Books: Mo' Technology, Mo' Problems

November 29, 2012

An Asian American writer who pens short
fiction borrowing tropes from video games and technical manuals? If his work
wasn’t so engrossing, we’d have to knock Charles Yu one for reinforcing nerd
stereotypes about Asian American men.

And yes, Yu’s latest collection, Sorry Please Thank You, is often
engrossing. This is the lawyer-cum-fictionist’s third book, the second of which
was the acclaimed novel How to Live
Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
. The stories in Sorry Please reside in the same science fictional universe, where,
sure, the future may hold time travel, robotic dogs, and software that doubles
as girlfriend material, but the real drama is still in the emotional wrangling
involved. Mo’ technology, mo’ problems.

Take “Standard Loneliness Package,” the
book’s opening story, which presents a very jolting and ultimately very moving
premise. The first-person narrator is a worker in India to whom the First World
has outsourced the dirty task that rich people would gladly pay others to do --
feel people’s pain. The potential for emotional turmoil here is high, and the
story delivers as we move quickly between the scenes of misery -- funerals,
deathbeds, impending suicide -- that the narrator is paid to experience, and the
losses of his own that he can’t outsource to others. It’s a stunner of a story,
one that is thankfully followed by a more lighthearted zombie vignette.

Sorry Please
Thank You
at its best when Yu intervenes in the inner logic of universes where such
interruptions are not supposed to happen. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” follows a
rag-tag group on a quest, placing readers in the midst of a live-action RPG and
giving the hero a consciousness and emotions that he isn’t supposed to have. In
“Yeoman,” we find that the namesake stock character doesn’t want to die in his
assigned mission to the final frontier since it would mean abandoning his
pregnant wife. Yu inhabits familiar enough situations and genres so that
readers can do without intricate descriptions of high-tech worlds and alternate
dimensions. In their place are playful but smart meditations on those very

                                Charles Yu

In the same way that the collection
gives emotional lives to stock geek culture characters, it also gives depth to
otherwise dry genres, although to different ends. Where “Designer Emotion 67” poses
as a CEO’s address to shareholders to satirize the pharmaceutical business, “The
Book of Categories” uses the conventions of technical writing to theorize on
books and reading. The piece -- it seems to resist the category of story --
describes a book that passes from person to person, with each possessor adding categories,
and thus pages, to this book whose high-tech paper can be “sliced and resliced
again.” What starts as a concept for the book of the future evolves into a meta-treatise
on reading, where the book is a “system of world ordering” networked to past
and future ideas.

The commentary and theorizing across
each story come through only after an initial scrambling through the first few
paragraphs where you’re wondering what the shtick is, is an unfortunate side
effect of Yu’s otherwise mostly inventive plots and experimentation. Although his
play with tropes can come off as gimmicky, you’d be missing a lot if your
appreciation ended there.

While some stories may be too abstract and
self-consciously experimental to have the kind of effect of the standouts
mentioned above, Sorry Please Thank You is
overall a rewarding read. The tech tropes and plots are not so much vehicles
for Yu to explore human conditions, but a way to explore how these tropes,
increasingly shared beyond sci-fi nerds, shape us and our understanding in ways
that we might take for granted.

L. Mendoza lives, reads, and writes in Seattle.