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The author of the widely praised debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe returns with a hilarious, heartbreaking, and utterly original collection of short stories.
A big-box store employee is confronted by a zombie during the graveyard shift, a problem that pales in comparison to his inability to ask a coworker out on a date . . . A fighter leads his band of virtual warriors, thieves, and wizards across a deadly ...
The author of the widely praised debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe returns with a hilarious, heartbreaking, and utterly original collection of short stories.
A big-box store employee is confronted by a zombie during the graveyard shift, a problem that pales in comparison to his inability to ask a coworker out on a date . . . A fighter leads his band of virtual warriors, thieves, and wizards across a deadly computer-generated landscape, but does he have what it takes to be a hero? . . . A company outsources grief for profit, its slogan: “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.”
Drawing from both pop culture and science, Charles Yu is a brilliant observer of contemporary society, and in Sorry Please Thank You he fills his stories with equal parts laugh-out-loud humor and piercing insight into the human condition. He has already garnered comparisons to such masters as Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, and in this new collection we have resounding proof that he has arrived (via a wormhole in space-time) as a major new voice in American fiction.
“There's some of the cerebral gamesmanship of Jonathan Lethem, the resigned sadness of Kurt Vonnegut, the Phil Dickian paranoiac distrust of consumer culture. But Yu's voice, sensibility and approach are unique, especially in the ways he wrings humor and pathos out of stripped-down syntax and seemingly passive protagonists . . . The stories deliver more than their fair share of bitter laughs, philosophical conundrums and existential gut punches.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A mix of science fiction, absurdist humor and Beckettian monologue, with storytelling techniques that twist narrative into a computer-esque objectivism; think Donald Barthleme's strangest pyrotechnics in a Philip K. Dick or Haruki Murakami world . . . [Charles Yu is ] the computer century's heir to Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury.”
“Yu’s workman-like sentences are unexpectedly emotive, while also being almost always very funny . . . As with his critically acclaimed, much-adored 2010 debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu’s new baker’s dozen of satiric stories tell of a future that’s really just an exaggerated present . . . Like the best science fiction writers, Yu provides seemingly gratuitous logistical information to mitigate any hint of farce . . . Yu is a master of the slow reveal. It sometimes takes pages to understand where we are and why, but as the chatty protagonists joke and confess their deepest pains, details accrue and outlines fill in. And when we are finally oriented, the universe he has created feels eerily complete . . . Imaginary lands become possible worlds; cunning tricks grow into game theory; playing pretend morphs into explorations of false consciousness. Each story in Sorry Please Thank You is staggeringly smart, and none feel like anything but entertainment. Cultish fans of the NBC comedy “Community,’’ this book is for you.”
—The Boston Globe
“I don't know that there's a better story-bending talent at work than Yu since the rise of George Saunders . . . If you take a longer view you can see that Yu's success has many parents, from the oft-quoted Stein, the tone of Hemingway and Beckett, Virginia Woolf's fanciful short creations (as in, say, the story "Kew Gardens"), Calvino's game-faced fantasies and the low-key but powerful satire of Kurt Vonnegut . . . a tour-de-force.”
—Alan Cheuse, NPR.org
“Lovely and heartfelt . . . A brilliantly manic ride . . . Yu has an undeniable gift for describing, in clean, economical prose, the mechanics of things that don't exist or are impossible."
—The Wall Street Journal
“Stand back. The lead story in Sorry Please Thank You, this spritely new collection by L.A. writer Charles Yu, has the title ‘Standard Loneliness Package’ and it announces that a sly, nimble fantasist with a speculative edge is at work here. [An] adroit piece of work . . . Experiment plus emotion, we don’t often find these two elements together, but when it happens, as it does in most of these stories . . . it makes for terrific reading for the heart as well as the head.”
—Alan Cheuse for NPR’s All Things Considered
“Charles Yu won us over with his weird, melancholy novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and now he's back . . . [These] stories are psychological studies of neurotic nerds, struggling to stay alive as they fight liches and loneliness. They're beautiful, strange, and funny.”
“Yu’s bold, playful voice evokes a computer-era Donald Barthelme, but his stylistic journey into the vast universe that is the human mind is refreshingly distinctive.”
“Laugh-out-loud moments of strangeness artfully exist in a contemporary fictional structure . . . With this collection, steeped in originality, we get echoes of David Foster Wallace’s early collection, Girl with the Curious Hair. Like Wallace, Yu abandons the more self-serving, insular metafiction of the past 40 years for a fresher form. Using technology, pop culture, etc., he attempts to write fiction that can be best shared with readers, not just critics or scholars. Yu, in fact, marries science and literature . . . Characteristic of his work, Yu mixes the beauty of human emotion with the science fiction to invent highly original, highly entertaining scenes and stories. He poses questions of reality and existence. You first think you’re chuckling to yourself. Then, without warning, you‘ve got that ‘reaching final altitude’ feeling in your stomach—a sudden change . . . Yu examines what it means to exist now and, in his own way, what it will mean in the future. It’s almost as if these stories, through their science fiction and futuristic themes twinned with a humorous yet moving style, strive to reinvent what we know as metafiction . . . Yu follows Vonnegut and Wallace in this style of metafictional, literary pilgrimage”
“Grade A- . . . Pick it up and kiss your weekend good-bye . . . The best comparisons, though it feels a little hyperbolic to say, might be made with Vonnegut’s more pessimistic novels, books like Cat’s Cradle, Deadeye Dick, and Timequake. With Sorry Please Thank You, Yu has achieved something rare: an aggressively imagined work of fiction in which the concepts (mostly) serve the characters.”
“Charles Yu's outstanding collection Sorry Please Thank You collects short fiction by the author who gave us the terrific How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Yu's blend of literary fiction's style with sci-fi's wild ideas is beautifully realized here, especially in the moving gem "Standard Loneliness Package." One of the year's best collections in any genre.”
—The Austin American-Statesman
“Enchanting . . . Yu’s ability to assume widely diverging roles as a storyteller is dazzling . . . Those not bothered by diverse writing styles will find reading Yu to be an exciting adventure.”
“Like his debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu's new collection of stories mixes humor and clever conceits with a perfect deadpan delivery . . . Sharp, crisp insights that will have you chuckling and shaking your head.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The author behind three of the most unusual books of fiction published in the past five years . . . Untraditional but weirdly glorious narratives that, for all their experimental form, end up carrying as much or even more emotional force as your original, more conventional vessel would have.”
—Poets and Writers
“In his new collection, Charles Yu applies his trademark winking, pop-culture-infused, sci-fi mentality to a series of short stories . . . Clever and cutting.”
“Whether Yu’s work is dark, thought provoking, humorous, or all of the above, it’s always compulsively readable.”
—Owl and Bear
“Looking for the next great voice in fiction? Young author Charles Yu’s short stories beg comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, but he’s funnier than both.”
“Entertaining . . . Like a friend who stops by unexpectedly with a bunch of mind-bending tales to share . . . had me laughing . . . go order a copy.”
—Geekdad, Wired Magazine
“Impressive . . . Charts eclectic territory, from a zombie in a megamart to a new pharmaceutical drug that generates a sense of purpose, and explores retreats from reality and emotion . . . [Am] amusing send up American consumer culture.”
Standard Loneliness Package
Root canal is one fifty, give or take, depending on who’s doing it to you. A migraine is two hundred.
Not that I get the money. The company gets it. What I get is twelve dollars an hour, plus reimbursement for painkillers. Not that they work.
I feel pain for money. Other people’s pain. Physical, emotional, you name it.
Pain is an illusion, I know, and so is time, I know, I know. I know. The shift manager never stops reminding us. Doesn’t help, actually. Doesn’t help when you are on your third broken leg of the day.
I get to work three minutes late and already there are nine tickets in my inbox. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, open the first ticket of the morning:
I’m at a funeral.
Someone else’s grief. Like wearing a stranger’s coat, still warm with heat from another body.
I’m feeling a mixture of things.
Grief, mostly, but also I detect some guilt in there. There usually is.
I hear crying.
I am seeing crying faces. Pretty faces. Crying, pretty, white faces. Nice clothes.
Our services aren’t cheap. As the shift manager is always reminding us. Need I remind you? That is his favorite phrase these days. He is always walking up and down the aisle tilting his head into our cubicles and saying it. Need I remind you, he says, of where we are on the spectrum? In terms of low-end high-end? We are solidly toward the highish end. So the faces are usually pretty, the clothes are usually nice. The people are usually nice, too. Although I imagine it’s not such a big deal to be nice when you’re that rich and that pretty.
There’s a place in Hyderabad doing what we’re doing, but a little more toward the budget end of things. Precision Living Solutions, it’s called. And of course there are hundreds of emotional engineering firms here in Bangalore, springing up everywhere you look. The other day I read in the paper that a new call center opens once every three weeks. Workers follow the work, and the work is here. All of us ready to feel, to suffer. We’re in a growth industry.
Okay. The body is going into the ground now. The crying is getting more serious.
Here it comes.
I am feeling that feeling. The one that these people get a lot, near the end of a funeral service. These sad and pretty people. It’s a big feeling. Different operators have different ways to describe it. For me, it feels something like a huge boot. Huge, like it fills up the whole sky, the whole galaxy, all of space. Some kind of infinite foot. And it’s stepping on me. The infinite foot is stepping on my chest.
The funeral ends, and the foot is still on me, and it is hard to breathe. People are getting into black town cars. I also appear to have a town car. I get in. The foot, the foot. So heavy. Here we go, yes, this is familiar, the foot, yes, the foot. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. It’s not what I would call comfortable, but it’s not pain, either. More like pressure. Deepak, who used to be in the next cubicle, once told me that this feeling I call the infinite foot—to him it felt more like a knee—is actually the American experience of the Christian God.
“Are you sure it is the Christian God?” I asked him. “I always thought God was Jewish.”
“You’re an idiot,” he said. “It’s the same guy. Duh. The Judeo-Christian God.”
“Are you sure?” I said. He just shook his head at me. We’d had this conversation before. I figured he was probably right, but I didn’t want to admit it. Deepak was the smartest guy in our cube-cluster, as he would kindly remind me several times a day.
I endure a few more minutes of the foot, and then, right before the hour is up, right when the grief and guilt are almost too much and I wonder if I am going to have to hit the safety button, there it is, it’s usually there at the end of a funeral, no matter how awful, no matter how hard I am crying, no matter how much guilt my client has saved up for me to feel. You wouldn’t expect it—I didn’t—but anyone who has done this job for long enough knows what I’m talking about, and even though you know it’s coming, even though you are, in fact, waiting for it, when it comes, it is always still a little bit of a shock.
Death of a cousin is five hundred. Death of a sibling is twelve fifty. Parents are two thousand apiece, but depending on the situation people will pay all kinds of money, for all kinds of reasons, for bad reasons, for no reason at all.
The company started off in run-of-the-mill corporate services, basic stuff: ethical qualm transference, plausible deniability. The sort of things that generated good cash flow, cash flow that was fed right back into R&D, year after year, turning the little shop into a bit player, and then a not-so-bit player, and then, eventually, into a leader in a specialized market. In those early days, this place was known as Conscience Incorporated. The company had cornered the early market in guilt.
Then the technology improved. Some genius in Delhi had figured out a transfer protocol to standardize and packetize all different kinds of experiences. Overnight, everything changed. An industry was born. The business of bad feeling. For the right price, almost any part of life could be avoided.
Across the street from work is a lunch place I go to sometimes. Not much, really, a hot and crowded little room, a bunch of stools in front of a greasy counter. I come here mostly for the small television, up on a shelf, above the cash register. They have a satellite feed.
Today they have it switched to American television, and I am watching a commercial for our company’s services.
It shows a rich executive-looking type sitting and rubbing his temples, making the universal television face for I Am an Executive in a Highly Stressful Situation. There are wavy lines on either side of his temples to indicate that the Executive is really stressed! Then he places a call to his broker and in the next scene, the Executive is lying on a beach, drinking golden beer from a bottle and looking at the bluest ocean I have ever seen.
Next to me is a woman and her daughter. The girl, maybe four or five, is scooping rice and peas into her mouth a little at a time. She is watching the commercial in silence. When she sees the blue water, she turns to her mother and asks her, softly, what the blue liquid is. I am thinking about how sad it is that she has never seen water that color in real life until I realize that I am thirty-nine years old and hey, you know what? Neither have I.
And then the commercial ends with one of our slogans.
Don’t feel like having a bad day?
Let someone else have it for you.
That someone else they are talking about in the commercial is me. And the other six hundred terminal operators in Building D, Cubicle Block 4. Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let me have it for you.
It’s okay for me. It’s a good job. I didn’t do that well in school, after all. It was tougher for Deep. He did three semesters at technical college. He was always saying he deserved better. Better than this, anyway. I would nod and agree with him, but I never told him what I wanted to tell him, which was, hey, Deepak, when you say that you deserve better, even if I agree with you, you are kind of also implying that I don’t deserve better, which, maybe I don’t, maybe this is about where I belong in the grand scheme of things, in terms of high-end low-end for me as a person, but I wish you wouldn’t say it because whenever you do, it makes me feel a sharp bit of sadness and then, for the rest of the day, a kind of low-grade crumminess.
Whenever Deep and I used to go to lunch, he would try to explain to me how it works.
“Okay, so, the clients,” he would say, “they call in to their account reps and book the time.”
He liked to start sentences with okay, so. It was a habit he had picked up from the engineers. He thought it made him sound smarter, thought it made him sound like them, those code jockeys, standing by the coffee machine, talking faster than he could think, talking not so much in sentences as in data structures, dense clumps of logic with the occasional inside joke. He liked to stand near them, pretending to stir sugar into his coffee, listening in on them as if they were speaking a different language. A language of knowing something, a language of being an expert at something. A language of being something more than an hourly unit.
Okay, so, Deepak said, so this is how it works. The client, he books the time, and then at the appointed hour, a switch in the implant chip kicks on and starts transferring his consciousness over. Perceptions, sensory data, all of it. Then it goes first to an intermediate server for processing and then gets bundled with other jobs, and then a huge block of the stuff gets zapped over here, where it gets downloaded onto our servers and then dumped into our queue management system, which parcels out the individual jobs to all of us in the cubicle farm.
Okay, so, it’s all based on some kind of efficiency algorithm—our historical performance, our current emotional load. Sensors in our head assembly unit measure our stress levels, sweat composition, to see what we can handle. Okay? he would say, when he was done. Like a professor. He wanted so badly to be an expert at something.
I always appreciated Deepak trying to help me understand. But it’s just a job, I would say. I never really understood why Deep thought so much of those programmers, either. In the end, we’re all brains for hire. Mental space for rent, moments as a commodity. They have gotten it down to a science. How much a human being can take in a given twelve-hour shift. Grief, embarrassment, humiliation, all different, of course, so they calibrate our schedules, mix it up, the timing and the order, and the end result is you leave work every day right about at your exact breaking point. A lot of people smoke to take the edge off. I quit twelve years ago, so sometimes when I get home, I’m still shaking for a little bit. I sit on my couch and drink a beer and let it subside. Then I heat up some bread and lentils and read a newspaper or, if it’s too hot to stay inside, go down to the street and eat my dinner standing there, watching people walking down the block, wondering where they are headed, wondering if anyone is waiting for them to come home.
**The above is an excerpt from “Standard Loneliness Package,” the first story in the new collection SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU by Charles Yu.**
From the Hardcover edition.
Standard Loneliness Package (page 3)
First Person Shooter (page 33)
Troubleshooting (page 39)
Hero Absorbs Major Damage (page 53)
Human for Beginners (page 85)
Inventory (page 89)
Open (page 131)
Note to Self (page 139)
Yeoman (page 155)
Designer Emotion 67 (page 173)
The Book of Categories (page 183)
Adult Contemporary (page 193)
All of the Above
Sorry Please Thank You (page 217)
A Conversation Between Robin Sloan and Charles Yu
I was rereading Robin Sloan's debut novel and Holiday '12 Discover pick, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, last night and not only couldn't I turn the pages fast enough, I couldn't stop smiling as I dropped back into Sloan's charmingly oddball world. Penumbra is so much fun, a real romp, storytelling that's at once modern and old-fashioned, and it's easy to draw comparisons to Murakami and Stephenson (both Discover alums).
The Discover selection committee readers and I are hardly alone in our admiration: Charles Yu, author of the ambitious — and souful — 2010 Discover selection, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is also a fan. Both authors made the time to converse via email, and here they are on first-person vs. third-person narration, How Fiction Works by James Wood, and creating entirely new worlds with text, among other things. —Miwa Messer, Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program.
Robin Sloan: Most of the stories in your new collection are first-person. My novel is first-person, too, and I have a theory that it's the native mode of the early 21st century, because of email and the Web and Twitter — all this first-person writing that surrounds us every day. But I guess I also have a theory that it's just easier than third-person...and I'll take any advantage I can get.
So I'm curious to know if you feel the same way. Have stories always come out naturally in first-person for you? Have you tried other modes and decided, "nah, 'I' is really more my style"?
Charles Yu: I think you're onto something when you say first-person is "the native mode of the early 21st century," although I would qualify that by saying that is much more true of writers who are just starting out or close to it, and less true for writers who have been writing since the last millennium. No doubt it has something to do with email and Twitter, as you point out, and also Facebook and video games and all of this first-person writing. Of course, people have always navigated the world in first-person — but I think the difference now is that everyone wants to be a protagonist. And if you're living in the US, and relatively comfortable, you have the means and opportunity to do so, to construct reality so that you're at the center of it.
There are, of course, tradeoffs. Although there are stories that can only be told in first-person, there are many more stories that don't have to be (and probably shouldn't be), and among those, there are stories and storytellers who can do things with third-person that would just not be possible in first. And knowing this, it actually bothers me a bit, both as a writer, and in a broader sense: am I limited in the kinds of stories I can tell? Even more troubling: am I limiting myself in how I see and understand other people, putting a ceiling on my own empathy? With the first question, I think I probably am, and so with the novel I'm currently working on, I am in fact trying to write it in third. As for the larger issue of empathy, I don't know that writing in different modes will necessarily help me in my efforts to be a less crappy human, but I can't see how it would hurt.
Have you ever tried to write in third-person? If not, do you feel any desire to do so? And what do you think about the idea of everyone being a protagonist? That's more egalitarian and enabling for people without voices or access, but aren't there downsides? If everyone's the main character, does that lead to a decrease in empathy? Also, if "I" is the new native mode, does that lead to a selection effect, limiting the kinds of stories that can be told?
RS: I'm also trying to write something in third-person at this very moment. For me, it's been like playing a familiar video game now set on Super Hard Extreme Inferno mode. I mean, I technically know how to play this game, and I've already beat it once...but...wow they are not kidding this is really hard.
I've been using James Wood's How Fiction Works almost like a how-to guide, which is probably a little ridiculous, but I'm okay with that. The book is an explication of what he calls "free indirect style" — a third-person mode where the narration tends to merge with the protagonist's thoughts, to dip into her brain without always signaling that it's doing so. As a result, it preserves many of the benefits of first-person writing, but then also grants you the flexibility of third-person. Wood's book is crisp and smart — I recommend it.
I'm actually optimistic about mass protagonization. One of the virtues of writing in first-person for an audience, even a very small one, is that it forces you to actually decide what you think. When you sit down to write, even if it's just to share a link on Facebook, you have to render the fuzzy cloud in your head into something solid. There are ways to avoid the exertion, of course — instead of writing an actual thought, you can always just release a big loud LOLLL — but even so, I think today, in 2012, more people are deciding what they think about things than ever before, and I think that's a healthy development.
You're right that video games are part of this, too. Do you play them much yourself? What do you think of games as a medium, potentially, to do some of the same things you do with your stories — explore strange scenarios, provoke new feelings? If a company came calling and said, "Yu, enough with the books already! This is the 21st century. Come write our next game!" — would you be interested?
CY: I enjoyed How Fiction Works, especially the first part, which as you know is essentially a love letter to close third-person. Wood is better at reading than I realized it was possible to be — or maybe it's that he's just so good at explaining what he likes and why, especially the magic of the free indirect style. In the latter chapters of that book, however, he gets away from the descriptive and goes into full-on prescriptive, and I couldn't help but feel that he does not have much tolerance for books that don't work in the particular way that he requires of fiction. Even in his curmudgeon mode, though, he's still quite a treat to read, but the assumptions he makes start to pile up — How Fiction Works is an audacious thing to call a book, and I can understand its appeal on many levels, but in those three words, he certainly presumes a lot about both writers and readers. A more honest title would have been How Certain Kinds of Fiction Work, but that wouldn't have looked as good on the cover.
Your video game analogy is perfect, both in terms of describing the degree of difficulty and the type. For someone like me, writing in mostly first-person for the past ten years, trying now to write a novel in third is like playing a game with someone else's hands. And someone else's eyeballs. And yet, like you, I am determined to do it.
I do play video games, although not as much as I once did. There are definitely ways that games can, as you put it, allow people to "explore strange scenarios" and "provoke new feelings" and I think, because it's a different medium, games can require us to access different (and maybe even more) parts of the brain than books do, but what I'm curious about is whether they will do the same for the heart (or, if I can say it, the soul). You've worked at some really cool places, and are a media inventor and certainly better equipped to speculate on such things than I am: what do you think? Do you think game worlds will rival or even replace book-shaped fictional universes? Or some other, newer medium, some convergence of books and games and movies and GPS and FourSquare and Reddit and who-knows-what else?
And yes, to answer your question, I think it would be cool to write a game, although I don't know how interested anyone would be in a metafictional time travel game with melancholy overtones. How about you — would you write a Penumbra (or any other) game?
RS: Oh man, people would totally play a metafictional time travel game with melancholy overtones!
I think the challenge for games doesn't have anything to do with graphics or sound or interactivity. Rather, it's all about how they're made. Video game production today is a lot like blockbuster movie production — there are so many contributors, so many constraints. The results are frequently spectacular, but almost never subtle — almost never weird or truly original. (I say "almost" out of respect for the indie creators who make games that are both.)
If it's the heart and soul you're after, I just don't think you can beat solo authorship. But I'll admit, I do often find myself wondering if there's some way to combine the creative power of a single imagination with the productive potential of a big team. The best I've come up with so far is wishing for a sort of writing super power through which I can spawn copies of myself to work on different parts of a story in parallel. (Which of course reminds me of the conversation between alternate selves in your story collection. I'm sure we'd be more organized, though.)
What would your writing super power and/or mutation be?
CY: So sorry for the delay. I've been working on my game, Super Sad Meta-Fictional Time Machine. I'm hoping to get the rights so that you can unlock the secret boss character, Gary Shteyngart.
What you said about games seems to crystallize the issue for me. So if I can paraphrase and extrapolate from there, the issue is that the machine is a die-cast, and the mold is cast in the shape of Gigantic Stupendous AAA Franchise Titles — that's the only kind of product that can be made from this machine (bells and whistles might change, but the basic shape is overdetermined by the constraints and the nature of the process. So my follow-up question to you is: is there (or will there soon be) an alternative to this process? In music, ProTools allows musicians to make music outside of studios, and in film there's FinalCut Pro. Can one video game developer, working in her or his apartment, release the equivalent of a Bon Iver album, something with a singular, subtle, idiosyncratic voice? If not, is it an issue of constraints in technology, or economics, or distribution channels? I suppose iOS apps are already sort of a channel where a single person can release something to a mass audience, so I guess my question is more about PC/console games...
I like your idea for a writing power, and the one you chose totally makes sense for someone with your background and proficiency with technology — it's sort of like having superhuman skill at project management. In my case, however, I fear that such a power would result in 200 copies of me, all of them with writer's block. My writing super power would be the ability to imagine what my Ideal Reader would say about my draft. Although that might freeze me into permanent paralysis and cause me to stop writing altogether.
RS: I think a lone programmer can definitely produce the video game equivalent of a Bon Iver album in her secluded log-cabin laboratory. It helps if she's strategic with her style. She almost certainly can't produce all the art and animation that's required for a Gigantic Stupendous AAA Franchise Title...but 8-bit graphics? Or playful sketchy 2D shapes? That's doable.
And so, of course, is text.
As we've been writing back and forth, I've been playing through a couple of old text adventures made by the long-defunct game company Infocom. These are the games where you type "go north" and the computer responds "You are standing in an open field..." and so on. I played a bunch as a kid, but had forgotten all the details, and it's been fun to rediscover them.
(Some of these text adventures totally have the feel of your stories, by the way. There's the same intelligence, the same humor, the same set of cosmic concerns.)
Playing these games, and thinking about this conversation, it's occurred to me that fiction (of a certain kind) and games (of a certain kind) might actually be points on the same continuum. We apply the label "interactive" easily to games, but of course fiction is deeply interactive, too: you're doing a lot of work when you read a novel or a short story. And we apply the label "literary" easily to fiction, but I think it can apply to certain games as well. It definitely applies to some of these old text adventures.
Now I'm imagining an alternate history where text adventures grew into a big, popular medium (instead of withering in the early '90s); where writers, people who love language, could decide: "Hmm, should this project be a novel...or a short story...or a text adventure?"; and likewise, where game makers, people who love systems, could decide: "Hmm, should this project be a 3D shooter...or a 2D platformer...or a text adventure?"
I really want to live in that world.
> You are standing in a dark cave.
CY: Oh man, that takes me back. In my childhood I was eaten by a grue so many times. You'd think I would have gotten over it by now, and yet thinking of it still sends a little dart of dread through me. Eight years old, sitting alone in the dark, dying a silent, textual death, over and over again. And then re-entering the text, over and over again. The books I've loved have always been like that: less like museums, where you passively admire the artful installations of prose, and more like sandboxes, places where you can move around a bit, change the terrain. Leave some footprints.
That's how I felt about your novel from the very first pages — the spirit of experimentation, of something new, of really not knowing. Not just in terms of not knowing "what is going to happen?", but in terms of "what is this thing that I'm holding?" Is this a new thing? Has there ever been a thing like this before?
I like the idea of living in an alternate history, and not knowing it. Of living in a reality that is the opposite of what everyone thinks it is. Of the invisible furniture of the universe constantly rearranging itself while we aren't looking. So yes, I'm with you. Let's go on an adventure:
> We are standing in a dark cave.
—October 9, 2012
Posted September 8, 2012
Charles Yu, the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe follows up with an anthology of short stories, the perplexing title being, Sorry Please Thank You: Stories, provokes the question, “What does that mean?”
The premise of the stories in SPTY: Stories are intriguing. Anthologies are a tricky recipe to get right, and some stories will be better than others. When reading a novel and you get to a part that is dull, you can’t skip ahead a chapter without the risk of missing important plot development. When reading an anthology, if you don’t like one story, just go to the next. No harm and no foul.
Is SPTY: Stories the sort of book you will enjoy? Read the following except from the story, Open, and then decide:
"We need to talk about that," I said.
"Why? Why do we always have to talk everything to death?"
"The word 'door' is floating in the middle of our apartment. You don't think maybe this is something we need to discuss?"|
Does that interchange interest or annoy you? If that annoys you, this book is full of THAT; absolutely brimming with it. Much of the humor is not from what is happening but how it is told.
I enjoyed about half of this book and that part seemed unorthodox, fresh and insightful; character studies that were interesting. The other half got on my nerves, like an intelligent but emotionally stunted ten-year-old always asking, ‘Why?’ for every statement made.
Anyway, here are the stories I enjoyed from SPTY: Stories:
Small spoiler warning – These are brief descriptions of the stories. If you don’t want to read that, jump to the final paragraph.
Standard Loneliness Package – This was the first story in the book and it explores what would happen if it were possible to outsource the unpleasant bits of our lives, such as dealing with the loss of a loved one and specifically, what it would be like to be the hourly worker these bits were outsourced to.
Hero Absorbs Major Damage – Imagine a story told from the character’s side of a MMORPG and you get the premise behind this story. Anyone who has ever been trapped by the allure of EverQuest or WOW will immediately get this concept. The main character, heavy with the burdens of leadership, struggles with his weaknesses, fears, and knowledge that the virtual lives of those in the party rest uncomfortably on his shoulders.
Yeoman – Imagine being the red shirt guy on the landing party on a TV-show like Star Trek, and you aren’t a main character. Your life expectancy is less than commercial break #2. It’s amusing and strange to follow the character that is waiting for his time to be killed by something inexplicable and be fine with it.
Designer Emotion 67 – This is a parody of a big executive as he speaks down to the huddled masses of the company. I didn’t laugh, though I saw the parts that were supposed to be funny. The forced jolliness of it all and the outright lampoon of the pharmaceutical industry were amusing.
Adult Contemporary – Imagine a character in a TV show, suddenly becoming aware that he is merely a character, playing out a predefined role, and he decides to change it? Without a doubt, I thought Adult Contemporary was the best of the lot. It’s brilliant, funny and has an ending I found satisfying.
As for the stories I did not enjoy, there were a few:
First Person Shooter – Perhaps the most conventional story in the book, a zombie wanders the aisles of a late night department store staffed by a couple of clerks. I expected something to happen. It didn’t.
Troubleshooting – Maybe to someone who doesn’t resolve problems of any kind for a living, this might be amusing. I hated it.
Human for Beginners – It tries too hard to be ironic.
Open – This was a character study that just didn’t work for me, though it had some fun concepts.
Note to Self – This was an interesting premise that devolved into an uninspired line of consciousness conversation. It just didn’t work. It read like a writing exercise more than a story.
The Book of Categories – More than once while reading this book, I wondered what Yu’s definition of a story is. This was a list.
Sorry Please Thank You – This was the last story and the repeated word-play from the previous stories had worn me down. It does explain the title, but I didn’t like this one. It’s me, not Yu.
Charles Yu demonstrates a great imagination and style that reminds me of Douglas Adams. Overall, I felt like there was a lot of potential in SPTY: Stories and there is stuff to like here, but when you hit a story that isn’t doing it for you, just flip ahead to the next. If you haven’t read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, give it try.
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Posted August 3, 2012
ARC reviewed by Jessica for Book Sake.
This is a good collection of short (some very short) stories to introduce a reader to the author. That’s why I opted to read it at least. Some of the pieces that felt like they were simply taking up space, or maybe leaving too much space behind – a line per page for most of a story, while usually artistic, or meant to drive a point home, did nothing for me.
Other stories felt as if they could have been made into stand alone novels and still hold my interest. There were two in particular that I want to see again: Standard Loneliness Package and First Person Shooter.
Standard Loneliness Package (in the Sorry section of the book) featured normal everyday characters that weren’t doing anything extraordinary in their world, but it was different from our world, and the main character was just so realistic I felt compelled to know more about him.
In First Person Shooter (oddly enough in the same Sorry section of the book) a zombie is shopping, but it’s not your average zombie, although knowing that it was shopping might have led you to understand that. I would love to read a full book featuring the type of zombie’s features in this story. Again, the other characters in it were so real and flawed and lovable, that I found myself sad when those few pages were over.
I think I was about half and half over the stories that I really liked and the ones that just didn’t click for me. I didn’t find anything laugh out loud funny, but thought that the sci-fi aspects of the stories, the ones that featured sci-fi, were intriguing and oddly believable.
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Posted April 15, 2013
Posted March 7, 2013
Um, hi. I guess you're my sister and head councelor. I'm Natalie. I guess a daughter of Aphrodite explains why guys have hit on me my entire life, even though I am smarter than Annabeth and nerdier than Beckendorf (may Hades bless his soul). Can we chat sometime? I'm always looking for some fresh celeb and demigod gossip! Lots O Luv, Natalie, Daughter of Aphrodite.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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