After finishing Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I can honestly say that I’m still not sure how to life safely in a science fictional universe. Whether this is a failing of the book’s contents or its title (or both or neither) I’ll let you decide.
Charles Yu, time travel technician/narrator of HTLSSFU (not to be confused with…or TO be confused with? Charles Yu our author) lives in Minor Universe 31, a universe in which “reality represents 13 percent of the total surface area [and] the remainder consists of a standard composite based SF substrate.” Which is to say – science fiction.
Geographically, 31 is composed of what used to be New York and Los Angeles (which “merged into each other, in the process swallowing up what was in between”) plus half of Tokyo (which “bifurcated along the spatio-temporal fault line…moved across the world and wrapped itself around the perimeter of the recently formed New York/Los Angeles chimera.”) Inhabitants of Universe 31 are separated into protagonists and back office, and back office workers must choose between retcon, accounting, human resources, time machine repair, and janitorial work. If nothing else, HTLSSFU is the only novel I’ve read where Luke Skywalker’s son makes a cameo because he broke his time machine trying to change the past. (The fact that you can’t—change the past—is a pivotal facet of the novel.)
As a time-travel technician, Charles mostly lives in his time-travel machine—he’s kind of in love with its operating system, TAMMY—which allows him to pass the better part of a decade in isolation while it seems like only a few days have passed on Minor Universe 31. Coupled with Yu’s physical stasis is something of an emotional one, as he has ever entirely recovered from the disappearance of his father, one of the original inventors of time travel. Fortunately, answers may be afoot, perhaps in a book called (duh) How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
The second you let go of trying to completely understand HTLSSFU is the second it gets good. Yu has a knack for subtle humor, which itself disguises some lovely and weighty insights in what’s otherwise a slim and overtly comic novel. In one moment, Charles is riffing in a botched sexual encounter with a “human-ish” female partner, and in the next he might be lamenting the greater pitfalls of the human experience of time (itself an evolutionary tactic developed to help us process reality):
“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 ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmitted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.”
The obvious comparison in reading HTLSSFU is to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which has both a similar style and the shared inclusion of a science-fiction guidebook for space-time travel (though Yu’s book includes decidedly less space). The comparison is accurate, but also does Science Fictional Universe a disservice. Where Douglas Adams was primarily funny and political, Yu is funny but also sad, vulnerable, and honest. Sure, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe may not always entirely make sense, but then again, neither exactly does the non science-fiction universe.
TITLE: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
AUTHOR: Charles Yu
PAGES: 239 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Sorry Please Thank You; Third Class Superhero
SORTA LIKE: David Foster Wallace writes Hitchhiker’s Guide
FIRST LINE: “When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.”