The protagonist of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a time machine repair technician by the name of Charles Yu, has been described by his creator, a writer by the name of Charles Yu, as a bit of a “sad sack.” Having abandoned his Masters in engineering, the fictional Yu wanders the timelines of Minor Universe 31 fixing the temporal mistakes of a cast of not-quite heroes such as Skywalker, L. – “not you know who… his son Linus.” With his grammar drive stuck in the Present-Indefinite, the fictional Yu manages to avoid looking too closely at, or progressing through, his own life – until the day when he shoots his future self in the stomach.
With the wry, and self-deprecating, emotional insights of the eponymous protagonist, it would be easy to assume that the fictional Yu is modeled after the one in this universe. Indeed, Charles Yu has stated on more than one occasion that much of the emotional content of the novel is autobiographical. Yet, there is a huge dichotomy between the relentless underachieving of the time machine repair tech, and the biography of the author who, among his other achievements was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, for authors to watch. The real Charles Yu holds a Bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkley, a law degree from Columbia, and is a lawyer for a visual effects company started by James Cameron. So the question had to be asked:
Have you always been an overachiever?
Yu’s response, while seemingly out of line with his accomplishments, was characteristically wry. “I would say that I thought of myself, and my parents thought of me, as an underachiever.” Yu goes on to say that he “always felt like a slacker.” It wasn’t until adulthood that Yu realized the “impossible standards” that he and his parents (“as parents always do”) had set. Yu attributes some of these lofty goals to his role as the child of Taiwanese immigrants who wanted a better life for their children. “They had assumed that I had a certain level of ability…” Yu goes on to explain that the assumption was that any “failures” on his part such as the failure to be accepted into medical school were due to a lack of effort. He says that it wasn’t until adulthood that this perception, “flipped” for his parents and for himself. All parties “realized that my work ethic was higher, and my ability wasn’t.” He also says that he and his parents began to relax after the birth of his first child. (Yu is married with two young children.)
Whether Charles Yu would have made a good physician may be debatable, but a careful reading of his work renders one point quite clear. When it comes to writing, Yu may indeed have a great work ethic, but he suffers from no lack of talent. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is meta-fiction at its finest, a nesting-doll of story lines, each tucked within the other, and driven by one of the best-extended metaphors out there. In How to Live Safely the time machine is human existence, powered by memory and more specifically by language. The Grammar Drive, stuck in the case of the protagonist in the Present Indefinite, is such an elegant invention, that it is worth following the thought process of its creation.
“So, here was the basic order:
• I had an idea of a guy who keeps popping up in different universes, but that wasn’t going anywhere. It was hard to tell a cohesive story.
• Then, I thought, ‘why not time travel?’ And that morphed into ‘okay, he’s a time machine repairman.’
• Then what helped was the title. The original working title was How to Live Safely in a Hypothetical Universe. Changing that to “Science Fictional Universe” made me realize ‘oh, it’s meta-fiction.’
• That led me to the idea of time travel based on language. Verb tenses are all about time.
• Once those two things came together, one language related and one science fiction related, that’s what excited me, and all these weird phrases came up.”