They think they can change the past.
Then they get there and find out causality doesn't work the way they thought it did. They get stuck, stuck in places they didn't mean to go, in places they did mean to go, in places they shouldn't have tried to go. They get into trouble. Logical, metaphysical, etc.
That's where I come in. I go and get them out. [...]
[T]he reason I have job security is that people have no idea how to make themselves happy. Even with a time machine. I have job security because what the customer wants, when you get right down to it, is to relive his worst moment, over and over and over again.
Genre-bending, once more with feeling: Charles Yu's tale of a time traveller longing to reconnect with his father, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), offers a nuanced and enjoyable - if at times rather more nakedly sentimental than it really needs to be, at least for my taste - blend of litfic and sf sensibilities. It's not perfect, but it certainly shows up one of the other novels in a similar vein that I read last year for the tediously unimaginative nonsense it was (why yes, I am still catching up with blogging about last year's reading, because my OCD knows no bounds).
It is, however, one of those books that's much better experienced directly than explained through a review, I think; a non-trivial amount of its best moments involve lengthy footnotes, trips to blank pages, and other self-referential quips that don't translate well into short illustrative blockquotes. Thus, this will be a somewhat more succinct post than I usually go for. In theory. (If you want to sample Yu at greater length, he has a short story, 'Standard Loneliness Package', here.)
As noted in the header quote, our protagonist - also named Charles Yu, unhelpfully for clarity of review-writing purposes - is a time machine operator and repairman. His job is largely a solitary one, giving him lots of time for the sort of angsty self-reflection/navel-gazing that tends to make me roll my eyes (sample: "Sometimes when I'm brushing my teeth, I'll look at the mirror and I swear my reflection seems kind of disappointed. I realized a couple of years ago that not only am I not super-skilled at anything, I'm not even particularly good at being myself"). His only company is a "nonexistent dog" called Ed, glossed rather charmingly as a "weird ontological entity that produces unconditional slobbery loyal affection" which has been "retconned out of some space western", and TAMMY, the time machine's operating system.
Echoing Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker's Guide, the central thing artificial intelligence has given TAMMY is depression, apparently stemming from a crush on protagonist-Yu, although he interprets it as existential ennui, and - being the solipsistic lead in a litfic/sf hybrid - only really thinks about it at all to the extent that it might inconvenience him:
Sometimes at night I worry about TAMMY. I worry that she might get tired of it all. Tired of running at sixty-six terahertz, tired of all those processing cycles, every second of every hour of every day. I worry that one of these cycles she might just halt her own subroutine and commit software suicide. And then I would have to do an error report, and I don't know how I would even begin to explain that to Microsoft.
Here is where I found How to Live Safely... more successful than many others of its type. Protagonist-Yu's half-sympathetic, half-exasperated observation of TAMMY is amusing (I particularly liked "You haven't experienced awkwardness until you've seen a three-million-dollar piece of software cry"), but in its dismissiveness it also offers an unwitting and not always flattering counterpoint to protagonist-Yu's own angst. For the most part, it seems to me, the self-referentiality of the narrative comes down on the side of self-awareness rather than self-centredness - by which I mean not that it's all ironic detachment, but rather, that it invites, or at least allows space for, a little readerly eyerolling every now and then. We can enjoy the story and feel protagonist-Yu's pain over his relationship with - and the loss of - his father, while also recognising the ways in which his reverent attachment to said pain makes him a bit of a jerk.
After all, protagonist-Yu would know: he works in an industry that gives people the means to wallow in their past mistakes, after all; "a typical customer," he tells us, gets into a device that could take her absolutely anywhere, and invariably chooses "the unhappiest day of her life". The novel is interested in time machines for their own sake - and this is important, and goes a long way towards making the novel successful in both its genres - but primarily it is playing with them as literalised emotional metaphors. Perhaps because he's a debut novelist, though, author-Yu can't resist making this more explicit than it really needs to be:
Everyone has a time machine. Everyone is a time machine. [...] The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped.
This notion gives rise to some poignant images: protagonist-Yu's mother, for example, has used the technology to exile herself in an endless loop of an imaginary evening meal, a happier construct back in "a kind of imperfect past tense" before everything went wrong for the family. Protagonist-Yu himself, meanwhile, revisits (in memory, in 'reality', in science fiction) his younger self's interactions with his father, in an effort understand them - to understand him - differently with the benefit of hindsight. These episodes - long months of being largely irrelevant alongside his scientist father's tireless work designing the world's first time machine form, and then what happens when his father demonstrates the prototype to potential corporate backers - form the climax of the novel.
While at the time I remember finding the relentless foreshadowing of doom that precedes the actual explanation of rather tedious and unnecessary - again the sign of a debut novelist, I suspect, feeling the need to lay things on rather thickly - looking back (ha) now, the overriding impression I retain is of being moved. At least in part because, when it counts, author-Yu approaches the most difficult moments with a delicate, fragile restraint. The real sadness, ultimately, is starting to forget how much it hurts, and thus to lose touch with its significance: "Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience".
In a broader sense, narrative - both this particular narrative, and the act of creating narrative in general - is itself a time machine, as we're told early on, by way of an explanation as to why this story is being told as science fiction:
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.
The playing out of this idea makes for some entertainingly trippy moments. "This book, this autobiography, this self-instruction manual (self-coercion manual, self-creation manual)" is rather wonderfully described as "a staircase in a house built by the construction firm of Escher and Sons", and it is something protagonist-Yu is both writing and reading - and experiencing - at the same time:
I'm still performing the read/write/self-edit process as faithfully as I can, in fact, even this parenthetical aside has been worded exactly as I am recording it, right up to the words I am typing right now and now and now and now, I am typing what appears to be somewhat digressive and extemporaneous rambling, all of which is starting to make me have serious doubts in terms of the whole free will versus determinism situation
This is a short excerpt from a much longer passage, a gleefully unwieldy run-on sentence that gives a wonderful sense of a self in free-fall. As an expression of how it feels to be - as protagonist-Yu is - trapped in an emotional loop, helpless before all the myriad things in life it is impossible to control, I found it much more compelling than any number of episodes of staring gloomily into the mirror. A footnote adds:
NB: This is how the text actually reads in the copy I am working from. The text also includes this explanatory (and somewhat self-referential) footnote, including this second sentence, which is itself a second-order meta-explanation of the already explanatory first sentence. It is unclear what the function of this self-referentiality is, other than to raise doubts in my mind as to the actual provenance of this manuscript, although I do note that this third sentence, just like the rest of this footnote, is also in the text that I am copying from, verbatim, which makes it seem almost as if I am, in a way, telling myself what to think, that my future self has produced a record of the output of my consciousness, of my internal monologue. Or rather, a dialogue, between myself and my future self, in which my future self is telling my present self what I have already finished thinking but have not yet realized I thought.
This is consistent with Libet (1983).
(What really makes this is the mischievously unexplained abbreviated reference at the end.)
When not cleaning up after would-be time travellers, protagonist-Yu spends most of his time moping around with Ed and TAMMY in Minor Universe 31, a world in which, due to problems at the construction stage, "physics was only 93 percent installed", resulting in a somewhat unpredictable environment and a population with "a lingering sense of incompleteness".
Author-Yu has lots of in-jokey fun with the meta-commentary on this. Minor Universe 31, we're told, consists of 17% reality, with the rest being made up of "a standard composite base SF substrate". It is a realm of considerable physical, social and narrative stratification - from the "unincorporated areas" of reality (so-called because they have "no particular look and feel, no genre"), to the highest echelons in which inhabitants go to considerable trouble to create and maintain an ersatz version of the 'real', genre-less regions:
Considerable expense is required for the upkeep of these highly stylized 'reality' gardens, with the verisimilitude of one's personal family garden being a point of pride and a symbol of status among this stratum of inhabitants.
He goes on to note that the borderlands between these upper-class areas and their immediate SFnal neighbours is the land of, effectively, the sort of slipstream story experience that author-Yu is writing; he anticipates the grumpy (but often justified) neither-one-thing-nor-the-other critique often levelled at such stories with the ease of familiarity and fondness:
Although technically SF, the look and feel of the world in these borderline neighborhoods is less thoroughly executed than elsewhere in the region, and outcomes of story lines can be more randomized, due to a comparatively weaker buffer from the effects of 31's incomplete physics. As a result, the overall quality of experience for the residents of these striving areas is thinner, poorer, and less substantial than of those in the middle and upper regions, while at the same time, due to its mixed and random and unthemed nature, less satisfying than that of reality, which, although gritty, is, at least, internally consistent.
A more positive reading is offered later on, with talk of "microscopic, but highly dynamic exchange of materials at the thin permeable boundary layer between the two regions". I am in enthusiastic agreement: more genre-bending like this, please.