How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Reviewed by Richard Larson
07 March 2011
Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a clever, quirky, jargon-infused debut novel about a man in a time machine trying to find his father. It's also, as the title might suggest, a sort of postmodern survival guide. But perhaps most importantly, it's a science fiction novel about science fiction. Standard genre tropes such as time travel and its many paradoxes are explored here with a fresh perspective, and by using these concerns as buttressing to his otherwise fairly conventional central story, Yu turns his worldbuilding lens inward, focusing on the existential angst that lurks deep within our modern souls by revealing all the problems associated with thinking too much about everything. Which is to say, more simply, that maybe you can't find all the answers in instruction manuals.
The narrator of How to Live Safely—incidentally, a character also named Charles Yu—has isolated himself inside a time machine, where he works as "a certified network technician for T-class personal-use chronogrammatical vehicles" (p. 5). Or, more simply, he fixes time machines, a job which amounts to getting people who use time travel recreationally, as a temporary fix for life's much larger and messier problems, out of sticky situations. The narrator's problem: His father is gone—has been gone for some time—and Narrator Charles needs to find him. Also, he has just shot a future version of himself in the stomach. (Long story.)
Narrator Charles has chosen to no longer live chronologically, having decided that "existence doesn't have more meaning in one direction than it does in any other" (p. 22). The theory of time travel presented in the novel's fictional universe is—well, I could try to explain it, but already I'm entering dangerous territory by using words like "fictional" and "universe." The novel's literal universe is "31," on the small side as far as universes go—"Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it" (p. 23)—and the term fictional is problematic since so much of the novel is about fiction, and the way we view the world through a fictional lens. So it's difficult to find an entry point in talking about the book, even as the reading of it is absorbing and seamless.
The idea of genre is taken very seriously in How to Live Safely. The world of the novel is literally described in terms of the genre's relationship to the real world: "In terms of topology, the reality portions of 31 are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped around it" (p. 28). But the boundary between the two (reality and science fiction) has become muddled in Universe 31, allowing for "an invisible, microscopic, but highly dynamic exchange of materials at the thin permeable boundary layer between the two regions" (p. 28). Aside from being a wry commentary on the contemporary literary landscape, this also provides a framework for reading How to Live Safely. How much of our real lives is actually real? How much is science fictional? What can science fiction tell us about reality? Where—and when—do we belong?
I'm consciously avoiding letting this review become an essay about narrative aesthetics, in which the grad student side of me waxes poetic (and annoying) about the intricacies of Writer Charles's use of narrative time and diegetic space. Buried in all that theory, the crux of the novel is basically a midlife crisis narrative; we’re introduced to a guy who doesn't know what he’s doing with his life, and the story recounts a series of painful memories and poor choices while we keep our hopes up that he will end by making good. But we also have here, at the novel's best and most lucid moments, a sort of guidebook on how to live our lives better by being present, fully inhabiting the gravity of each individual moment before it inevitably fades and dims in our memory:
Unfortunately, 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 . . . 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, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, pre-processed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter. (p. 54)
Moving on is actually what Narrator Charles refuses to do throughout much of the novel. He becomes obsessed with individual moments from his past, most of them having to do with his father, and tries to examine them from every possible angle in an attempt to map out what went wrong in his life—and his father's life. Also, what went wrong between them, and how it can possibly be fixed. The more practical functions of the novel's time travel theory become more clear: "A house can be a time machine. A room. Our kitchen, this garage, this conversation, anything can be a time machine. Just sitting there, you are. So am I. Everyone has a time machine. Everyone is a time machine. It’s just that most people's machines are broken" (p. 164). This is time travel by sheer force of will, an unwillingness to go anywhere but back into the past.
How to Live Safely, for all its traveling through time, is at its heart a novel about stasis—the allure of, the dangers of, the tragedy of. And back to instruction manuals: the novel actually includes one. When Narrator Charles shoots an older version of himself in the stomach and boards the time machine that the older version of himself has just vacated, he enters a time loop and finds a book—I'm sure you can guess the title—supposedly written by himself (not Writer Charles, but Future Charles, and actually of course by both) which means that he must actually end up writing it again in the future. The book that Charles finds is apparently some kind of key to all his problems, and things become just as muddled and confusing as they should be while the novel's characters are stuck in a time loop. But what ultimately emerges from all the jargon and theory is—
Well, maybe Charles finds his father. Maybe he finds himself. Maybe he doesn't find anything at all. But getting there is half the fun, and through the course of Writer Charles's book, Narrator Charles undergoes the process of becoming a real protagonist—making decisions, doing things. "Instead of just passively allowing the events of my life to continue to happen to me, I could see what it might be like to be the main character in my own story" (p. 217), he writes. Or says. Or thinks. By now it doesn’t matter which Charles we're actually listening to. All of the story elements have come together and shown us how to become the main characters in our own stories, too, which was the point all along. Now we can live safely and assertively in this big, crazy, science fictional universe we find ourselves in.
The novel is a valuable contribution to the genre because of how it manages to be so boisterously celebratory of the way science fiction looks at the world while also remaining firmly rooted in real human problems and concerns—the stuff of mundane literary fiction writ large and stuffed with awesome more-than-just-metaphorical time machines, robots, and artificial intelligences. And the genre is very lucky to have How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, if only as an instruction manual for taking risks and boldly adventuring into daring and exciting new territory. I sincerely hope that more writers will follow Charles Yu—Writer, Narrator, all of them—out to Universe 31, and beyond.