Novels will take you places. It’s a weird thing to say that a novel took you to the wrong place, but there you have it. Charles Yu’s “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” took me to the steps leading to the Ottaviano metro station of Rome, Italy. Many years ago, me and a close friend would meet there while skipping school, buying cheap corner store beers to drink until inebriation while discussing all those things young people waste their time with.
One of the many things we would discuss was science-fiction. At that time, his favorite author was Iain M Banks. Mine was Samuel R Delany. While both are considered greats in their own right, the two are very different authors, and the influence on our writing showed. A decade out from the drunken conversations, I can remember nothing of what my friend wrote, and near nothing of my own writing. What I do remember is my friend’s constant complaint that my writing ‘wasn’t really science fiction’, but mundane fiction in a science fiction’s setting. It was weird gatekeeping, but it was a criticism that stuck with me. I didn’t mind so much, because it was a criticism he also gave to Delany. I disagreed with him on that one, but for my own writing I thought it may have had some validity.
I have no intention of gatekeeping science-fiction. I have no desire to say what should and should not be considered science-fiction. I can, however speak to my taste. Likewise, I think the ways in which I can say something isn’t very good is becoming increasingly limited. The conversation is largely about what I do and do not like. Perhaps my friend in Rome has the courage of his convictions where I don’t.
My friend would say Charles Yu’s “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” isn’t science-fiction. I would say that it was not a book I could finish. I did manage to finish it, but at almost every attempt to read it my mind would go elsewhere. Frequently, it went to Rome. It reminded me of ‘The Book of Disquiet‘, something else that bored me to tears. When it comes to reading fiction, I crave more than a person trapped with their own thoughts and emotions. I want to see, experience and feel a lot more. Setting matters deeply, which is funny when you consider that my friend accused me of confusing science-fiction with setting. I have trouble dealing with a setting that seems to be little more than a liminal space for the character, and specifically a mental liminal space at that.
When I finished this book I went onto amazon and read the five star reviews, hoping to find the virtue that I had clearly missed. No, I seemed to ‘get’ everything these people were talking about, I just didn’t find it all that valuable. I feel like this book is a collection of elements I enjoy, presented in a way that I do not enjoy.
I am increasingly weary of criticism. Yes, the old Roman friend of mine would look at this and shrug it off with a “it’s not science-fiction.” And yet, my own first published science-fiction story, which is largely about a family reunion, would be called ‘not science-fiction’ by the same person. Frankly, I have no need for gatekeeping, and will simply write this off as something I didn’t enjoy. I think that is ok.
At times I wonder if gatekeeping is not some kind of inevitable part of who we are and how we understand what is dear to us. As the friendship went by, I threw more and more books at this friend. When Christmas of birthdays came around, I would by him things that I thought he would be grateful for, things as wide ranging as Pynchon or Heinlein. When the friend found ‘The Moon is a harsh Mistress’ to be ‘a mundane story in a sci-fi setting,’ I realized that for him, only a space opera could be sci-fi.
And I began to gatekeep him.