Charles Yu, the author behind How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week. Until then, get to know him a little better with this Q+A, in which he talks about the injury he sustained while wearing Spider Man underoos and the do's and don'ts of time travel.
Your novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, tells the story of Charles Yu, a time travel technician and resident of Minor Universe 31, who travels to crucial moments in the past to save people from themselves. If you were able to travel to a past era, which would it be and what would you do there?
Charles Yu: I have to start by saying I would try as hard as I could not to actually "do" anything in the past, only watch. Not just because I am a very moral and ethical time traveler, but because I want to conform to the rules of Minor Universe 31, which allow you to observe your own past but not change it. And basically I do believe what is says in the novel, that changing your own past is the worst thing you can do with time travel. If we really were able to do that, we would no longer be living our own lives. Our choices, once they became reversible, would not be choices anymore. That might take a lot of the pain and regret out of life, but it would also take the life out of life, too, right? We already have a time machine, in our heads, called memory, and I think it is essential to living. Nobody lives in a straight-line chronology, not mentally, not emotionally.
So I didn't really answer that question, did I? I guess I would like to go back in time 3 or 4 minutes ago, and re-start my answer. But no! That would be contradict everything I just said. I must stick to my principles and live with this answer, however unsatisfactory it may be to you and to me.
Since you've done a lot of research and thinking about time travel,what do you imagine the future looking like? And what are some tips you can give to prospective time travelers?
CY: I think the near future, 40-50 years, looks a lot like the present. I mean, If you look at pictures from the 1960s and 1970s, the cars now are more rounded and bubble-like, and clothing and hairstyles are a little different, but things don't look radically different. We just have a lot more invisible messages traveling through the air now. And the space inside of our heads is different, too. We organize our lives different, temporally, and we conceive of the world differently in a spatial sense. But the actual physical world isn't changing as fast as our inner conceptual world.
The advice I have for time travelers is to watch out for anyone that looks like they might be an ancestor of yours and make sure you do not: (i) kill them, or (ii) mate with them. You don't want to do (i) because you might erase your own existence and/or cause a paradox. And obviously (ii) would just be disgusting.
I know that you've spoken at Comic Con. What has been your geekiest moment?
CY: We had Venetian blinds in our family room when I was a kid, covering a window that was up kind of high. When I was five, I put on my Spider-Man Underoos, climbed up on the couch under that window, put the pull cord for the blinds between my teeth, and jumped off the couch. My two front teeth popped out, clean. Like, plop, instantaneously, they were out. A dentist could not have done a cleaner job. The teeth came out, followed by a lot of blood just streaming from the holes in my gums where the teeth had been. My mom rushed in, saw the scene, and freaked out, of course. The thing is, what was I doing? I don't mean why would a 5-year-old boy be stupid enough to jump off a couch with a Venetian blind pull cord between his teeth? Obviously that was stupid. I paid dearly for that, not just physically with the bloody mouth and all, but I also paid a very steep price socially for the next few years, because I just had to wait until my permanent teeth came in. Nothing I could do would make my teeth grow in faster. From first grade to maybe the middle of third grade, I had a gaping hole in my mouth. But no, that's still not the stupidest thing about that story. The stupidest thing about that story is, why my TEETH? Spider-Man swings from his webs by his hands. He doesn't swing by his teeth. No one does. Becaue that is ridiculous.
What's the first book that made you fall in love with language?
CY: White Noise, by Don DeLillo. I read it my freshman year in college. The scene with Jack Gladney and Murray Jay Siskind in the supermarket, talking about brand names. In high school, we'd read lots of the curricular classics for AP English. But reading DeLillo, someone I'd never even heard of before it was assigned for my class, was an experience I have never forgotten. I remember being in my dorm room, reading White Noise and feeling like I was reading a book for the first time in my life. Like I had never understood before what a book could be, what it could do to you.
You're on stage at a karaoke bar. What are you singing?
CY: "How Deep Is Your Love," by the Bee Gees. Is that an invitation? Or a dare? Because we could go right now. I'm always up for karaoke.
What kind of kid were you and what did you want to be when you grewup?
CY: As previously established, I was, at least at the age of 6, an extraordinarily stupid and short-sighted kid, and one who watched too many cartoons. I also tended toward the "husky" side (which is what they called the size of jeans that I wore), was usually kind of a loner, got picked on a lot, and read books to escape pretty much all of that. I wanted to be a physicist when I was a kid, although I'm not sure I knew what physics was. I think I just wanted to wear a lab coat and look at liquids in beakers.
What's a talent of yours that most people don't know about?
CY: I have 400 digits of pi memorized (and am working toward more). I don't think that's a talent, really, but that's all I got.
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be?
CY: I would live inside Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray. I think that's pretty much a perfect movie. I would do exactly what Murray's character did, and teach myself all kinds of new tricks. I would start a new novel every day, knowing it would be erased by the end of the day.
If you could invite 3 people (dead/alive/fictional) to your dinnerparty, who would they be and why?
CY: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. First, I would have Einstein explain to Newton about 20th century physics, and watch Newton's mind get blown. Then I would force all 3 of them to figure out how to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity until they had the grand unified theory. We would have hamburgers and milk shakes.
Look for Charles Yu's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!