How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
By Charles Yu
Published by Vintage in 2010.
Every day in Minor Universe 31 people get into time machines and try to change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician, steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls, Yu visits his mother and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. The key to locating his father may be found in a book. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and somewhere inside it is information that will help him. It may even save his life. (Goodreads)
In a way, this book was always doomed to fail to meet my expectations. I started reading it after Ancillary Justice—which was such an impressive book—while I was waiting for its sequel, Ancillary Sword, to come out. That said, I still had problems with the book on its own merit as well.
The book is, in a way, exactly what the cover of the book leads you to believe. It’s about a young man, named Charles Yu (just like the author), who is a time-machine repairman. His father, who invented a rudimentary time machine years before time machines went commercial, left when Charles was a teenager and never came back. Charles spends most of his time in the tense between past and present thinking about his father and living a sort of non-life. Then one day, he sees himself climb out of a time machine and, stupidly, shoots himself. Then Charles enters some sort of Looper-like scenario where he’s simultaneously running from and towards his future. Sounds cool right?
Where the book deviated from my expectations is the amount of literary experimentation that Yu-the-author takes us through. Time travel in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is one big, obvious metaphor for writing. While the characters physically travel back and forth to the present and past, they can’t really change anything. Where things start to get tricky is when Charles-the-character goes off the course of the narrative and into a creepy other-world with his mother as she should/could have been. Am I making sense? I’m not sure.
The book itself handles it all much better than I do, but I still didn’t like it much. Part of this has to do with expectations, as I said above. But I also think the author missed the mark with what he was trying to do. The ending felt hastily wrapped up in a couple of sentences, while other scenes were way too drawn out. The writing itself, well, I wasn’t impressed. It felt like it was trying to be very literary and clever. It sometimes gets wrapped up in its own cleverness. I also thought Charles-the-character’s arc was a bit forced. It’s like when Harry Potter knows he can cast the Patronus spell in Harry Potter in the Prisoner of Azkaban because he’s already done it. The character is forced into “growing” because he knows he’s going to. It was a cheap way out in this case. (I will never criticize Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – it was my favorite HP book!)
There were a lot of interesting concepts going on in this, and had the execution of it been better, I think I would have quite liked it. This book could be classified as science fiction, but fans of literary fiction (especially those who love books that play with language) will probably find it more appealing.