How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
By Charles Yu
Hardcover, 256 pages
List Price: $24
There is just enough space inside here for one person to live indeﬁnitely, or at least that’s what the operation manual says. User can survive inside the TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device, in isolation, for an indeﬁnite period of time.
I am not totally sure what that means. Maybe it doesn’t actually mean anything, which would be ﬁne, which would be okay by me, because that’s what I’ve been doing: living in here, indeﬁnitely. The Tense Operator has been set to Present-Indeﬁnite for I don’t know how long -- some time now -- and although I still pick up the occasional job from Dispatch, they seem to come less frequently these days and so, when I’m not working, I like to wedge the gearshift in P-I and just sort of cruise.
My gums hurt. It’s hard to focus. There must be some kind of internal time distortion effect in here, because when I look at myself in the little mirror above my sink, what I see is my father’s face, my face turning into his. I am beginning to feel how the man looked, especially how he looked on those nights he came home so tired he couldn’t even make it through dinner without nodding off, sitting there with his bowl of soup cooling in front of him, a rich pork-and-winter-melon-saturated broth that, moment by moment, was losing -- or giving up -- its tiny quantum of heat into the vast average temperature of the universe.
The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science ﬁctional universe.
Or, as Mom used to say: it’s a box. You get into it. You push some buttons. It takes you to other places, different times. Hit this switch for the past, pull up that lever for the future. You get out and hope the world has changed. Or at least maybe you have.
I don’t get out much these days. At least I have a dog, sort of. He was retconned out of some space western. It was the usual deal: hero, on his way up, has a trusty canine sidekick, then hero gets famous and important and all of that and by the time season two rolls around, hero doesn’t feel like sharing the spotlight anymore, not with a scruffy-looking mutt. So they put the little guy in a trash pod and sent him off.
I found him just as he was about to drift into a black hole. He had a face like soft clay, and haunches that were bald in spots where he’d been chewing off his own fur. I don’t think anyone has ever been as happy to see anything as this dog was to see me. He licked my face and that was that. I asked him what he wanted his name to be. He didn’t say anything so I named him Ed.
The smell of Ed is pretty powerful in here, but I’m okay with that. He’s a good dog, sleeps a lot, sometimes licks his paw to comfort himself. Doesn’t need food or water. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t exist. Ed is just this weird ontological entity that produces unconditional slobbery loyal affection. Superﬂuous. Gratuitous. He must violate some kind of conservation law. Something from nothing: all of this saliva. And, I guess, love. Love from the abandoned heart of a non-existent dog.
. . .
Because I work in the time travel industry, everyone assumes I must be a scientist. Which is sort of correct. I was studying for my master’s in applied science ﬁction -- I wanted to be a structural engineer like my father -- and then the whole situation with Mom got worse, and with my dad missing I had to do what made sense, and then things got even worse, and this job came along, and I took it.
Now I ﬁx time machines for a living.
To be more speciﬁc, I am a certiﬁed network technician for T-Class personal-use chronogrammatical vehicles, and an approved independent afﬁliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structure and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial, and residential use. The job is pretty chill for the most part, although right this moment I’m not loving it because I think my Tense Operator might be breaking down.
It’s happening now. Or maybe not. Maybe it was earlier today. Or yesterday. Maybe it broke down a long time ago. Maybe that’s the point: if it is broken and my transmission has been shifting randomly in and out of gears, then how would I ever know when it happened? Maybe I’m the one who broke it, trying to fool myself, thinking I could live like this, thinking I could stay out here forever.
. . .
The red indicator light just came on. I’m looking at the run-time error report. It’s like a mathematically precise way of saying, This is not how you do this, man. Meaning life, I suppose. It’s computer for Hey, buddy, you are massively bungling this up. I know it. I know it better than anyone. I don’t need silicon wafers with a slightly neurotic interface to tell me that.
That would be TAMMY, by the way. The TM-31’s computer UI comes in one of two personality skins: TIM or TAMMY. You can only choose once, the ﬁrst time you boot up, and you’re stuck with your choice forever.
I’m not going to lie. I chose the girl one. Is TAMMY’s curvilinear pixel conﬁguration kind of sexy? Yes it is. Does she have chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes behind pixilated librarian glasses and a voice like a cartoon princess? Yes and yes and yes. Have I ever, in all my time in this unit, ever done you know what to a screenshot of you know who? I’m not going to answer that. All I will say is that at a certain point, you lose the capacity for embarrassment. I’m not there yet, but I’m not far from it. Let’s see. I’ve got a nontrivial thinning situation going on with the hair. I am, rounding to the nearest, oh, about ﬁve nine, 185. Plus or minus. Mostly plus. I might be hiding from history in here, but I’m not hiding from biology. Or gravity. So yeah, I went with TAMMY.
Do you want to know the ﬁrst thing she ever said to me? enter password. Okay, yeah, that was the ﬁrst thing. Do you know the second thing? i am incapable of lying to you. The third thing she said to me was i’m sorry.
“Sorry for what?” I said.
“I’m not a very good computer program,” she said.
“I’ve never met software with low self-esteem.”
“I’ll try hard, though,” she said. “I really want to do a good job for you.”
TAMMY always thinks everything is about to go to hell. Always telling me how bad things could get. So yeah, it hasn’t been what I expected. Do I regret it sometimes? Sure I do. Would I choose TAMMY again? Sure I would. What do you want me to say? I’m lonely. She’s nice. She lets me ﬂirt with her. I have a thing for my operating system. There. I said it.
Excerpted from How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu Copyright 2010 by Charles Yu. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc.