Book Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Normally I stop reading books like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe after about 50 pages because if I don’t know what’s going in the story by then I figure I never will. I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of good books in my time but that’s the breaks, life is short and the list of books is long.
I didn’t quit How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe because, despite not knowing what was happening for much of those first 50 pages, Charles Yu’s writing was too interesting and too much fun to quit. I don’t want to sound cliché and say Yu’s writing was a celebration of the English language, but it sort of was. There were so many words on those pages, many of them too geeky for me to understand, and dozens and dozens of those words were put together into long sentences (one I counted was 242 words) and they all combined and blended together and were a joy to read. It was like a full 100-piece orchestra playing a symphony of language and the words and sentences, even the ones I couldn’t understand, rang beautifully in my head.
Here’s a brief review of the story. Charles Yu, yes, the author, is a 31-year-old time travel machine repairman in Minor Universe 31 living in his model TM-31 time travel machine with virtual companions Ed, his dog, and TAMMY, a slightly depressed computer program he is sort of in love with; and she him.
“Holy Heinlein, what would I do without you?” He asks.
“Cease to exist.” TAMMY replies with a smile.
In between fixing time machines, Yu searches for his missing-in-time father.
While having his time machine serviced, Yu encounters a future Charles Yu which propels him into a time loop of events that will happen in the future. Or have already happened. Or are happening. While reasoning his way through, or out of, or into, the time loop dilemma, Yu speculates on things like life: “…maybe we go through life never actually being ourselves, mostly never being ourselves. Maybe we spend most of our decades being someone else, avoiding ourselves, maybe a man is only himself, his true self, for a few days in his entire life.” and the difficulties and disappointments of being a son: “I have let him down. I have let him down countless times… Seventeen years old is not old, but it is old enough to have hurt your father.” among other things. These, to me, are interesting things to think about and Yu presents them in such a way as to make them even more interesting.
I don’t think I can give you more of a synopsis than that because I was sort of confused most of the time and simply enjoying the flow of words. And I wasn’t alone in that. At one point in the story Yu meets a space elevator operator who is a retcon version of himself – although a little tougher and with more facial hair.
The retcon Yu questions Yu: “Out of all the oceans of oceans of you, there is exactly one who is perfectly you. And that’s me. And I’m telling you: you are the only you. Does that make any sense?”
Yu answers: “Not really.”
I sort of know what you mean!
If you’re looking for a traditional science fiction/time travel story à la Robert Heinlein or Diana Gabaldon, this is not the book for you. If you’re looking for an ingenious, funny and well-written story about life and the search for self and meaning, then I think you might enjoy How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
The book is worth at least those first 50 pages because who knows what the future holds. Or held. Or will hold at some point.