Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

This review also appears as a guest post on Worlds Without End (WWEnd) is a wonderful interactive site for fans of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a treasure trove of information about science fiction and fantasy novels, old and new.    


How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Published: Pantheon Books, 2010
Awards Nominated: Campbell Award

The Book:

Every day in Minor Universe 31 people get into time machines and try to change the past. That's where Charles Yu, time travel technician, steps in. He helps save people from themselves.  Literally. When he's not taking client calls, Yu visits his mother and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. The key to locating his father may be found in a book. It's called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and somewhere inside it is information that will help him. It may even save his life.”

I first noticed How to Live Safely when it was long-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I thought it seemed neat and quirky.  When it showed up again in the nominations for the Campbell Award, I decided to go ahead and give it a read.   While it was not exactly what I expected, it was certainly an interesting book. 

My Thoughts:

First off, I want to clarify that How to Live Safely has very little in common with Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I’ve seen the comparison made in a number of blurbs, and I think it’s very misleading. While How to Live Safely does have some funny moments, it’s much more tragic than comic.  Also, the story is intensely focused on the inside workings of the mind of the protagonist, rather than on wacky adventures.  I thought this was worth pointing out, since a mismatch between expectations and reality can often leave readers with an unnecessary feeling of disappointment.   

In terms of style, How to Live Safely is definitely out of the ordinary. The story is told through the thoughts of lowly time machine mechanic Charles Yu.  It took me a while to warm up to the rambling style of his narration, which was full of digressions and excessively extended sentences.  Luckily, his stream of consciousness was typically fairly easy to follow, and it often took surprisingly emotionally evocative turns. Protagonist Yu’s narration is also interspersed with occasional diagrams, photographs, and amusing pseudo-scientific segments (from How to Live Safely… a book of complicated origin) describing aspects Minor Universe 31 (MU-31) and time travel.  The story sometimes seemed to lean a little heavily on pseudo-techno-babble, but there were enough allusions to actual scientific principles to keep things feeling quirky, rather than tedious.

Most of these pseudo-scientific segments, however, existed more to point out some uncomfortable truth about life than to define the fictional world or technology.  I never felt like I had any kind of complete and coherent picture of MU-31 or of exactly what rules ‘fictional science’ was governed by.  All the same, I don’t think the vagueness of the setting seriously hampered my appreciation of the human story at the heart of the novel.  Rather than establishing a definite, internally consistent world, Yu used the trappings of the sci-fi genre and pseudo-scientific discussions of time travel as a framework to tell a very emotional, personal story.

In a physical sense, it might seem that very little happens in the course of the story.  In fact, the basic action of the plot is not particularly surprising or complicated.  The real focus of the story is its psychological and emotional side. At the outset, Yu has unhealthily sequestered himself from the flow of the present, and his only companions are his nonexistent dog Ed and his time machine’s operating system, Tammy, who suffers from low self-esteem. Yu is fixated on his troubled relationship with his parents, particularly his father, and how their history together has shaped (and continues to shape) their lives. His relationships are gradually built up, with painful honesty, throughout the novel, as he struggles to make sense of his life, himself, and how he treats the people he loves.

My Rating: 4/5

I have to admit that How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was nothing like what I expected, but I was delighted with what I found.  I expected a light-hearted science fictional jaunt, but instead I found myself reading a thoughtful exploration of a man’s life and the relationships that have shaped it, framed within the construct of time travel. I get the sense that this is a story that will resonate strongly with many people in their late 20’s or 30’s, as we struggle with the idea of mortality and with the limitations and possibilities of a single lifetime.  How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe makes use of common science fiction conventions to explore familial relationships, loss, ambition, failure, understanding, and the complicated intersection of time and life.  

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