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Book Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

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“The Foundational Theory of Chronodiegetics: Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.” — from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

Humor, regret, memory, and attention to the details of geekdom and of the heart are the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. In this slim novel with its whimsical cover, Charles Yu guides us through the temporal cloverleaf that is the life of his eponymous protagonist – Charles Yu, time travel technician.

Through the travels of the fictional Yu, both men lead us to a better understanding of our own desires, fears, and regrets. The fictional Charles Yu (hereafter called Charles for clarity) travels through Minor Universe 31 in a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device, ostensibly repairing the temporal errors of hapless time-travelers, but also searching time for his father.

Charles is accompanied by Ed, a “weird ontological entity that produces unconditional slobbery affection” (in layman’s terms a non-existent dog), and TAMMY, the ship’s pessimistic, insecure AI.

People rent time machines.
They think they can change the past.

Then they get there and find out causality doesn’t work the way they thought it did. They get stuck, stuck in places they didn’t mean to go, in places they shouldn’t have tried to go. They get into trouble. Logical, metaphysical, etc.

That’s where I come in. I go and get them out.

I tell people: I have a job and I have job security.

I have a job because I know how to fix the cooling module on the quantum decoherence engine of the TM-31. That’s the reason I have a job.

But the reason I have job security is that people have no idea how to make themselves happy.

Yu, the real Charles Yu (just wait, it gets more confusing), does a masterful job of using the established conventions of science fiction to tease apart the complex web of memory and emotion. With his time machine stuck in the Present-Indefinite tense for an indeterminate period, Charles provides a literal mirror to those of us guilty of drifting through our present without ever moving forward from the past.

Intriguingly, most people, when given access to a time machine, will choose to visit, not the best, but the worst day of their lives. “My vocational training was in the basics of closed time-like curves, but what they should have taught me was how that relates to people’s regrets and mistakes, the loves of their lives that they let get away.”

Yet, for all of his awareness of the seduction and danger inherent to time travel, Charles finds himself so unwilling to move forward, to progress beyond his search for his father that he panics, shoots his future self, and dives back into his time machine. “…I end up shooting him, once, in the stomach, just as he is saying something to me, it all happens very quickly but what I am pretty sure he says is ‘It’s all in the book. The book is the key.’” The book, handed to Charles by his future self, is entitled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and turns out to be written by Charles Yu.

See, I told you things got more confusing. If the requirement for the enjoyment of fiction is the suspension of disbelief, then it must be presumed that the requirement for the enjoyment of science fiction is acceptance, and thus that the requirement for the enjoyment of science fiction involving time travel is complete surrender to the forces of the narrative. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is not for those readers who wish to keep their feet safely on the ground while checking off plot points on a list. The convergence of author and protagonist, fictional work and work of fiction, not to mention the convolutions of time travel, produces only one possible way to read this book – abandon your own present and jump in the TM-31.

Trust me, the gems delivered by Yu along the way more than make up for any confusion. For instance, if you live in a universe where science fiction meets reality, why would you choose to become a time machine repair guy? “When you are a kid, playing with the other kids on your street, and everyone is fighting over who they are going to be, you have to call dibs early, as soon as you see one another, pretty much as soon as you step outside your house, even if you’re halfway down the block. First dibs gets Han Solo. Everyone knows that.”

Charles determines that everyone wants to be Han Solo because he is an achievable hero, not born to a special destiny. “But no one grows up wanting to be the time machine repair guy.” So, what are the other options for a guy who isn’t protagonist material? “My cousin is in accounts receivable on the Death Star, and whenever we talk he always says how nice it’d be if I joined him. He says they have a good cafeteria. So that’s an option.”

First dibs always does get Han Solo, even in our entirely prosaic universe. But, of course, not everyone can be the hero. Somebody has to keep books on the Death Star or sweep the Enterprise. Even in a universe where fact touches fiction, someone has to do the menial work, and someone has to fail. Part of Charles’ inability to move out of an indeterminate present lies in his past.

Charles’ father, a disappointed man from “a part of reality, a tiny island in the ocean, a different part of the planet, really, a different time, where people still farmed with water buffalo and believed that stories, like life, were all straight lines of chronology,” set out to develop his theories of time travel. Beaten to the corporate punch by a failure of his machine and another inventor, the elder Yu disappears one day into time.

The looping journey of Charles in search of his father, the disappearance (distance) of the father, and the endless one-hour loop in which Charles’ mother exists speak to the fears and failures of families and individuals. It would have been easy for Yu to stray too far into the minutiae of science fiction and lose the more serious reader. Conversely, he risks the literary novel trap of falling into introspection at the cost of plot. However, with a thoughtful, yet wry and self-deprecating voice, Charles Yu has achieved an ideal blend of genre and literature in a novel that keeps us guessing while making us wonder. Through How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu shows us that perhaps safety interferes with the living.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • John Lake

    This never happens to me. I’m going to see if I can locate a copy of the book.