Sarah Gerard learns how to live safely.
“Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with yourself about how you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.”
— Charles Yu, narrator of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It was early December, and my husband and I had plans to fly down to Florida for my parents’ annual holiday party. It would be his first time seeing my hometown, and we were both a little curious as to how it would shake down when the world of my present collided with the world of my past. Even though not much time had passed since I moved to New York, I had made many purposeful changes in my life since then, because by the time I left Florida, I didn’t much like the person I’d become. Driving to the airport, I was apprehensive about going back home and bringing David. I didn’t know what we would find when we got there.
I had been reading a lot about black holes for a piece I was writing and was especially interested in how time was observed at the point of approaching them. A black hole forms when a massive star undergoes a supernova and collapses on itself, becoming a point with zero volume and infinite density called a “singularity.” Around the singularity is a region called the “event horizon” where gravity is so strong, not even light can escape. To the layman, this is the point of no return; a body crossing an event horizon cannot be prevented from hitting the singularity. But if you were able to survive falling in, it would appear, upon crossing the event horizon, as if time were moving normally for you. However, to an observer, you would seem to stop just before crossing, and never fall in. Einstein’s special theory of relativity suggests this could be interpreted as a kind of time travel.
One of the central conceits of How to Live Safely is the ability of the author to manipulate time. Charles Yu is his own main character in the book, a time machine repairman who shoots his future self in pursuit of finding his father, an inventor who vanished after inventing time travel. Thrown into a causal loop, Yu attempts to free himself by skipping ahead in a book he supposedly wrote (and is writing as he re-reads) called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. But he finds himself instead outside of time completely, where he witnesses a memory montage of his relationship with his father, which is rather illuminating, if totally sad. Meanwhile, back in Minor Universe 31, Yu’s mother is stuck in a voluntary consignment loop wherein she relives a simulation of the happiest 60 minutes of her life indefinitely, serving dinner to a hologram of her son. Reaching the end of the closed time loop, Yu returns to the place where he first shot himself and is himself shot, beginning the cycle again.
The philosophical debate of endurance or perdurance argues two ways in which an object can be thought to persist through time. Endurance is the idea that an object exists wholly at every moment, whereas perdurance describes an object as existing in temporal parts, in which case the identity of the object can only be seen in the sum of those parts. This is important because, in a book like How to Live Safely, wherein the author manipulates time to the effect that the story is populated with Yus, the question becomes: Who is the real Yu? The present or the past Yu, or the memory of Yu, the Yu your mother wants you to be, or the Yu who writes the story of Yu and Yu? What becomes of Yu’s identity?
We arrived in Tampa in the middle of the night, and I watched out the window as the lights tracing the Gulf of Mexico came into view. To a person crossing an event horizon, the surface of the black hole will always look as if it is some distance below them. Theoretically, if an astronaut were to fly her spaceship near (but not into) the singularity of a rotating black hole, she may witness thousands or even billions of years pass outside of it. A body crossing an event horizon seems to freeze and redshift gradually as time elapses outside but never disappear. People in Florida do not crash and burn so much as sunbathe themselves into oblivion.
At one point, Narrator Yu is picked up by another Charles Yu from a place outside of time. Driving the spaceship, he puts things in perspective.
Listen to you—you sound like an idiot. Who do you think you are? Imagine there’s a version of you that sees all of it. A version that knows when versions are messing with the other ones, trying to get things off track, trying to erase things. A record of all the keystrokes, the storage of all the versions, partial and deleted and written over. All changes. All truths about all parts of our self.
For a time-traveling person encountering himself, an endurantist would say that two complete stages of Yu’s life meet in an overlap of personal, or subjective, time (as opposed to a single moment of external, or objective, time). Whole Yu encounters Whole Yu in this scene, with the effect that it appears as if there are two of them. But the perdurantist would say that both Yus were only temporal parts representing a fraction of the Whole Yu, who could only be perceived by reading the book from start to finish.
David and I woke late the morning after we arrived, ate breakfast, and borrowed a car to sight-see. I led him around to landmark places: my first house, those of my friends, the beaches where we smoked cigarettes and swam naked at night in the deep, black waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Kelly Regnier’s horse was here; Katie Elliott’s school was here; this is the lake where we saw alligators. “If I focus on any one point on the line, I can see the memory clearly,” Narrator Yu says. “If I relax and look at it as a whole, it is like a general impression of emotion and color and smells and sounds.” It was impossible, while living there, to avoid all of the people who knew how I’d messed up on my way to personhood, or teach them that the versions of me they knew were not accurate versions. Once a particle is inside the horizon, moving into the hole is as inevitable as moving forward in time and can actually be thought of as equivalent to doing so. Yu specializes in saving people who try to travel back in time to correct their mistakes. It’s impossible, he says. People only want to relive their most painful moments over and over in order to recreate them, to fix them in a way that’s not painful anymore. But “time isn’t an orderly stream,” he says. We can’t just dip back in whenever we want and rearrange things. No, they’re there; they’re permanent; they’re done. So as we drove, what I sought was not to reconstruct the past in a more favorable image, but rather to find an ineffable vestige of who I am and have always been. My timeless self, my form. I wanted to show my husband the version of me that will always remain as we grow older, the person he will recognize as our bodies fall away. What to expect as we near the singularity.