Smartphones and tablets just need a flick of a finger to keep us updated about news and friends anytime, anywhere. As much as we're connected, though, we're also detached. That's a big theme in a new book of short stories by author Charles Yu.
Yu's stories are sad ones. They're techy, too. One story, "Standard Loneliness Package," is entirely about humans using technology as a way to buy detachment from the ordinary emotions of human experience — grief, heartbreak, awkwardness.
For all its advantages, Yu tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host David Greene, technology has the power to make us lonely.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And Laura and I were talking about this smartphone that's in my hand. I'm sitting here alone in the studio with it, and it really makes me think about how often I am alone with a device like this in my hand. As much as I'm connected, I also often feel really detached. And that idea is a big theme in a new book of short stories by author Charles Yu. It's called "Sorry Please Thank You." And he's joining us from our studios at NPR West.
Charles, thanks so much for coming in.
CHARLES YU: Thank you, David.
GREENE: So, your new book, these are really sad stories, many of them and very techie stories. Does technology make us lonely in a way?
YU: It makes me lonely.
YU: I think it could make us less lonely or more lonely at the same time.
GREENE: Well, you're for story is called "Standard Loneliness Package." And it's entirely about humans using technology as a way to buy detachment from their ordinary emotions. Talk a little bit about how you came up with this.
YU: Right. So, you have the idea there is the outsourcing of bad experiences, almost as if those have become commodified. You call up your broker and say, you know, I've got a dentist appointment coming up. I don't feel like doing that so let someone else feel for me. And this comes from, you know, I work full-time in a non-writing capacity. And this comes from sort of sitting there thinking I am - and I had to say I do enjoy my job...
YU: ...but there are definitely times when I'm sitting in the office thinking I don't enjoy this part of it, but this is someone else's problem that I am being paid to suffer through. And the story, like, you know, speculative fiction in general, I guess sort of is an extension of something that the seed of which is already something we live with.
GREENE: I have to ask you, what are you doing in your day job that you feel like you're kind of taking on other people's problems?
YU: I'm a lawyer. So...
GREENE: That's a very straightforward, simple answer.
YU: I don't bill by the hour 'cause I'm in-house, but I did used to work at law firms and the firm was being paid by the hour so that I could work on someone else's problem. And I don't mean that necessarily in a bad sense. It's just the kind of idea that our days are chopped up into these units and to think about our time, especially in the workplace as being chopped up that way. And to think about how technology in particular can make it so that we can work on things that we have very little physical attachment to. And I don't know that consciousness transfer will be something that we'll see any time soon. But there are, I think, already kind of instances of people being able to outsource something that probably hardly seems, you know, possible not too long ago.
GREENE: You've categorized the book into three categories. I mean, the name of the book" "Sorry Please Thank You." Can you give us a sense of why you decided on that title and that structure?
YU: Sure. In thinking about the stories and what connected them all, it occurred to me that there are variations of sorry, please and thank you in a lot of different cultures and languages. And I was interested in new languages we have. And this is a little bit of a leap here but, you know, I feel, indulge it. The new languages are, you know, in some ways environments like video games. The kinds of stories we tell have languages embedded in them in a way, even if they're not necessarily word-based languages. A video game has a kind of language to how you understand the environment. And so thinking about these sort of universal concepts helped me kind of to think about a kind of through-line for the book.
GREENE: "Yeoman" is one of the stories in the book. It has a real "Star Trek" theme. Are you a Trekkie? I wanted to ask that first.
YU: I don't feel quite that I am worthy of that title but I'm a fan.
GREENE: It's fascinating to me how it plays out because you create a world in which this person on the ship is - and I don't want to give away too much - but is given a role that he knows is incredibly dangerous but just assumes that he has no choice but to take it.
YU: Right. So, yeah, I guess without spoiling it, we have science fiction universes, you know, on TV, in movies, in our books, and there's this great unknown in a lot of, you know, especially one set in deep space. And the sort of starting point for that story was what if we found out that the universe was knowable, and in fact we hit the end of it and we were really bored? And so it started from a place of humor, but ultimately, I mean, that's not at all where I think we are at all. I mean, I'm excited about, you know, developments in science and technology. But that was a sort of fun play on that. And also a play on that kind of story in the first place, that kind of exploration story. So, it was a little bit of not so much satire but it was a little bit of my sort of way of writing a "Star Trek" episode.
GREENE: And, again, I don't want to give away too much, but left it with almost a hopeful, refreshing feeling, like I never need to feel stuck in my routine. I always need to keep in mind that there are other choices, that, you know, doors and windows will always open.
YU: Well, first, I'm glad you said that 'cause at least the whole book wasn't sad, right?
GREENE: Exactly, yeah.
YU: There are happy stories.
GREENE: Happy moments, yeah.
YU: So, yes, definitely. Right. That definitely is something I feel too in terms of, like I said, not all feeling like we are anywhere near, you know, understanding the mysteries of the universe.
GREENE: That's Charles Yu. His new book is called "Sorry, Please Thank You." And, Charles, thank you.
YU: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "STAR TREK" THEME)
GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.