Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.
I.e., it is possible, in principle, to construct a universal time machine from no other components than (i) a piece of paper that is moved in two directions through a recording element backward and forward, which (ii) performs only two basic operations, narration and the straightforward application of the past tense. — Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu’s novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is about a Charles Yu, a time travel technician who lives in Minor Universe 31. In the novel, the character Charles Yu writes the fictional book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is part time travel technical manual, part autobiography. Excerpts from the fictional How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe are scattered throughout the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. In this post, I’ll refer to the fictional book the character Charles Yu writes as “the handbook” and the novel as the “novel.”1
The above quote, one such passage from the handbook, strikes a chord. Looking beyond the conceit that a book can itself a time machine, I’m struck by the claim that it takes memory and regret to produce time travel as this suggests that the recollection of contentedness and regret, positive and negative experience, are manifestly different in kind. If recollection is always remembering past experience, why would the recollection of unhappy memories, recollection of moments of regret, be a form of time travel while the recollection of positive experiences—happy memories—not be so? It may be that while the recollection of positive events, like social memory, has to do with identity and sense of self and, therefore, present-focused, regret, like trauma, is past-focused, a past moment that seeks to draw you back into your past.
Still trying to puzzle out what, if anything, this might mean from the perspective of memoria beyond the obvious connection to the rhetorical use of pathos.
- As a side note, in the process of composing this post, I found it refreshing to read Ander Monson’s NYTbook review of the novel, “Living in Your Head,” because it is a NYT review of a science fiction novel that doesn’t feel the need to apologize for reviewing a science fiction novel. Sadly, I suspect this has much more to do with the fact that Charles Yu is an award-winning author of literary fiction who has chosen to write a science fiction novel rather than because the NYT has come to terms with science fiction. I’m reminded here of Tom Shippey’s argument in his Forward to J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century that science fiction and fantasy are mainstream and everything else is genre. [↩]