Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Affection, Family and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Two years ago I was sitting at my mother's house in Texas, one of those rare get-togethers in which all her children (and their children) were in her home. We were all chatting about our childhood in one of those conversations that starts out nostalgic but has the potential to veer into resentment and anger. My sister said a magic sentence, a string of words that sounds innocent enough in itself, but is so loaded with old arguments that it could be a powder keg. On any other visit, it would have exploded. I probably would have lit the match.

"Let's not do this," I said, looking down at something I was fiddling with. I sounded humorously weary, and I knew it. Everyone laughed. And we did not do it.

Aha, I thought. This is the moment. This is the moment when we become those people: people who are old enough and wise enough to not relive the same argument over and over. This is the moment where we all decide we love each other so much, we'd rather disregard past hurts than bring them up again. So this is what that's like.

My parents moved to my city this past summer, and I see them several times a week. Getting over the past for a family reunion is different than getting over the past for someone you see regularly, but we're doing okay. There's not that much to get over, just the usual things, significant to us. My parents are good people and odds are, you would like them (but please don't bring up politics).

I was reminded of that moment by a novel I finished reading today. It is a good novel, but there is no slot to fit it easily into, and people usually wants slots.  So I will just say that if you loved Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler, and have been wondering how to combine that kind of originality with an unabashed love of sci-fi, pick up a copy of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Yu presents regret as an actual force, the energy that makes time travel possible, to the grief of everyone who participates in it. His novel is about longing for an uninvolved father, combined with a recognition that children become like their parents. From other writers, this would be a novel of recrimination, something with good guys and bad guys, a story that climaxes with a promise to "not be like you, Dad!" Or it could be an exercise in near-despair that concludes no one ever changes, and no one ever escapes their origins, and none of it really matters anyway.

But Yu believes in affection, and that changes everything. Affection - that human tendency to love things with which we have regular contact. His protagonist has affection for the software persona of his time machine, his boss (who is only a computer program), and his non-existent dog. Simple presence - even non-volitional or non-sentient presence - is enough to begin that accumulation of sentimental attachment. And in a world where affection has power (like our real world), a son can love a father who is never emotionally available. He can love the man who is only ever half there.

A few weeks ago, our pastor preached a sermon on Luke 17:1-4.  
He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

It was the first time I realized that Luke contextualizes the command to forgive seventy times in the  inevitability of harming others. I had always read that stumbling block passage as though it were about other people doing the harm, but now I realize it's about me. The vulnerable will, inevitably, face harm. Even worse, some of that harm will come from me.

I have been mulling over novelist Marilynne Robinson's definition of original sin this year: original sin is our inability to refrain from doing harm. As a mother, despite all my best intentions, I cannot refrain from hurting my child. Not ultimately. Sometimes it will happen. And knowing that, says Jesus, should inspire the humility I need to forgive the person who hurts me. Even seventy times.

Yu's affection functions like that humility. His narrator does not pronounce forgiveness for his father exactly. He doesn't need to pronounce it. His affection is enough. Affection is the longing for the presence of someone missed, even when they are missing by their own mistakes. Affection is eager to soothe and welcome the person who caused its own hurts.

The books I treasure most are the books that, through the mysterious alchemy of reading, somehow make me kinder. I have a new one to add to that list today.


  1. I love the way you weave the novel, your family, the Gospel of Luke, and Marilynne Robinson together. When I consider the inevitability of hurting my children, Shawn Colvin's song "I'll Say I'm Sorry Now" comes to mind: "I'm gonna let you down / I know that now / Make you cry, I know I will...For everything I do that'll tear at you / Let me say I'm sorry now." A story from the Desert Fathers also comes to mind:

    “What am I to do since I have fallen?” The Abba replied “Get up.”
    “I did get up but I fell again.” “Get up again.”
    “I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. What should I do?”
    “Do not fall down without getting back up”.

  2. I love the way you've put all this together too. I have a song on my ipod that I don't know where I got, or who sings it, that starts "Every little thing I do/ Trickles down and lands on you/ I don't plan to get it wrong/ Maybe keep your raincoat on" that always makes me smile and tear up at the same time. I was actually a bit disappointed by the book, but I've had the feeling all along that it was more my expectation and mood that made me not as receptive as I might have been (because I did like If on a Winter's Night a Traveler). The religious/Christian people I most admire are always the ones that are more concerned with how their personal acts line up with their faith than how other people's sin's offend them as people of faith. This is a beautiful post.

  3. I know this wasn't your point at all, but oddly enough I am currently reading a book that reminds me of "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler." It's called "Mr. Fox" and it's quite delightful, a fairy tale-ish sort of enterprise.

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