Charles Yu’s short stories offer an imaginative critique on consumerism

Charles Yu writes intelligent and sophisticated speculative fiction with a real sense of humor, so comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams are frequent and inevitable, but not altogether accurate. His new collection of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You (Pantheon Books, $25), presents a hodgepodge of ideas—some of them only partially realized—designed to entertain and provoke readers’ minds.

The leadoff story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” is a real winner, and was previously included in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011). The protagonist works for a Bangalore-based company that experiences people’s pain—both emotional and physical—for a price. Don’t want to attend a family funeral? Want to skip a dental appointment? Care to avoid the guilt of an affair, the difficulty of quitting your job, or the heartbreak of unplugging a loved one’s life-support? One person absorbs another person’s consciousness, sees and feels what they do, and gets paid by the hour. It’s a great concept and Yu builds on it, delivering a devastating story about human emotion and interpersonal relationships. It’s the most powerful story in the collection.

By comparison, “First Person Shooter” is a bit of fluff that goes nowhere: A shy employee at a big-box retailer encounters a zombie in the aisles and works up the courage to ask his co-worker out on a date. In “Hero Absorbs Damage,” Yu inserts readers into a fantasy role-playing game inhabited by heroes, thieves and Darts of Severe Pain. Serious gamers might find the story silly, but I was entertained until the ho-hum ending.

“Note to Self” is decidedly one-note, a goofy chain letter between alternate selves existing in the quantum multiverse. In “Yeoman,” Yu plays on the Star Trek notion that characters beaming down to a planet in a red shirt always meet an unfortunate end; your enjoyment of the story hinges on your appreciation of that show’s many incarnations.

I got a kick out of “Designer Emotion 67,” where the CEO of PharmaLife describes the company’s accomplishments of 2050 at his annual shareholder’s meeting. Advancements in managing depression and dread have made the company billions, amid rumors of a new pill and massive layoffs. Stories like this one and “Adult Contemporary”—where a character doesn’t purchase a new condo so much as buy into a “managed lifestyle experience”—bring to mind the work of George Saunders, who frequently satirizes consumerism and corporate America.

This is Yu’s third book, in addition to his novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), and an earlier story collection, Third Class Superhero (2006). He’s also a full-time lawyer, which—to my way of thinking—explains the perfunctory nature of his less successful stories. Yu has some brilliant ideas, and when he takes the time to fully develop his stories, the results are unforgettable. ★★★☆☆

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