I came away from Charle’s Yu’s novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe with two conflicting opinions. On one level, the book is an interesting and at times moving story that uses the trope of time travel as a metaphor for aging, regret, and loss. On another, it is a metafictional high wire act that constantly folds in on itself, often getting lost in its own cleverness.
The protagonist of the novel is a time-machine repairman named Charles Yu. He lives in his time-machine, with his computer companion TAMMY and a dog that is nonexistent but “ontologically valid.” Charles Yu spends much of his time fixing consumer time devices that people use to revisit the worst moments of their lives. In this universe, time travel physically cannot be used to change the past, so some elect to stick themselves in endless loops or torture themselves with past mistakes. Charles Yu’s mother is stuck in a voluntary loop, eternally preparing for dinner and talking with her largely absent son.
The novel, with brief interludes, takes place largely within the confines of Yu’s phone-booth sized time machine in the stretches of time between jobs. In this sense, it’s almost a bathtub story–much of the story occurs in prolonged flashbacks that detail Yu’s past and his relationship to his father, the man who discovered the first actionable principles of time travel. After having his principles co-opted and stolen by large a large tech corporation, Yu’s father disappeared into time and space, abandoning his family.
Near the middle of the book, Yu returns to his time machine after a visit with his mother to find another version of himself stepping out of it, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a time traveler. In fear of creating a paradox, Yu shoots his future self in the stomach and takes off in the time machine. The rest of the novel follows Yu as he hurtles inescapably toward his future confrontation with his past self, who will kill him as he killed his future self. To escape the loop, Yu embarks on a quest, armed with a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which his future self gave to him before he died, to find his father in hopes that he can help Yu escape his fate.
When the action is snappy, the book is a delight to read. Yu’s narration is peppered with strange scientific lingo, thoughts on the grammar of time travel, and observations about the time he has spent outside of linear time. In other sections, the character falls into long reminiscences about his past. Here, I think that Yu (the writer) gets lost in his own story. It’s hard to leverage criticism against this craft choice because getting lost in overanalyzing the past is one of the main dangers presented by time travel in this book’s world, but due to a few stylistic choices (some truly long, serpentine sentences that go one for pages), I felt pushed out of a story that I had been legitimately enjoying.
Other readers will certainly not have the same experience that I did, but eventually I had had it with Yu’s (the narrator) constant couching of emotionally resonant material in self-consciously elaborate sentences and scientific jargon. I wanted to know more about things that the narrator refused to discuss, such as his relationship with his mother, who, unlike his father, actually wants to be a part of his life. By the end, I felt cut off from the really excellent emotional core of the book. That effect might square with the theme of the book, but it didn’t make for a fun reading experience.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is an amazing concept that feels stretched to fill a length that its content cannot really sustain. There were elements of the book that I absolutely loved and was fascinated by, but by the end I was anxious for it to be over, uninterested in Yu (the narrator’s) overly elaborate ruminations on the metaphorical baggage of time travel.
I think its definitely worth a read, but I give How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe two pieces of lasagna.