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

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Enter the time machine and choose your destination. You may travel to the past (regret), alternate present (counter-factual), or future (anxiety). Just remember one thing: you cannot change the past. If you get into trouble while time-travelling, contact Charles Yu, time-machine technician. He’ll be there in no time – literally.

Yu (the protagonist) has spent much of his life living in an intentional sort of limbo. As a certified network technician for T-Class personal use chronogrammatical vehicles (and approved independent contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this particular minor universe), he has use of a company-issued TM-31 vehicle, which he has abused terribly. For ten (subjective) years, Yu has spent most of his off-duty time living in his phone booth-sized time machine, the shifter jammed between gears, just whiling away his lifespan in the non-existence between the past- and future-tense.

His father, meanwhile, invented time-travel, and then used it to disappear from the universe, while his mother is spending her retirement in a permanent loop, re-living the same 60 minutes (the best plan her son could afford), over and over and over. Each of the Yus have escaped living in their own way. Father, mother, and son each have chosen to turn aside from a future with nothing to offer.

Yu (the author) keeps the tone light with humour and pop-culture references. The fantastic backdrop bespeaks a writer who is truly a fan of both science fiction and science fact. From exclamations like “Holy Heinlein!”, meta-narrative a la Douglas Hofstadter, one-shot characters like the light-saber wielding Linus Skywalker, to a sort of absurdist logic in his scientific explanations that may be a nod to Lewis Carroll, Douglas Adams, or both, it’s clear Yu has his geek cred. But he never gets so caught up in it that he forgets its service to the story, the emotional journey of a man searching for his father.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe isn’t being marketed as a science fiction book, nor should it be. Although clearly written by a fan of the genre, parts of the novel read more like Slaughterhouse Five, The Time Traveler’s Wife, or even Microserfs. All very different books, by very different authors, but of course Yu is a very different sort of author as well. The fantastic, sometimes comical surface plot combines with the central metaphor – of people stuck in an emotional loop, cut off from the rest of their emotional universe – to create something strange, poignant, and ultimately genuine.

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About J.J.S. Boyce

  • I really tried to get into the book, but ultimately found it a little too obtuse for my liking.

    Here are my thoughts, if you’re interested.

  • John Lake

    A few sections of the book were interesting. particularly the things about the difficulty or impossibility of changing history. Beyond that the plot didn’t move, the pseudo-science was far too prevalent, and a bore. When it came to light that while staying in New York, he lived in a shoddy place, I gave up. Maybe I missed a lot.