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Tense and Sensibility
Super Sad True Love Story. Gary Shteyngart. Random House. 352 pages; cloth, $26.00, paper, $15.00.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Charles Yu. Pantheon. 256 pages; cloth, $24.00, paper $14.95.

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As technology threatens to overwhelm our senses, globalization short-circuits equality, and commodities define lifestyle, we see the rise of speculative fiction that attempts to re-envision the human, engage the reader’s empathy, and awaken a respect for life. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, the novel of sensibility returns, but clothed in the garb of futuristic satire.

Both novels flirt with the easy joke and metafictional plotting but widely sidestep the snide and the twee. In HTLSiaSFU, there are in-jokes about Luke Skywalker and Star Trek, and there is the familiar nested narrative (Charles Yu’s novel tells the story of a time-machine repairman named “Charles Yu” who reads a book by “‘Charles Yu’”). In this book, we literally enter a universe of discourse, the “science fictional universe” of the title. Charles lives in the unfinished Minor Universe 31, built by “Time Warner Time, a division of Google,” where immigrants live in the border zone “between SF and reality,” and inhabitants are divided into “protagonists and back office.” Life is equated with fiction according to the “theory of chronodiegetics”: “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.” Memory is the story we make of time; life is a time machine.

Also rifle-trained on memory and regret, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story likewise can’t resist at one point the novel-within-a-novel technique and interlaces numerous intertextual references to film and science fiction, often played for sardonic laughs. Shteyngart is an expert satirist, having honed his vision two previous novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002) and Absurdistan, listed by the New York Times Sunday Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2006. In Super Sad True Love Story, his target is the technodystopia produced by multinational capital in an age of globalization. The U.S. is a failing police state, and human worth is based on credit ratings. Real-time conversation is dead: everyone emotes online through “Globalteens” (a spoof on Facebook) and constantly consults an “äppäräti” (a mobile device nicely named to sit between “apparatus” and “appartchik”). Analog media and critical thought are both socially suspect (students in online colleges are taught to “scan” publications such as the New York Lifestyle Times). One character notes that while shopping at JuicyPussy, “One of the salesladies even verballed me if I were ok and I told her I was ‘thinking’ and she was like ‘why?’”

Yet both Yu’s and Shteyngart’s novels supplement their games and humor with sly commentary on the everyday cruelty of anxious people yearning for meaning and recognition, but fed only lifestyle images and success mantras. Yu’s novel focuses its gaze on immigrant and class issues and the hardness of a world that rejects those who fail to conform to its standards. “Charles Yu’s” father was the actual inventor of the time machine, but because class status works against him, he is passed over. To save himself in time, Charles must come to terms with this father who eludes him and whose failures have defined the family’s future.

The winner of the 2007 National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35 Award” (he was nominated by Richard Powers), Yu attempts in this debut novel to combine time travel, humor, metafiction, and social commentary in the manner of Octavia Butler or Marge Piercy. His novel provides heartbreaking glimpses of human losses and everyday tragedies, as in Charles’s dawning recognition of his father’s thwarted dreams:

Hitting the peak of your life’s trajectory is not the painful part. The painful day comes earlier, comes before things start going downhill, comes when things are still...