"Is language all about desire? Is desire all about loss? Would we ever need to say anything if we never lost anything? Is everything we ever say just another way to express: I will lose this, I will lose all of this. I will lose you."
Some months ago, Charles Yu's How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe dropped into my lap (okay, hard drive) and left seismic shock-waves dissipating through my psyche for weeks afterwards. No ordinary time travel tale, it conveyed a sense of loss and desperation so palpable as to start encroaching on your peripheral vision; yet always tempered with a mischievous, self-deprecating humour. It was the literary equivalent of a puppy, rambunctious one moment and breaking your heart with its saucer eyes the next. Trust me, I mean this as the greatest compliment.
His follow-up to the widely-acclaimed novel is the short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, in which the themes of How To Live Safely... are continued and expanded upon, given life in a series of wonderfully inventive sci-fi dioramas. That his short story output vastly outnumbers his single novel is no surprise, given that at times How To Live Safely... reads almost like a series of (deliberately) barely connected vignettes, each segment floating in a timeline and universe all its own. The natural feel which pervaded that work is even more obvious in Sorry Please Thank You, allowing him to weave the storytelling and introspection together in utterly seamless fashion.
The collection kicks off with Standard Loneliness Package, a deeply haunting tale of a future world where the nuisance of negative feelings - sadness, loss, jealousy, shame - can be borne by others for a nominal fee. Using the latest technology anyone who anticipates an unpleasant episode in their future, say admitting infidelity to a spouse or attending a funeral, can transplant the experience at a pre-determined time, handing over their entire sensory realm to cubicle-bound call centre staff in India. Every sight and sound, every emotion, is experienced in surrogate, freeing the client of any unwanted suffering, deserved or not. Meanwhile the clouds of negativity and desperation pile up in the minds of those doing the experiencing, buffeting against the dam of the mind until it shatters. Yu really touches a nerve with this opening salvo, going for the jugular with his evisceration of the hollowness of modern life and the extent to which we are becoming increasingly disconnected from even our own lives.
Thankfully some light relief is never far away and the next offering sees a couple of workers in a aircraft hangar-sized WorldMart. Our protagonist and his colleague Janine are dozing their way through the graveyard shift when an atypical customer is sighted roaming the isles: a lovelorn zombie apparently killing time before a date. The humour of the situation, aside from the obvious, arises in the differing reactions of our hero and Janine, the object of his affections. "I don't think I would actually ever want to kiss her so much as I'd want to possess her", he ponders, "Consume her. Eat her, so that no one else could have her."
And so Sorry Please Thank You continues, alternating between achingly beautiful articulations of the loneliness of human existence and the most enchanting sci-fi weirdness. Pop culture fans are not left out here - Yeoman is the tale of a newly promoted redshirt on an all-too-familiar starship, one who is fully aware that his foot up the career ladder is shorthand for certain death (John Scalzi's Redshirts, anyone?). As well as the insane captain, architect of his certain doom ("He has a way of speaking in italics") our hero must also contend with his pregnant wife, who is rather annoyed at his nonchalant acceptance of his impending doom and her impending widowhood.
And for sheer inventiveness it is difficult to beat the concept of a letter being written to and subsequently augmented by one's own doppelgangers in alternate universes. Having conversations with yourself is a time-honoured device in literary history. Having said conversations devolve into a flamewar takes it to a new level.
Now I'm trying hard to be objective here, to find a way to say "You should like this book but...", only it's not happening. Even the most jaded science fiction fan will be greatly entertained by the sheer originality of many of the scenarios depicted in Sorry Please Thank You. It's one of those books where the cascade of ideas threatens to submerge you before you turn the last page. As for the rest of you? If Charles Yu's depictions of longing and searching, of loneliness and heartache don't touch you then you may need a heart transplant. It's that simple. I'll leave you with one more snippet:
"What if I found out that the real me was content, fulfilled, grateful? How could I be happy for myself, while still remembering that someday I will lose it all, everything important, and unimportant? That everyone loses everything. Everything loses itself."