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Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu

Henchmen, Zombies, and Ideals

From spaceships and digitized emotions to zombies shopping for evening wear, Charles Yu crafts diverse and innovative worlds. In his collection of short stories, “Sorry Please Thank You,” he explores the mundane, the insane, the extraterrestrial, the fantastical, and the undead. Despite the unearthly nature of some of his stories, Yu still manages to write tales full of grounded observations about modern life. He raises questions with powerful implications about the role of technology in relationships and how the where to which many turn for escape can actually be cages.

Yu’s stories create new worlds like the one in “Standard Loneliness Package” where emotional engineering has advanced to the point that the wealthy can pay to outsource their pain to an Indian call center. Their slogan reads, “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.” Employees of this emotional engineering firm attend funerals, recitals, and root canals—all at a price. “Death of an aunt is seven hundred. Death of an uncle is six.” Death of a child is so extreme that the price is “separately negotiated.” These surrogate emotions take their toll upon the operators as they attempt to sort the human from the mechanical, the drama of their own lives from the pain of others’.

Among his collection of novel worlds, Charles Yu frequently pays homage to science fiction traditions like anonymous henchman who dies first, spaceships that talk, and stretched science. In the long-running series Star Trek, it was expected that the unnamed, red-uniformed yeoman was always the first to die when adventures went awry. Yu’s story “Yeoman” is about such a character who finds out, shortly following his promotion, that “the yeoman always dies.” “It’s actually in the job description.” In the manner of those sci-fi television shows, he spends his first week on the job pretending to do work, trying not to die, and listening to the uplifting speeches of the captain, a man who “has a way of speaking in italics.”

But it’s not just his characters that follow this tradition; his writing style in the “The Book of Categories” mimics the style of Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Often seen is science fiction writing, authors use terse, scientific phrases while incorporating nuggets of dry humor. In one portion of the story, Yu writes about the four theories regarding the intended purpose of an infinitely long book of categories. He says that “The first three are unknown. The fourth theory is known, but is wrong.” Many passages of this collection hark back to the style and content of science fiction works gone before.

But this collection carries significance for more than just the experienced science fiction reader. His comedic, tragic, and ground-breaking stories investigate the meaning of life and relationships in a world saturated with technology. In “First Person Shooter,” a young “WorldMart” employee stumbles upon a zombie in the makeup aisle of the store. Surprisingly nerve-free, he makes lipstick recommendations and helps her put together an outfit for an upcoming date. Due to his exposure to zombie movies and shooter games, he remains unphased by the undead romantic lumbering through the aisles. Instead, his real worry is his inability to ask a coworker on a date.

Despite the extravagant and inventive worlds and the profound moral discussions, Yu can sometimes write unattractive prose. His scientific-sounding and referential literary style can occasionally fall flat and sound more like a textbook than a page-turning work of fiction. Other times his ultra-casual prose can distract the reader like when he calls a character “a totally cheeseball beefcake” in “Hero Absorbs Major Damage.” Such dialogue can draw the reader out of the story. Other times, his stories can break down altogether and fade into philosophical musings. “The Book of Categories” is a particular example of this. Yet even portions lacking a distinct purpose or plot can offer a great deal to readers who approach these passages as they would poetry rather than an active narrative.

Despite these shortcomings, the novelty of Yu’s worlds and the profundity of his commentary makes this collection of stories a worthwhile read. If you can power through, or perhaps revel in an occasional philosophical addendum then gripping universes and exotic frontiers await.