That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

The Profound Philosophy of Dumb Jokes: How to Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe

When Charles Yu did me the inexplicable kindness of writing a blurb for my first novel, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, I’m ashamed to say I had not yet read his How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe. That’s OK. I had a good excuse, I was working on my novel when it came out, and, besides, lots of other more important people had read it. According to Mr. Yu’s blurb, my book was “witty, profane, and entertaining” and, most notably, a “thought experiment.” I wondered how this stranger could so graciously itemize my literary ambitions as if he knew me.

And then I read How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, and it became obvious. Charles Yu had already achieved what I’d set out to do: he’d written a book best described as a “witty, profane, and entertaining thought experiment.”

Also, like my book (and all books written by insufferable clowns or brilliant novelists) the protagonist shared the author’s name. How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe tells the story of Charles Yu, a time machine repairman who must deal with the difficulties of time travel and meta fiction while confronting his accidental death and father’s absence.

So much has been written about the book’s humor and imagination, and all of it deserving, but perhaps my favorite thing about this novel is its dumb jokes. I say that as the highest form of praise, because more than just providing entertainment, Yu’s perpetual-gag-producing scientific conceit sucker-punches the reader by hiding the profundity within. It is a brilliant combination of high and low brow, my favorite form of art.

Just look at these six sentence where Yu introduces us to his neurotic, time machine computer, Tammy:

Do you want to know the first thing she ever said to me? enter password. Okay, yeah, that was the first thing. Do you know the second thing? i am incapable of lying to you. The third thing she said to me was i’m sorry.

Yes, of course, every science fiction story from Pinocchio to I Robot and beyond has told us something about the nature of humanity by examining the inhuman. And, surely, Yu accomplishes that in his book, but I want to point out something smaller: “enter password.” At first, it reads like just a throwaway joke. A suddenly literal answer to a rhetorical question. And if that’s all you want as a reader, that could be all you’d get. Maybe it even started that way in Yu’s mind. (The author Yu, not the time machine mechanic Yu – although considering the similarities of my novel released after his, maybe author Yu does have a time machine!) But “enter password” resonates far more deeply for me because in any relationship, before there can be honesty and before there can be contrition, there must be a connection. You must feel a sense of belonging to that companion for vulnerability to follow, and what more elegant way to say that in a science fictional universe, or any universe, than “enter password”?

Moments like this come on almost every page, giving you the option for quick laughs or deeper contemplations, and the best part is, because novels can be revisited and re-experienced even without time machines, whatever you’ve missed can be retrieved the second time around.

Wayne Gladstone is a longtime columnist for His writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Comedy Central’s Indecision, and in the collections You Might Be A Zombie and Other Bad News and The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes. His novel Agents of the Internet Apocalypseavailable now from Thomas Dunne—continues the Internet Apocalypse trilogy, set a dystopian world without the Web.


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