book review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

reflections on loss and on fathers & sons, within an awesome, creative, & funny time-traveling framework

I have a limited tolerance for science fiction. I loved Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (crime noir in sci-fi setting) and liked his As She Climbed Across the Table (sci-fi relationship story, maybe). I enjoyed Gibson’s Neuromancer. At the high risk of sounding pretentious, I like “literary science fiction”; Yu, in his interview at the end of the book, describes his inspiration, a book that “handled actual science…without watering it down, and yet it was clearly Serious Fiction, … the kind that was in the Sunday book review sections.” This book definitely falls in that category.

The main character, Charles Yu, is a time machine technician in a science fictional universe. He has spent the last decade living in his time machine (a little bigger than a telephone booth), racing around and saving clients who get stuck. For example, Linus Skywalker going back in time to try and kill his father Luke: “You have no idea what it’s like, man. To grow up with the freaking savior of the universe as your dad” (p13). Or a woman who wants to have been there when her grandmother died. (But while you can visit the past, you can’t change it or you risk splitting off into a parallel universe in which the past was as you have changed it…or something.)

I loved two things about this book. First, the science fiction is so fun. I laughed out loud several times. From running into Luke Skywalker’s patricidal son to making out with some alien (“Not human exactly. Humanish. Close enough that she looked awesome… She was a good kisser. I just hope that was her mouth” p52) to Charles’s manager, “an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 … The only thing is, and this isn’t really that big a deal, is that Phil thinks he’s a real person” (p40). Lots of managerial “yo dog” and “I’m still your homie?” ensues.

Second, so much of the book resonated emotionally. In the margins of my copy, I over and over have jotted down notes of empathy. “My thoughts, normally bunched together, wrapped in gauze, insistent, urgent, impatient, one moment to the next, living in what I realize is, in essence, a constant state of emergency” (p122). “I bet there’s a secret door! This is so cool! I’m so smart! It’s like my very own adventure story. … The only problem is that the TM-31 [where the book is] is nowhere to be found. I guess I’m not so smart. I am kind of an idiot” (p128). While I didn’t love the main character, I feel him.

Occasionally, early in the book, I wished for more action. And I don’t really understand what happened at the end. But it was still totally worth the ride, and I’ll check out Yu’s earlier short story collection, as well as Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline, which Yu cites as an inspiration in his interview at the end.

Finally, one of my favorite passages: “I modified it slightly to pry open really tiny temporary quantum windows into other universes, through which I am able to spy on my alternate selves. I’ve seen thirty-nine of them, these varieties of me, and about thirty-fave of them seem like total jerks. I guess I’ve come to terms with that, with what it probably means. If 89.7 percent of the other versions of you are [jerks], chances are you aren’t exactly mister personality yourself” (p10).

Note on objectionable content: Some reference to the existence of sex with robots but not explicit. A smattering of strong language.

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