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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Slog Commenter Book Report: Enigma Knows How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Posted by on Tue, Aug 2, 2011 at 2:42 PM

At Slog Happy, I gave commenter and prolific Slog Book Reporter Enigma a copy of How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, which just came out in paperback. Enigma's report is below (please note that this piece has been edited, and any errors you may find are entirely my fault). I loved the book. How did Enigma feel about it?

This is indeed an amazing book.

I finished it last week and the story just keeps coming into my thoughts at random moments. Everyday events around me bear a strange narrative they didn't have before I started the book.

Time travel has always fascinated and horrified me. My brain reels at imagining time paradoxes, but I also find it extremely simplistic to imagine time travel as something possible. We are all moving through time at the same regular pace, but we manipulate time all the time. Marijuana slows our perception of time. We speed up audio tracks or slow them down to create new sounds. Our memories bring back vivid experiences of 20 years ago, but can't recall what we had for lunch on April 2nd of this year.

So why is it so far-fetched to think that someone could invent a machine that can skip a track like a record needle skips a groove?

This digression has nothing to do with the book really, but it demonstrates the kind of thought processes that occur as you read it. Charles Yu wrote one of the most jarring books I have ever read.

A son (named Charles Yu) trying to reconnect with his father; how much more simplistic of a plot can you get? Yet that's hardly the point. The simplistic framework lets Yu-the-author aim for higher concepts, because you've already read this story before. The time travel trope is just that—a useful trope—but it's necessary because otherwise Yu's reminiscing would be grating.

Describing this book is like describing an emotion you had two weeks ago. It matters, just like all your experiences and emotions matter to who you are now, but it mattered more at the moment you felt it. This is a book to re-read. I'm looking forward to seeing moments in the book that I glanced over the first time, to the book having more meaning the second time around.

Of course, I've already re-read the book in the future, and am remembering how much more I enjoyed it the first time because it was all so novel.


Comments (6) RSS

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Will in Seattle 1
I for one welcome our Time-hopping overlords and their swimming-pool-equipped TARDIS ...
Posted by Will in Seattle on August 2, 2011 at 3:59 PM · Report this
Agreed with Enigma. This is a great book. Go and get it.
Posted by tkc on August 2, 2011 at 4:13 PM · Report this
I must disagree with Enigma and tkc.

At least have the right expectations for this book. My impression was that this was a high/low litfic/genre mashup along the lines of Lev Grossman's delectable The Magicians (sequel out in 8 days!) or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

It was not such a book. There was little genre content. Nor was the writing particularly immediate or plot driven (I expect more plottiness from my genre mashups). I was disappointed and frankly bored throughout much of it, and had basically no emotional reaction overall.
Posted by Ancient Sumerian on August 2, 2011 at 4:17 PM · Report this
Enigma 4
Paul, the edits you made really helped the readability. I think this is the first time I can remember you actually making changes to my submission. :-)

@2 Thanks!

@3 But that's the point I was trying to make. The time travel trope is a useful way to muse on the nature of childhood and the relationship between a father and son. If you start reading with the expectation of an action packed genre heavy book I can see your disappointment. But if you go in with the understanding of it as a great general fiction, I think you're better served.
Posted by Enigma on August 2, 2011 at 4:27 PM · Report this
@4, I think that's totally valid. It is 97% expectations.

The marketing of this novel was at times expressly designed to give me wrong expectations, IMO. Here are some pull quotes from the back of the novel: "Like [Douglas] Adams...", "Like watching an episode of Doctor Who written by the young Philip Roth...", "...tremendously clever...marvelously written, sweetly geeky", " as hell...".

I disagree with much of that, and some of it is clearly meant to make me think that this was more genre than general.

That's not the novel's fault, but it doesn't make me want to recommend the novel, nor to read anything else by the author, particularly. YMMV, though. Thanks!
Posted by Ancient Sumerian on August 2, 2011 at 4:53 PM · Report this
Karlheinz Arschbomber 6
I became quickly bored with the introverted conceit of this book. Verbal masturbation. Slogging, in the literal, non-Stranger sense.
Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber on August 2, 2011 at 10:22 PM · Report this

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