How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Publisher: Pantheon
Year: 2010
Pages: 256

The father-son dynamic in books is old as books themselves, and done with varying levels of success. From the rolls of my own little book meme, I can cite Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard, Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, and McCarthy’s The Road. What makes this dynamic so powerful is that while it appears to be an ancient and simple sort of narrative thread, it turns out to be much more complicated and nuanced than we ultimately expect.

How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a quirky late-bloomer bildungsroman masquerading as a science fiction novel in the vein of Douglas Adams. With respect to this latter point, the influence is obvious.

Minor Universe 31 was slightly damaged during its construction and, as a result, the builder-developer who owns the rights abandoned the original plans for the space.

At the moment work was halted, physics was only 93 percent installed, and thus you may find that it can be a bit unpredictable in places. For the most part, however, while here travelers should be fine relying on any off-the-shelf causal processor based on quantum general relatively.

The technology left behind by the MU31 engineering team, despite being only partially developed, is first-rate, although the same can’t be said of its human inhabitants, who seem to have been left with a lingering sense of incompleteness.

There’s nothing wrong with sounding like one of the masters (the master?) of sci-fi satire; it’s impossible to avoid the comparisons when writing in Adams’ historical shadow. In Yu’s case, anyway, the flippant logorrhea of cerebral sci-fi jargon is merely the flashing lights and ringing bells which will distract you while Yu spins a tale of a broken family… a tale in which the mechanics of time travel act as convenient and poignant metaphors for the vagaries of psychosocial turmoil.

At times, in fact, it seems almost too obvious that Yu is painting a very thin veneer of Hitchhiker patois onto a character drama; I prefer somewhat oblique mappings, as it seems too easy when the author gives them to us. Consider when Charles Yu the Character describes his time machine, the TM-31 (emphasis mine):

I guess I could describe [the TM-31] as closest in size to, though not quite as large as, a hotel shower, not the kind of a curtain, but the cross-sectionally-square-shaped kind that is see-through from floor to ceiling, except that the main hatch to the TM-31, while it can be made transparent like a shower door (if that’s what you’re into), also happens to be a super-cooled magnetic compression system, designed to insulate against temperatures ranging from, at the low end, about half a degree above absolute zero to, at the high end, about a million degrees Kelvin. Hot, cold, people opinions. All of it just bounces off. In addition, you can install an aftermarket cloaking device, so that the unit can be made invisible with the flick of a switch. You can just sit in here, impervious and invisible. So invisible you might even forget yourself.

It reminds me, in its brashness, of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, which accomplish a similar task with an evolving kit of increasingly incapable metaphors like portable homes or prescription drugs. Despite the occasionally clunky handling of his metaphors, though, I think Yu the Author does a good job with the science-fictional tropes, as the topic is naturally well-suited to this sort of thing, and there’s a freshness to Yu’s writing that Palahniuk hasn’t had since his earliest novels.

So why does time travel create such a perfect set of tropes for talking about troubled familial relationships and self-despair? Despite the plots of so many other books and movies that talk about time travel, Yu’s version isn’t good for much, because the past has already happened and can’t be changed, no matter how much we’d like it to; neither can the future, once witnessed. So Yu the Character finds himself speeding inevitably toward his own immediate death, and attempts to both delay the impending doom and look for his author, time-machine-creator, who long ago disappeared to someplace or somewhen unknown. So there’s no meeting your mother in high school and having to hook her up with your mother, or having to launch one’s time machine back to the future via lucky lightning strikes. Even time travel, Yu posits, is rather dull.

With less creepy potential incest, though

Along the way, he comes to realize that his fear of “chronological living” (that is, living and aging normally along with the normal timestream relative to oneself) is a cop-out, and that his criticisms of those who live chronologically is by extension a criticism of himself.

As Ander Monson says in his NY Times review, “The novel’s central, lonely story is wrapped in glittering layers of gorgeous and playful meta-science-fiction.” Extended talk about fictional but authoritative-sounding hypotheses and phrases like “chronodiegetical schematics” pepper the story. “These unexpected formal moves keep the story from dipping into the sentimental, as they usually lead to actual human emotion and thinking about what constitutes the human sense of self.”

“Lonely” seems to be the operative word, as How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is deeply melancholy, even plaintive, but not despairing and darksome in the manner of The Road. There is something of a happy ending for Yu with respect to his father, but it is literally an afterthought, as Yu the Character’s story is almost entirely intellectual as opposed to narrative. If it were anything else, I don’t think it would capture the strange beauty that it somehow manages to do as the quirky, febrile, hyperliterate sci-fi jaunt that it is.

§7228 · September 15, 2011 · Tags: , , , ·

1 Comment to “How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

  1. Great review! I really tried to get into the book, but ultimately found it a little too obtuse for my liking.

    Here are my thoughts, if you’re interested:
    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/10/book-review-how-to-live-safely-in.html

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