January 18, 2011

Unconventional Time Travel

Sherman, set the WABAC Machine to December 2010, when I read a couple of books about time travel.

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu is the third novel I read at the end of last year with a title that sounds like a self-help guide. More interestingly, it's a book about time travel, but in a world (a science fictional universe, actually) where the mechanism of moving through time is less scientific and more literary:

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.

If, like me, you find this early paragraph enchanting and amusing, you're going to love this book. If it turns you off, you may not want to bother, because it's like that all the way through. HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE is more experimental meta-fiction than it is science fiction, and it's as much about the narrator's relationship with his immigrant parents as it is about time travel.

The narrator -- his name is also Charles Yu, but I believe this is only mentioned once, at the very beginning -- is a time machine repairman who leads an isolated life inside his machine and outside of time, except when he's called for a job. After an unfortunate encounter with his future self, he goes on a search for his missing father, a brilliant but unsuccessful inventor. The heartbreaking family story appears both in memory and in visits via the time machine, and the novel suggests that these methods aren't so different. As speculative science, it's shaky, but as a powerful story, it works.

For a longer taste of the novel's style and humor, read this excerpt from the first chapter. Don't be scared away if you're unfamiliar with the term "retconned". I think the rest of the sci-fi references in the book are widely known to a general audience, so it doesn't require any special knowledge to appreciate.

MEANWHILE by Jason Shiga is a graphic novel involving a time machine and some other dangerous inventions. The book is interactive -- the reader chooses the path of the story by following tubes from page to tabbed page. The mechanism is ingenious, mind-blowing, and hard to describe. Here's a video in which a fan demonstrates how the book works.

The book's structure alone makes it worth reading, but it also has an engaging story, or rather, a multitude of stories. Little Jimmy happens upon an inventor's lab and is encouraged to play with the inventions: a time machine, a mind-reading helmet, and the Killitron 2000. From there, things tend not to go very well. As the book's introduction warns, "Most [paths] will end in DOOM and DISASTER."

Shiga is also the author of the excellent BOOKHUNTER, a thrilling look at the work of library police. You can read many of his comics online at his site.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller looks at the way contemporary novels avoid and embrace discussion of contemporary online life.

→ Don't be embarrassed. Everyone looks at Bookshelf Porn. (Thanks, NeilFred!)

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