Over the past two years, moving in and out of lockdowns and shifting to a mostly-online life, I’ve become more aware of time. Or, more accurately, I’ve become aware of the fuzziness of my experience of time. Days slide together or drift apart, making the present feel elastic and stretchy. This elasticity—part of getting older and living through a global pandemic—is also the bread and butter of time travel narratives, like Charles Yu’s novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010). Yu’s novel contains incisive descriptions of how bodies move in time when they are constricted in space, which seem prescient in the light of our post-COVID condition.
Towards the beginning of Yu’s novel, the time-traveling protagonist (also named Charles Yu) meanders through an infinite present: his time machine’s “Tense Operator has been set to Present-Indeﬁnite.”1 At night, Charles sleeps in “a quiet, nameless, dateless day…the most uneventful piece of time [he] could find.”2 He spends most of his hours inside his time machine, such that it begins to feel like a world in and of itself—just as my apartment had begun to feel like an extension of my body, a small universe all its own, populated with virtual companions. Charles has his depressed computer TAMMY, while I had friends who I could only reach via the media of Zoom, iMessage, or Twitter.
The distance between pandemic reality and Yu’s science fictional universe, then, may not be so far apart as it initially seems. In last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue, Yu shared how his novel’s fictional world—called Minor Universe 31, made up of 17% reality with the remainder consisting of a “standard composite base” of science fiction3—allowed him “to get to a little pocket of space…making these small moments [that] can sort of stand out in our lives, in our chronological living, how a moment like that can get frozen or preserved.” As host John Plotz described, “the genre of science fiction” gives Yu “the language to get to” those small moments, those little pockets of time and space. Science fiction can index the parts of our lives that are difficult to render in realist language—like the all-to-familiar pandemic feeling of living in a time loop, or the inexpressible spatial-temporal distance between an estranged father and son.
In Minor Universe 31, science fiction enrobes a core of reality, with an “invisible, microscopic, but highly dynamic exchange of materials at the thin permeable boundary layer between the two regions.”4 As in the boundary layer of Minor Universe 31, the most dynamic moments of Yu’s novel occur at the friction point between the novel’s science-fictional and more straightforwardly realist elements, where science fiction tropes—time loops, nonexistent but ontologically valid dogs, books from nowhere—facilitate his investigations of intergenerational longing and impossible nostalgia.
In a climactic moment in Yu’s novel, Charles’s father realizes that “Everyone is a time machine…we are universal time machines manufactured to the most exacting specifications possible.”5 Charles’s father’s statement echoes the central gambit of a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy. “I have a time machine,” the poem begins, “But unfortunately it can only travel into the future / at a rate of one second per second.”6 Shaughnessy’s poem and Yu’s novel reveal that our bodies already are time machines—time machines with the enabling constraints of moving in only one temporal direction, at only one temporal rate. Living through lockdown has made the temporal texture of our lives more apparent, waking us up to the science fictionality of our everyday experience.
But hasn’t the experience of time always been slipperier than we want it to be? Literature and life are full of time machines—spots of time, boats against the current, madeleines, fragments shored. In his science-fictional depiction of time, Yu finds new ways to approach old questions about how experience gets detached from events, how we linger in memory, how we move into the future.
1 Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 1.
2 Ibid., 15.
3 Ibid., 28.
4 Ibid., 28.
5 Ibid., 164-165.
6 Brenda Shaughnessy, “I Have a Time Machine” in Poetry Foundation (2016).
Photo by Darren Tunnicliff on Creative Commons
Olivia Stowell is a PhD student at the University of Michigan, where she studies the intersections of race, genre & narrative, and temporality in contemporary reality television. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Television & New Media, New Review of Film & Television, Post45 Contemporaries, and Avidly: A Channel of the L.A. Review of Books.