Safety in Science Fiction

Taking the time to read Charles Yu’s “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” was a special treat for me. If I let myself read science fiction at all these days, it is flash fiction; something that won’t stick in my head while I try to finish my own science fiction novel. But I was at a retreat for three days, without computer, internet or television, and it was dark before six p.m. What was I to do? So I took peak into Minor Universe 31 and became trapped for many enjoyable hours.

how-to-live-safely-coverHere’s the short review. 1) I give this book five stars. There were many things I loved about it, but the three best were its overall oddness, the way math and science were interwoven into the story, and its brilliant observations about human nature. 2) There were a couple things I didn’t like, but I acknowledge that they may say more about me than they do about the book. 3) I discovered that I can go right ahead and read a novel if it’s this unique, and it doesn’t screw with my inner voice at all. Now I just have to find more books like this.

A slightly longer version of the review would let you know that I have a huge fondness for authors who take chances. Charles Yu takes many, jumping around multiple time lines and repeating a classic scene wherein he shoots himself until the scene finally makes sense to the reader. He creates a multiverse that is almost believable, then hits you over the head with the occasional reminder that this all has to be nonsense. Risky behavior, and I applauded him as I read.

From his use of a schematic instead of a table of contents through his labeling chapters with Greek letters, he not only speaks geek, he uses it to draw you into his protagonist’s world. In spite of the lack of science involved with this book’s actual version of time travel, physics and math permeate other parts of the story, helping the reader to overlook how preposterous the basic premise is.

charlesyuhowtolivesafelyNeither the audacity of the approach nor the nod to science would have made this book brilliant, however. It took Yu’s clever yet valid observations about humans to do that. One of my favorites: “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” Wow. Or how about: “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.” Yeah. And the book is full of gems like these.

Now for what I did not like.

Because I am a writer, I give Yu tremendous credit for creating a time travel story without developing a plausible method for time travel. Because I am a geek, and a geophyscist in my day job, I got quite frustrated with a time travel story that offered no such plausible method. Yu has tied his temporal device to words and tenses, keeping his readers always aware that is a story told by a storyteller. I’m not fond of books and movies that center on writers lives or on the significance of the written word as they can strike me as being full of self-importance. At its worst “How to Live Safely …” crossed that line a few times for me.

Because I am a reader, I give Yu tremendous credit for creating a main character that was sympathetic yet believable, and with whom I could identify in spite of the differing demographics of age, race and gender. Because I am a woman and a mother, I winced at the emphasis on the father-son relationship while mom was largely relegated to her desire to make her son a nice dinner. To be fair, it wasn’t quite that extreme, but given that the other female character in the book is a computer who cries too much, I felt my gender was a bit slighted. That’s me though; the story that Yu had to tell wasn’t much about mothers or women, it was about a young Asian man.

mastershift2jpgBoth the short and long reviews conclude with the fact that I am very glad I read this book. The sheer innovation in it was inspiring, and because it was so unique it didn’t screw with my inner voice at all. I wish that I knew how to read this book for the first time again, but I don’t. I’m just going to have to find more books like this. The problem is that I’m not sure if any others exist, at least not in my particular chronodiegetical schematic.

The time machines all around you

spring2The world, our world, is filled with magic when we are willing to use a broad brush to define enchantment. And why not? We touch upon telepathy and magic charms, natural shape shifters and mysterious potions, if you open your eyes wide enough in the aquarium or the pharmacy to see the correlations.

But what about that old science fiction standby of time travel? Surely there is no substitute for the cranky old machine in the professor’s garage that will take us to see dinosaurs or aliens inhabiting our world? Maybe, maybe not.

Is a trip to Cuba in 2016 a journey back in time? Is visiting a research lab at a tech firm a jaunt into the future? How about finding a box in the attic? Looking into a newborn’s eyes? Ah yes, time machines all around.

spring3Last week, I discovered a new one, driving from North Carolina to Tennessee. I’m spending my first spring in North Carolina at about 3000 feet above sea level, and have admired the many flowering trees as they burst into bloom. I already know that the full foliage of summer makes for my least favorite season in my new home, and I’ve watched with a little sadness as summer begins at my house.

Then I discovered, to my delight, that at 6000 feet up the little tiny leaves are just beginning to curl outward and the floral fireworks display is only starting. That’s right. It is a full three week trip back in time just driving up over the state line.

But you’re not really going back in time, you say. True. The calendar has not changed. However it looks every bit as if I had, and, in at least some branches of physics, reality is what the observer sees, not what the instrumentation of another says.

GreenlandLater, as we drove back down to lower elevations, I remembered a book I read while researching d4. In Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland she suffers from a heart condition that prohibits her from living in the high mountain terrain that she loves. Then she discovers that moving northward in latitude is the equivalent of climbing higher in altitude, without the oxygen issues. No, she’s not really higher above sea level in Greenland, but the plants and animals and lichens all make it look like she is, and she’s happy.

Sunday, I was back in the full flowering glory of spring, and I was happy too. Who is to say that’s not time travel.  Certainly not me.

 

 

Best movies about time, at least in this space/time continuum

travel-in-time-to-1969-space-time-continuum-andee-designI am part of the movie-viewing public that never tires of a well done flick that examines time. But, as one might guess from the plot of z2, my favorites involve a clever manipulation of time, or a riff on the mysteries of time, rather than straight time travel stories.

There are several reasons that simple time travel stories don’t generally impress me.

yankeeFirst, when they only involve going into the past, they are too often no more than an excuse to do a “fish out of water” piece on a present day hero in an historical setting of the writer’s choosing. I think that Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (written all the way back in 1889) pretty much covered this, and the subsequent 1949 movie starring Bing Crosby brought it to the screen well. If you want to write about (or watch) contemporary people experiencing early Rome or the Ming dynasty, that’s fine, you are absolutely entitled to your pleasures.  I just consider such stories to be more historical fiction than science fiction, and I’m not all that fond of historical fiction.

eloiConversely, if the time travel is only to the future, the DeLorean (or whatever the time machine is called) is only a vehicle to get present day people into the author’s wonderful, or awful, vision of tomorrow.  It is science fiction, but like H.G. Well’s tale of the poor Eloi, the time travel aspect is far less important than the future that is created. I may or may not like the story, depending on what I think of the tomorrow that is being described. For example, although I admire H.G. Wells and his groundbreaking ideas for 1895, I personally wasn’t all that crazy about the flesh eating Morlocks.

spock-prime1The remaining option, obviously, is to craft a story in which folks shuttle back and forth through time. I believe that this kind of fiction is so hard to do well. It is easy for a writer to fall into the silly and overused “the whole universe is going to unravel because I sneezed” situation, as in my least favorite time travel series ever, “Back to the Future.” Some plots avoid this better than others. I thought that the whole Spock Prime thing in the 2013 movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” was a wonderful example of how to avoid this scenario without a complicated explanation. Well done.

So what time related movies do intrigue this humble author? Well, I recently found this wonderful post called 8 great movies that manipulate time written by Jay A. Fernandez back in June 5, 2014 on a blog called “Signature” and I invite you to check it out for yourself.

Four of the eight are some of my favorite movies ever, based on their wonderful looks at the slippery and fascinating phenomenon of time. In order of increasing preference:

4. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) is based on a 1922 story by F.Scott Fitzgerald. The idea of a baby born as an old man who gets younger as he ages is intriguing, even though the love story which forms most of the plot was too schmaltzy for my tastes. (The truth is that I like romance novels even less than I like historical fiction.) A more modern take on this same idea isTime's Arrow Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. This is a far darker story based on the idea of time running in the other direction, in a scenario in which the opposite of reality makes more sense than the reality itself.

3. “Memento”(2000) tells the tale of a man who completely lacks short term memory, meaning that there is no recent past for him. The story picks at that disturbing connection between human consciousness and the laws of physics. What is time without an observer?

2. “Run, Lola, Run” (1998) shows how three split second variations at the start of a story yield three vastly different outcomes, not only for Lola, but for everyone whose life she touches on her maniac mission to save her boyfriend. 

1. “Groundhog Day” (1993) is the infamous story of a man forced to live the same day repeatedly. Yes, it is officially my favorite movie, because of its cosmic implication that we all get each of life’s lessons over and over until we finally wise up and learn what we need.

warped-clockThe list includes three other movies I have always meant to see (“Twelve Monkeys”, “Inception”and “Irreversible”) and one other I somehow missed hearing about but have now added to my list to check out (“Primer.”) It also gives an honorable mention to another favorite of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which makes up for the honorable mention it gives to Back to the Future. Clearly intelligent movies about the nature of time are plentiful, and hopefully the recent interest in science fiction will spur on even more.