THE BLOG

The Science Fictional Universe

10/06/2010 04:02 pm 16:02:50 | Updated May 25, 2011

My novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, takes place in Minor Universe 31, which was damaged during its construction and, as a result, is only 93% complete. One of the first things I scribbled down during the writing of the book was a set of equivalents, a sort of transitive property I had been thinking about for a while:

A book = a time machine = memory = a time machine = a story = a time machine = a human body = a time machine

Now, I'll admit, taking any two of those things and putting an equals sign between them is not exactly an earth-shattering idea. By stringing them all together like that, as a pseudo-theorem, I was trying to get at the idea that a novel does not have to be linear or chronological. It doesn't have to be a progression of events, plodding toward resolution. Although time is a fundamental element of any story, a novel can be a kind of space as well, governed by its own set of rules, rules that only apply within that particular space-time. A novel can be a miniature (or not-so-miniature) universe.

I also wanted to write about memory and narrative and family, and how a family is an ongoing story that its members tell each other across time, forward and backward, one that is continuously being edited and revised. Anxiety, regret, nostalgia, anticipation and hope, all of
these are constituent emotions of a family story, and all of these things are temporal emotions,
are byproducts of the mind constantly looking back while at the same time looking ahead. So if
a family is a sort of collaborative narrative between parents and children, and if (as assumed by
my literary mathematics as set forth above) a story is a time machine, then to tell a family story
is necessarily to tell a time travel story. Which is how I found myself creating a science fictional
universe.

Science fiction allows a writer to selectively question assumptions about the world, about ourselves, to fiddle with this dial, tweak this parameter or that one, then run the simulation, boot up a cosmos and see what happens. For me, it is about possibility more than probability.

Niels Bohr said, "If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood
it yet." Richard Feynman said, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." What could it mean that a photon is in two places (or all places) at once, unless you choose to look for it, in which case it will be in just that one place that you looked? Why would it matter to the photon, to the universe, whether you looked for it? What does that mean about what a "photon" is, or what "looking" is, or what "you" are? What does it mean that quantum mechanics, the most successful quantitative theory ever produced, has multiple interpretations, and that the orthodox interpretation of that theory seems to violate our notions of not just common sense, but basic principles of propositional logic? I have no idea, and I'm not going to pretend to have any idea. I don't know how to write about a world that isn't science fictional, at least in part, because I think our reality is pretty science fictional, at least for now.

I'm glad I get to live (and write) in a world where it is still possible to be this confused.

Charles Yu's book, "How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe," can be ordered here.