Science fiction gets meta—very meta—in this loopy little novel by Charles Yu. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the premise (stick with4 stars.
Science fiction gets meta—very meta—in this loopy little novel by Charles Yu. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the premise (stick with me here, it gets a bit plot-y):
Every day in Minor Universe 31, a place where science fiction possibilities are real, people hop into time machines and try to change the past. But they can’t. No one can. The universe just doesn't allow it.
The universe does, however, allow people make a great big mess of things, which is where our narrator, also named Charles Yu, enters the picture. Because Charles is a time travel technician whose job is, quite literally, to save people from themselves, stopping them before they rip a hole into another universe, or erase their own existence, or bring about any number of other unpleasant things with their mucking about in space-time.
And while that job may sound cool, it’s not. Because it means Charles spends most of his time traveling through space-time, rather than living his life in the here and now. As a result, Charles is a bit of a loser. At age 30—or possibly 31, he isn’t sure, he’s lost track of the years what with all that floating through the space-time ether—he’s managed to accomplish precisely . . . well . . . squat. Flabby, balding, and friendless, he can’t even work up the nerve to tell the “female” holographic computer program running his ship that he loves her. How lame is that?
But Charles—bland, boring Charles—also has a secret: he wants, more than anything, to find his missing father, the man who first discovered time travel and then promptly vanished into the vast, uncharted territory of space-time.
Talk about not not changing the universe! Sheesh!
But will the universe allow it? Don’t count on it. Because the very first page of Charles’s story begins:
"I shoot myself. Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future."
No, things are definitely not looking good for Charles.
Interspersed with all this plot-y plot are excerpts from a manual on living in space-time called—here’s that meta thing again—How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a manual that’s going to grow increasingly important to Charles’s life and his impending death, too—a clever touch on an already clever story.
So, can Charles find his father? Fix his family? Avoid killing his future self? And somehow escape the existential quagmire in which he’s been living?
I won’t spoil your fun by answering, but I will say that’s one heck of a premise. And while the ending doesn’t quite deliver the emotional catharsis you’d want or expect, it’s still a damn good story overall, bold, original, inventive—and with just the right touch of humor à la Douglas Adams or Philip K Dick, too.
17-year-old Amy, her parents, and all the other cryogenically frozen passengers on the spaceship Godspeed are supposed to wake up 300 years in the fut17-year-old Amy, her parents, and all the other cryogenically frozen passengers on the spaceship Godspeed are supposed to wake up 300 years in the future, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to colonize the new planet Centauri-Earth. But when someone sabotages Amy’s cryo chamber, almost killing her, she wakes up 50 years too soon. Who tried to murder her? And why? These are the questions Amy must answer--fast--before the killer finishes what he started. But when her top suspect becomes none other than Eldest, the tyrannical leader of the ship’s crew, she’ll have to enlist the help of his teenage heir, Elder. But can Amy truly trust him? Or is Elder hiding a secret of his own?
Basically, it’s the classic locked room murder mystery plot with a sci-fi spin . . . and a dystopian edge . . . and a teen romance, too. How’s that for some serious genre-melding? And it could all be good—really good--if not for onetwo half a dozen problems.
Firstly, Amy’s situation is infinitely more interesting than Amy herself. And Elder, who actually is interesting, is also super annoying, thanks to both his surprising denseness (not a good trait in a lead detective) and his exasperating overuse of Revis’s silly-sounding future lingo. (Everything is “dilly this” or “frex that," which makes the story sound--to paraphrase poor, verbally limited Elder--frexing stupid.) And then there’s the love story itself, which unfortunately generates all the emotional intensity of a puppet show.
But the truly fatal flaw is this:
Genre-melding--good genre-melding--elevates the new story into something greater than the sum of its parts. It makes the old feel new and the dull feel fresh. But Revis’s story doesn’t do any of that. It just leaves you longing for the old stories that have already been there, done that, and done it better.
Because Revis’s story isn’t as smart as the best sci-fi, as suspenseful as the best mysteries, as scary as the best dystopian lit, or, heck, even as swoony as the best teen romance. (Note to Revis: When Stephenie Meyer is coming across as a more competent author than you, it’s time to consider a career change.)
It’s not that Revis’s story is bad. It’s just not good. At its best, it’s only ever okay. And why waste your time reading something that’s only ever okay? Now that’s frexing stupid. ...more
Want to know what the word “easel” and a Dutch donkey have in common? Or what to call the sweet smell after the first spring rain? Or why if you tellWant to know what the word “easel” and a Dutch donkey have in common? Or what to call the sweet smell after the first spring rain? Or why if you tell a Frenchman you’re “blessed,” he’ll probably run for some gauze?
Then this is the book for you, my word nerd friends. Written by the creator of the A.Word.A.Day e-newsletter*, this gleeful guide to all things etymological explores the “hidden lives” and “strange origins” of seemingly ordinary (and not-so-seemingly ordinary) words.
Thankfully, the book’s author keeps all that information--which could easily become as musty and dusty as an old book binding--fun and fresh by maintaining an upbeat tone and peppering his text with 77 questions of wordplay and trivia. He also divides his information into themed chapters with cutesy headings such as:
• Dickensian Characters Who Became Words • Streets That Became Metaphors • Words to Describe People: Insults • It’s All a Myth • Lexicographer, There Is a Fly in My Language!
The end result? An etymology book that’s actually entertaining--or, at least, as entertaining as an etymology book can ever be. All-in-all, a pretty fun read.
* Who the hell is still doing e-newsletters? Seriously....more