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How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe

by Charles Yu

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
© Pantheon
Pantheon, September 2010

Charles Yu doesn't get out much. I'm speaking of Charles Yu the character, the protagonist of How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe, rather than Charles Yu, the author of same. He's a time machine tech, or more specifically, he's a "certified network technician for T-Class personal-use chonogrammatical vehicles, and an approved independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structure and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial, and residential use."

Yu actually lives in his time machine, the TM-31, or has for the past ten years, skimming the temporal surface of Science Fictional Universe 31, bouncing in and out of various points in time. Living achonologically as it were, in the "Present-Indefinite Tense." As you might imagine, this doesn't do much for his social life. His manager, Phil, is a hologram; he has a dog - of sorts - named Ed, a "weird ontological entity that produces unconditional slobbery affection;" and the the only remotely-intimate relationship he's managed to sustain is with TAMMY, the TM-31's operating system.
Don't, however, let the campy sci-fi title and the Asimovian trappings fool you. There's a lot more to How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe than sexy, sentient user interfaces and sling-shotting around the moon. At the heart of Yu's novel is a literary story about fathers and sons, memory and regret, and living fully in the present moment.

Part Douglas Adams and part Mark Leyner (Et Tu, Babe), Yu's writing is frequently quite funny - he describes his protagonist's paradoxical predicament as "a house built by the construction firm of Escher and Sons" - but what makes the book stick to your ribs is not the yucks but the poignant statements Yu makes about life lived chronologically:

"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 lan guage. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it..."

Chock full the sort of navel-gazing generally induced by time-travel paradoxes, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe feels light at first but quickly becomes substantial. Yu grabs us with his humor, light quantum mechanics, and time-travel acrobatics, but leaves us with a bit of melancholic introspection and the nagging feeling that perhaps we should call our parents.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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