Charles Yu’s first book “Third Class Superhero” is a striking science fiction short story collection, but not without its faults. Some of the tales were too abstract for me and went over my head. A good example of this is “Two-Player Infinitely Iterated Simultaneous Semi-Cooperative Game with Spite and Reputation”. It was as obtuse as its title. I didn’t understand the point of the game or the story. From what I understand, Player 1 can state either the truth or a lie and Player 2 has to decide if that’s true or not and they continue the exchange, back and forth. I don’t know how the game ends though. Here’s a segment that still confounds me:
“If Player 1 walks into a room and makes a true statement and Player 2 is within range and hears the truth of the statement, Common knowledge may be attained. What has to happen is that Player 1 must utter the true statement while pointing his eye-looking vector in the direction of Player 2’s vector-accepting eye. Player 2 hears the truth and knows it. Because Player 1 is eye-looking, Player 1 knows that Player 2 knows the truth. Because Player 2 is eye-looking, Player 2 knows that Player 1 knows that Player 2 knows the truth. Likewise, Player 1 knows that Player 2 knows that Player 1 knows that Player 2 knows the truth. An infinite hierarchy of knowledge is created. This can be depicted as a spiral between the players, each knowing an infinite number of truths about the other.”
I know this is plainly spoken, and possibly the most simple version there could be, but it confused me since I don’t know how you can win this game or even lose. Definitely not a game I’d like to play.
However, the good outweighs the bad and there’s SO much to love about this collection. For instance, “Florence” is a story of how the protagonist must monitor a swimming shark on a planet where he’s alone. He communicates with his boss every four years, eons passing between them, his aunt, and his lover Tina. He talks of the last time he sees Tina, “She wanted me to say something. Fifteen seconds went by. I wanted more than anything to make my mouth say something. I searched every word in every language I knew, I picked up each one and discarded it- not the right word, not what I mean, not going to work, not enough to make her stay.” Even a being from a distant planet can make you sorely recall how words fail. It’s about distance, relationships, loneliness, much like the other stories within this magnificent book.
In my most favorite tale, “32.05864991%,” it explores the meaning behind the word “maybe” as expressed by a woman to a man. For the man (Ivan) who wants to be with the woman (Janine), maybe is “most likely a synonym of ‘probably’ and also a synonym of ‘hopefully‘ and also ‘you are special‘ and also ‘yes.'” For Janine, maybe is simply the percentage in the title. Prior to this book, I never considered the difference in language that a man and a woman, or the wanted and the one doing the wanting, that stems in even one single word. It made me think about what other words’ meanings we misconstrue or not understand from the speaker to the listener and vice versa. There are so many gorgeous sentences in this one story but I’d be amiss to spoil it for you.
Yu’s subsequent collection “Sorry Please Thank You” is much stronger but there is so much beauty in these stories as well. Some are strangely worded and formatted, like a physics exam or a screenplay, but it adds to its high caliber appeal. You know you’re reading a great book when the science fiction connects to you and makes you reflect on your own life.
Eileen Ramos is a Filipina-American writer with a deep, abiding love for words. This passion drives her to read, create, and absorb all she can. Let’s hope it ends well. Read more by Eileen on her blog.