“Don’t feel like having a bad day?” asks Charles Yu in the first story of his new collection Sorry Please Thank You. “Let someone else have it for you.” Yu offers up a world in the story ‘Standard Loneliness Package’ where, for a price, you can quite literally have someone else feel your emotions for you. “Death of a cousin is 500. Death of a sibling is 1,250. Parents are 2,000 apiece, but depending on the situation people will pay all kinds of money, for all kinds of reasons, for bad reasons, for no reason at all.” In these 13 stories (some previously printed), as with much of Yu’s work, what he’s really asking is: if you could, wouldn’t you?
Yu has recently said how important the popular ’80s Choose Your Own Adventure books were to him, explaining that he’d die trying to do something as innovative as those books. Reading Sorry Please Thank You occasionally gives rise to the same feeling of helplessness that an eventual fatal outcome did in the Choose Your Own Adventure books. A sense that perhaps, there really is no way out — whether it’s a life spent feeling others’ emotions or repeatedly endangering yourself for the futile purposes of another. The finality in some of Yu’s stories may seem a little bleak on occasion, but the originality of each premise more than makes up for this.
The stories in this collection are minimalist in a great many ways. The focus of each is on a specific idea, personality or event. It’s almost as if Yu chose to leave aside some of the weightier elements of science fiction — the infodumps, the grand world-building, the heavy duty macrocosmic politics — in favour of smaller, more human angles. Each story is very well contained, very personal and turns inwards before it even considers looking out. The writing feels like a sort of postmodern science fiction, self aware and metafictional. In ‘Inventory,’ for instance, the narrator is a version of Charles Yu. This is a story that is more blank page than text on average. The narrator, “a second-hand person,” has a “derivative feeling” that he’s not real. “The real me out there, somewhere, sleeping soundly in his bed. Every morning he wakes up the same person,” reads one page. “Every morning I wake up some weird version of him,” reads the next. This is philosophical science fiction, asking plenty of metaphysical questions: “do all worlds have rules? Do dreams?”
Yu’s use of humour was evident in the novel that brought him to popularity. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was poignant and subversive but always funny. Here, it’s not his humour alone that is appealing, but also that he plays with and expands on jokes that have existed in pop culture for years. Any one who has ever watched a single episode of Star Trek will know what the sad fate of every red shirt-wearing crew member was — they died. It’s a joke, yes, but one based in fact: Wired magazine reported that an estimated 73 per cent of Captain Kirk’s crew on the Starship Enterprise who died were Red Shirts. In his story ‘Yeoman,’ Yu expands on this running joke by telling it from the perspective of an unnamed yeoman on board a space craft. When the yeoman’s pregnant wife asks what his recent promotion means, he says “I’m probably going to die later this week [...] the yeoman always dies.” Never mentioning Star Trek, Yu continues to play with many of the series’ tropes with his trademark deadpan humour — the captain “sucks in his stomach a little” when he’s about to start a monologue, he finds love/lust on every alien planet, may it be with humanoids or with a “little goo-person”. It’s a fun little story, compact and quiet, smart and funny. And as with all Star Trek episodes, there is a person to be saved — just not who you’d expect. It’s just sheer bad timing though that this story is in a collection published a month after John Scalzi’s Redshirts, an entire novel about the disposable minions of the Starship Enterprise.
In ‘Note to Self,’ the narrator writes to his alternate self, having read “about the quantum multiverse, and how there are billions of me out there.” Of course, when there is more than one alternate self, things can get complicated. Many versions chime in for a hilarious conversation that takes on the shape of all the voices in Yu’s head — which is what these stories are. Some of the voices are caught in a form of existential crisis, questioning their reality (which, of course, is fiction). Again, the metaphor is clear. In ‘Hero Absorbs Major Damage,’ a character within a role playing video game asks, “maybe this is all just a game, an elaborate architecture created by some intelligent designer, out of what, boredom? … I can know all that and at the same time know that it matters. It has to matter.”
Sorry Please Thank You
By Charles Yu
Knopf Doubleday, New York