How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

What’s frustrating is that the setup is so clever, so thoroughly unique, and promised so much, and then the narrative completely loses it’s way halfway through, and never regains its composure. What’s frustrating is that this was a good book, even a terrific book, and then suddenly it wasn’t. What’s frustrating is that it had so much potential, that it squandered so completely. What’s frustrating is that the majority of the second half of the book keeps saying the same things over and over and over again, in ever so slightly different ways, with lots, of, unnecessary, commas, just sort of drawing it out as long as it can, kind of like this review.

Charles YuWhat’s frustrating is that there was a story that was setup very well, it would’ve been amazing, and then it disappeared halfway through, replaced by a lesser story, and the mother of all Deus Ex Machina endings. What’s frustrating is the concept — using a lexicon so full of interesting, fun science fictional words combining, quite literally, ’scientific’ and ‘fiction writing’ terms relating to time and narrative, chronology and character, examining the ideas of creating worlds and traveling via the process of creating, writing, crafting a narrative, grammatical choices etc — is such a good concept, and then it’s ironically wasted precisely through the misuse of those same tools on a practical level: narrative, chronology, character, etc.

What’s frustrating is that I get what the author was trying to do, but in my opinion, it didn’t happen. The book he was trying to write, is not this book. It’s absolutely clever, and post-modern/self-aware as hell, and I love all of that. The character is aware they’re in a fictional world, aware of other fictional worlds, this universe the author created had so much potential for amazing things, and then none of them happen. Lots of setup, no payoff.

All that being said, the strengths of the first quarter of this novel, make me think that I might really enjoy Charles Yu’s short fiction, so I’ve picked up his first collection (on my own conflicted recommendation).

This book could’ve been amazing.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 3 Hugos, John W. Campbell, Locus, and on and on. He’s greatly admired among authors and almost entirely unknown by most readers. I’ve heard him referenced as an inspiration by several authors that I enjoy reading. Specifically Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who collectively write the Expanse series under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) cite this collection as massively influential. I figured I should probably do myself a service and at least check it out.

It turns out that It’s completely mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. Every single story is incredibly unique, tonally diverse and powerful in different ways. If the quality among these 8 stories wasn’t at such a consistently high level, I’d say that Chiang was merely a ghostwriting team, comprised of 8 different authors, all exceptionally talented, each with different interests, politics and writing styles. Every story genuinely feels like it could be penned by a different author. I’ve never come across a creative powerhouse like this guy. He’s impressing the hell out of me with every sentence.

Tower of Babylon: 5/5
Killer story. The Old Testament cosmology was especially fun to hear described–passing beyond the moon, sun and stars, etc. A telling of the construction and journey up the tower of Babylon, and what lies beyond the vault of heaven. Blew my mind right open. Seriously creative. I get why it won all kinds of awards.

Understand: 5/5
Again, with the unique approach to storytelling. While reading this one, I started realizing how some of these concepts have clearly influenced other stories. Most obviously, the movie ‘Limitless’ and the Max Barry novel Lexicon. I particularly liked how the language and vocabulary of the story evolves as the protagonist’s intelligence and recall increases.

Division By Zero: 4/5
An examination of loss of belief, mental illness, suicide and math. What happens when everything you’ve worked for in your life, every kind of order that you’ve relied on, is suddenly incorrect?

Story of Your Life: 6/5
Stop what you’re doing now and read this. This is the absolute best short story I have ever read. Chiang’s grasp on the English language is deeply integrated into the story itself, causality, and omniscience. It’s insanely good.

Seventy-Two Letters: 3/5
Interesting concepts, but storywise it was a little boring. The power of language to shape action and perception. Reminded me a lot of early 50s Asimov. All conceptual, not much character development.

The Evolution of Human Science: 3/5
Interesting and extremely short little tale about a scientific understanding breaking down between regular humans and meta-humans. Conceptually cool, but too short to really be that interesting.

Hell is the Absence of God: 5/5
The moral of the story? God is a maniacal motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit about humans, and you should love him unconditionally. This one was a real brain twister. I loved it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: 5/5
Advertisers, elective localized brain damage, culture jamming, politics, coming of age, concepts of beauty, love, relationships. This was terrific and heavily subversive.

The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

Synopsis: “The Culture–a humanoid/machine symbiotic society–has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel & incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.” 

The Player of Games

The Player of Games

The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, did a lot of world-building heavy lifting from a Culture antagonistic POV. Having read that previously, this one is allowed to come in and really flesh out the world from a pro-Culture POV, which was really fun. Reading them in order gave a sort of a pros-and-cons approach to their philosophy. We get all of the negative things about the Culture first, and then we start to see the positives in this book.

Big shocker, I really loved it. The complexities of the main character and his occasional slips into apathy and/or something much darker during his experiences playing the game and interacting with the foreign philosophy an actions of the Empire, were handled expertly and really made him feel flesh and blood.

Iain M. BanksUltimately, this story serves as an allegory for — and examination of — the ultimate cause of the baser desires of humanity. The Culture’s philosophy stands in for one possible method that these social terrors might be not only curtailed, but pretty much completely circumvented. Of course, this is a work of fiction, and this philosophy may not work so perfectly in practice. I do think there is at least a little truth to it though, but for it to function in practice we may need access to those pesky ‘unlimited resources’ that the Culture has.

Bottom line, you should read this book. But you should also read Consider Phlebas first. Don’t be an idiot, read the books in publication order. There has never been a series that has ever benefited from being read/watched/listened to in any other order than the order it was published in.

Since I read this back to back with Consider Phlebas, think I’ll read a quick palette cleanser before moving on to Use of Weapons. This is heavy stuff, and I’m exhausted.

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan

Hugely original ideas, not every story is a home run but there are enough 5/5 stories here to make this very recommended for any fan of hard science fiction. The concepts are extremely unique even 20 years later. Very similar to Ted Chiang’s writing. I have no idea why Greg Egan isn’t a household name in SF.

“As the unknowable future becomes the unchangeable past, risk must collapse into certainty, one way or another.”

“We think of our lives as circumscribed by cultural and biological taboos, but if people really want to break them, they always seem to find a way. Human beings are capable of anything:torture, genocide, cannibalism, rape. After which — or so I’d heard — most can still be kind to children and animals, be moved to tears by music, and generally behave as if all their emotional faculties are intact.”

“I’d rather swim in this cacophony of a million contradictory voices the drown in the smooth and plausible lies of those genocidal authors of history.”

Individual story ratings:

The Infinite Assassin: 3/5
Multiverse drugs messing everything up all over the place.

The Hundred-Light-Year-Diary: 5/5
Existential, philosophical fiction.

Eugene: 2/5
Right when it got interesting it veered off to left field and ended abruptly.

Caress: 5/5
Creepy and awesome. Life imitates art. One of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered.

Blood Sisters: 3/5
Chrichtonesqe

Axiomatic: 5/5
Terrific.

Post Office Box: 5/5
A more practical quantum leap. Terrific story.

Seeing: 5/5
Brilliant concept, very well written.

A Kidnapping: 4/5
Egan is so clever.

Learning to be Me: 5/5
So uncomfortably, unnervingly good.

The Vat: 2/5
Clever, but this one was missing something for me.

The Walk: 5/5
Damn it Egan, quit writing such terrifically layered, philosophical, existential stories!

The Cutie: 3/5
Gross and Weird, awesome concept.

Into Darkness: 3/5
Great concept, story wasn’t that stellar though. This one would probably be the most likely pick to adapt into a film.

Appropriate Love: 3/5
Gross and Weird, awesome concept.

The Moral Virologist: 4/5
Total psycho – inspired by the AIDS virus – attempts to make a moral virus that only punishes adulterers, fails magnificently.

Closer: 3/5
Set in the same universe as ‘Learning to be Me’, a couple look for ways to become more like each other, in order to better understand each other’s perspective.

Unstable Orbits in the Space Of Lies: 3/5
Similar concept as ‘Closer’, except on a very large scale, and more about theology/religious/political views than individual perspectives.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

There are 2 kinds of difficult novels: those that you don’t enjoy while reading, but you genuinely enjoying having read, and those that you only enjoy while reading because the small picture stuff is infinitely better than the novel as a whole. Infinite Jest is one of the latter, and I think that’s why people never really stop reading it; it’s only good while you’re reading it. You finish and then start right over again, trying to piece things together until you create something in your mind that slightly makes sense of it all.

This thing is a real love/hate affair. There are moments of true brilliance that are exceptional achievements, and the characters are fantastic, the world-building absolute top-notch, but if you have to leave the “ending” up to your audience to imagine in their collective heads instead of – I don’t know – WRITING IT, you wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t/couldn’t write your way out.

Yes, I’ve gone back and read the first chapter after finishing it. Yes, I understand the chronology. Yes, I’ve read all the theories online. I get what probably happened, but how did it happen? Why did it happen? How did those strings and threads of story and plot actually come together? The answer is: they didn’t. If I have to construct a way for all of this brilliant stuff to come together myself, it means that the author never did. It’s just a hand-wavy sort of “oh and then stuff happened and then the end” cop-out.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

There are threads in this book that insinuate all kinds of things, meaning that you can find evidence to setup any sort of ending that your heart desires, and it’s just as valid as anyone else’s theories, because there is no actual ending. Think Hal in that first chapter is actually Mario pretending to be Hal? They’re both described as hire hydrant shaped, maybe it was. Think John Wayne was an AFR plant all along, AFR agents and John Wayne are both described by the same quotes from The Terminator, maybe he was. Or maybe none of that, because there isn’t an ending, so we do not and will not ever know what actually happened. DFW created a piece of entertainment that once read, leaves the reader only wanting to read it again and again and again and again. It is an Infinite Jest.

Again, the brilliant stuff is so brilliant that I still enjoyed it immensely, and have to give this 4 out of 5 stars, and I get that postmodernism is all about ontological vs. epistemological approaches to fiction, but good lord at least have it slightly wrap up just a tiny bit!