How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

 “Desire is suffering. A simple equation, and a nice catchphrase. But flipped around, it is more troubling: suffering is desire.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

I was looking for something fun and not too heavy to read so I paged through the books I’d bought (mostly during Amazon sales) for my Kindle and settled the cursor over “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu – clicking it into my “READING” folder.

It’s an odd, postmodern bit of strangeness. You know, right away, when you find out that the protagonist’s name is Charles Yu, the same as the author. You suspect that the protagonist claims to have written the book that you are reading… and you would be right… sort of.

Yu (the protagonist) works as a time machine repairman. For the last ten years he has lived in his own time machine, a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. Though there isn’t any extra space in the thing, he does have two companions – TAMMY, his love interest – an attractive bit of programming, and Ed, his non-existent, ontologically valid dog.

He works in Minor Universe 31 (not a coincidence that it has the same model number as his machine) – which is a pretty grim stretch of time-space continuum. It is broken, never really finished, and cobbled together from New York and Los Angeles scrunched together, with half of Tokyo thrown in for leavening.

Protagonist Yu gets himself in a real jam. He returns to his time machine after it gets some needed maintenance and sees himself climbing out of it. He panics, shoots himself, then jumps into the time machine and escapes into the past.

He is now stuck in a time loop. His only hope is to write a book that will tell his future self how to escape from the trap. The book that he is writing is “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” and you are reading it.

There are, obviously, many twists and turns of space and time and many turns of phrase and twists of fate. Physics enters into it too. And hypertext.

The book has links in it – including a link to a YouTube video on the famous Libet experiment on free will.

So I don’t know if I really decided to read this book… or simply went along with the flow when I discovered that I had already moved it into my READING folder on my Kindle – then fooled myself into believing that I had chosen it – and now am lying to y’all about deciding…. or something like that.

So, all well and good. Food for thought. But, the big question is, do you give a damn?

And the answer is, surprisingly, yes. The beating heart of the book is the relationship between Charles Yu and his father. I can say with pretty strong confidence that the grip of emotion is present in both the author and his eponymous protagonist. The story is the search for his father, who has also become lost in time, and an examination of the father and son’s life together. This is the meat of the story. There are a few passages that will rip your heart out… and that is the reason to read the book.

The science fictional pyrotechnics are just added dessert.

 “I don’t miss him anymore. Most of the time, anyway. I want to. I wish I could but unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience… It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

Oh, and this book sure feels unstageable and unfilmable… but it’s been adapted into a one-man play and Chris Columbus has optioned it for a film.

“There must be some kind of internal time distortion effect in here, because when I look at myself in the little mirror above my sink, what I see is my father’s face, my face turning into his. I am beginning to feel how the man looked, especially how he looked on those nights he came home so tired he couldn’t even make it through dinner without nodding off, sitting there with his bowl of soup cooling in front of him, a rich pork-and-winter-melon-saturated broth that, moment by moment, was losing – or giving up – its tiny quantum of heat into the vast average temperature of the universe.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe “

8 responses to “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

  1. Sold!! No seriously, you just… rang my synchronized message bell *loud*

    Thank you, I’m going to half.com a copy right now 🙂 Gonna have to watch it with reading your posts – you’ll get me converting all my greenies into paperbacks!!!

    • I hope you like it – I read some other reviews and they were almost all good. The only folks that didn’t seem to like it were the real science fiction fans that didn’t like the “literary” elements (which is what I liked the best about it).

    • I tend to only write about books that I feel worth reading – but be warned… this one is an odd book and not for everyone’s taste. The science fiction/time travel tale is mostly shiny wrapping for a story about a boy and his father.

  2. Pingback: A Visit from the Goon Squad | Bill Chance

  3. Pingback: Short Story of the Day, Standard Loneliness Package by Charles Yu | Bill Chance

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