How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu’s 2010 debut novel, is the literary equivalent of a platypus – part science fiction, part “literary fiction,” part humor, and ambiguous enough to leave even the author unsure where to shelve it. But at least Mr. Yu is not a SF Denialist, even if his agent is (“We do not handle science fiction”). Fortunately, I am not tasked with determining the level of Science Fictionness of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Scide Splitters is far more concerned with whether or not the book makes us laugh – and it does.
Charles Yu is also the name of the main character, though the story is not, for the most part, auto-biographical (for clarity, I will refer to the character as Charles and the novelist as Mr. Yu). Charles is a time machine repairman in Minor Universe 31. This universe was damaged during construction and subsequently abandoned by its developers with physics only 93 percent installed, leaving the inhabitants with a lingering sense of incompleteness. His service calls generally consist of fixing rented time machines broken when the occupant attempts to change some unfortunate moment in the past – something that can’t be done, but they try anyway. As Charles observes, “A typical customer gets into a machine that can literally take her whenever she’d like to go. Do you want to know what the first stop usually is? Take a guess. Don’t guess. You already know: the unhappiest day of her life.”
His clients aren’t the only ones with problems. Charles is searching for his father, an unrecognized pioneer in time travel technology who one day stepped into a time machine and never returned. Occasionally Charles peeks in on his mother, now living in an hour-long time loop of her choosing (Sunday night family dinner), the “sci-fi version of assisted living.” He wanted to get her the model with an extra half hour and a better illusion of free will, but couldn’t afford it. Most of the time, Charles is simply avoiding life. Having renounced living chronologically, he stays holed up in his cramped time machine with the Tense Operator stuck in Present-Indefinite. His only companions are a non-existent, yet ontologically valid, dog and TAMMY, an operating system with self-esteem issues.
Charles has one other big problem – the very first thing we learn about him is that he has, in a moment of panic, shot his future self. “I killed my own future.”
While the above description sounds quite solidly SF, the entire story is essentially metaphorical. Mr. Yu’s Science Fictional Universe is very much the one we live in now. He doesn’t even feign to place the story in the future (the main character is thirty years old and was in fifth grade in 1986). At best, one could say this all takes place in an alternate universe. What Mr. Yu is really doing is using the tools of SF to explore a wide range of issues including regret, fear of failure, and familial relationships, most notably the one between father and son. None of this is to imply in any way that Mr. Yu has snobbish distain for science fiction and the talking squid crowd. On the contrary, he makes it fairly obvious that he is a SF fan by dropping little bits into the story like naming a part on the time machine the Niven Ring, or having one of his characters exclaim, “Holy Heinlein.”
Considering the gravity of themes like regret, failure and family, it would have been easy for the story to slip into the pattern of melancholy which I find all too common in serious literary fiction. However, Mr. Yu manages to avoid this through humor and story structure. The humor is satisfyingly intellectual and often involves some level of either scientific or grammatical knowledge which I think most SF fans will find delightful. For instance, I got a kick out of concepts like reality being a special case of science fiction. All-in-all, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a creative, bold and funny first novel earning a full Scide Splitters endorsement.