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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (read in 2015)

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Charles Yu digs through baggage from his past in the guise of a real-life time-machine mechanic. The universe in which he lives is kind of a mix of our own plus all sorts of fictive universes. So, for example, Luke Skywalker is a character because, well, he’s part of a popular science-fiction world. The novel addresses all sorts of interesting paradoxes, including loops and writing paradoxical warnings to oneself. He harks back to how his father invented the time machine, but failed to profit from it, instead trapping himself in a diorama/time-loop. It was a meandering, interesting and unique book that seemed to have a lot to do with Charles Yu personally, though that was perhaps just the auto-biographical feel.


“I’ve never been married. I never got married. The woman I didn’t marry is named Marie. Technically, she doesn’t exist. Just like Ed. Except that she does. A little paradox, you might think, but really, The Woman I Never Married is a perfectly valid ontological entity. Or class of entities. I suppose technically you could make the argument that every woman is The Woman I Never Married. So why not call her Marie, that was my thinking.”
Page 7
“In order to qualify as a protagonist, a human must be able to demonstrate an attachment coefficient of at least 0.75. A coefficient of 1.00 or above is required in order to be a hero. Factors used in calculating the coefficient include ability to believe fervency of that belief humility willingness to look stupid willingness to have heart broken willingness to see U31 as nonboring or, better yet, to see it as interesting, and maybe even important, and despite its deeply defective nature possibly even worth saving Any inhabitant with a negative attachment coefficient (in which case it is referred to as a coefficient of ironic detachment) will be placed on probation pending review of the individual’s suitability for continued inclusion within the U31 diegetic space.”
Page 31
“If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.”
Page 54
“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.”
Page 78
“For food-gathering purposes, for outrunning the saber-toothed tiger, for jumping across jagged rocks in a rushing river, to care for our crying infant, we need to focus, we need to know what is going on now. That is to say, our physical ability to understand time has been honed by evolutionary pressures to select for traits useful for survival, in all aspects, and time perception is no exception or special case or even magical or mysterious case.” My father looks at me and smiles when he says this next part. “Which is where I started to have hope. If there is no absolute logical reason why we could not experience the past just like we experience the present, perhaps we can untrain, or perhaps retrain, ourselves to have such a capacity.”
Page 178