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

(Note: This review was originally written for GeekDad.)

I mentioned earlier that I was really excited about this new book by Charles Yu, and I'd been planning to save a review until closer to the release date, in September, but since Yu has been generating a lot of positive buzz* I figured I might as well tell you about it now, and then remind you again later.

I got an email from Pantheon Books prior to Comic-Con (note: if you get a press pass for Comic-Con, be prepared to be flooded with PR emails for everything from upcoming books to Elvira's return to television to some guy trying to break the Guinness world record for hot dog eating) about a book titled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
, asking me to stop by the booth and attend the author's panel during the convention. I sort of skimmed the email, made a note to myself to maybe check it out later, and didn't really think of it further. From the title, it sounded like a collection of geeky essays, or maybe tongue-in-cheek, a How To Survive a Robot Uprising type of book.

I stumbled upon the booth during Preview Night, where a friendly publicist named Josefine said she thought the book would be really great for GeekDad, it has a father-son relationship at the heart of it, here's an uncorrected proof to read ... and then suggested that I should read it before Saturday so that I could talk to Yu about it when he came to Comic-Con for the panel. I thought to myself, Seriously? I'm here at Comic-Con and you expect me to read a 200-plus page book in the middle of a huge exhibit hall packed to the gills with stuff I want to see? Riiiight.

As it turns out, Josefine was absolutely right. I took the book with me Thursday and started reading it while I was waiting for the trolley, and within a few pages I was hooked. Here's a tiny taste of it:

When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.
Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.

I didn't finish reading it before Saturday, but I kept it with me all through the con, reading a few pages while waiting in a line or going up and down the escalators. On Monday when my family went to Legoland I read it while standing in lines and finished it in the middle of the day.

How to Live Safely is actually a novel, about a man named Charles Yu searching for his father in quantum space-time. He lives in Minor Universe 31, with science fiction wrapped around an inner core of approximately 17 percent reality (by volume). He's a time-machine repairman, armed with his TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device, TAMMY the slightly neurotic user interface, and Ed, his nonexistent but ontologically valid dog. Basically he deals with all those people who rent a time machine because they think they can go back and change their pasts and then get stuck in some alternate universe or adrift in space-time somewhere or somewhen they don't want to be. The book is largely narrative, but with short sections interspersed throughout from a manual (titled, of course, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe) explaining things about Minor Universe 31 or time travel or other chronodiegetical issues.

But, like Minor Universe 31, Yu's book is itself science fiction wrapped around a concentrated inner core of reality. The character Charles Yu is searching for his father, who stepped into a time machine and vanished. When he recalls memories of his father, their awkward interactions are mundane, true, devastating. His mother is stuck in a one-hour time loop of her own choice: a perfect dinner with a fake version of Charles who appreciates her cooking—again, a science fictional scenario with genuine emotional depth. Yu navigates between the science fiction and the real as if only the thinnest barrier separates them, which is probably truer than we think.

There are times when he starts off a paragraph about chronodiegetics that just sounds like pseudo-scientific gibberish meant to fill in some space. And then you realize that what he's saying actually makes sense, that he's actually figured out something really fascinating about the way time works, about the way fiction works, and the "Aha!" switch in your brain gets flipped. That happened more than once for me. There are so many sections here and there that I found myself wanting to share with somebody: Here—read this paragraph! Look at this sentence! Ok, now check this out!

I realize I'm just gushing about this book. Was there anything I didn't like about it? Yes, there were a couple sections, particularly one segment that's sort of a meta-story that I felt went on a little longer than necessary to get the point across. There are also times when Yu switches into a more stream-of-consciousness style, where the character's mind is going a mile a minute and you're just sort of getting the running commentary. I didn't mind it most of the time, but it does get tiring to read sometimes. But those were minor gripes for me, compared to the exhilarating blend of time travel and literary theory and family dynamics.

It's a book about hopes and dreams, living up to expectations (or not), about remembering your past and figuring out your future. If you don't read any science fiction at all, I don't know how you'd react to it, but it's not science fiction in the traditional (or commercial?) sense. Yu made the comment in a Q&A about how to characterize his book:

I was hoping it would be characterized as a time machine, although I realize there is no section for time machines in most bookstores. ... In terms of genre, I would be happy for it to be shelved in both fiction and in science fiction. Or maybe under a new category, where they would put books that resist either classification. A lot of my favorite books would be in that category.

If that's where your tastes fall—the sort of book that defies classification (think Neil Gaiman, China Mieville)—then How to Live Safely is definitely one for your collection. Read more about Charles Yu and his book at Pantheon's Comic-Con coverage, and then go pre-order the book!

*See io9's list of the biggest winners of Comic-Con, which includes a bunch of movies, TV shows, Oni Press (of Scott Pilgrim fame) ... and one Charles Yu.

Fed to jonathan's brain | August 01, 2010 | Comments (0)


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