of how we experience events as kids,  how we try to tweak the unpleasant or the downright nasty into something we can actually deal with.

It starts off with an unnamed adult leading a small child to a chest freezer in a shed and shoving the boy into it, latching the lid.  And works backward from there.

I really want you to read this book, so I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, other than to say there seems to be the death of the young man’s mother.  He tells his school mates that she died by falling against the dishwasher.  But wait, no, another time he says she died in the bath when a radio fell into the bath.  Another time it was the fault of a hair dryer. So what really happened to his mom?

There is Tina, a member of the strange family of our boy’s best friend.  Tina seems to be loved by the family and rather uniked by every one else in town.  When she accompanies them to, say, the library, she is made to wait outside.

The father of our protagonist, and the father of his best friend both work at an outlet called Dontask.  Dad keeps bringing home cartons of items that he stores in the living room and sells on the side.

There is school bullying, and there seems to be a piling up of bodies.  There is a mysterious character named Jackie, and what appears to be a ghost of a woman who kind of appears here and there.  I love ghosts.

It is hard to know always what is going on, which frankly I really liked.  Twists, turns, lies, mistaken takes on events, just a real puzzle of a book.  Now you can read it and whine that you can’t figure out what’s going on, or you can read it and just allow it all to happen, because the ending….. well!  Yeah.  That ending…..

I have no idea what to call the genre for this book.  Mystery?  Coming-of-age?  Literary fiction?  OK, I’m going with all three.  Go read it.