Sunday, 6 March 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I just finished Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and I can hardly express how much I loved it. The story follows a time machine repair man, also named Charles Yu, who lives in a "science fictional universe" called Minor Universe 31. During the course of the novel, he becomes trapped in a time loop and must figure out how to escape it, all the while dealing with hangups on his childhood in a dysfunctional family. The book is prologued by the following paraphrased excerpt from the text, which hooked me immediately:
When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.
     Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.
As the same time, though, I'm not sure it's a book for everyone. Some of the things I loved the most could well be despised by other readers. The narrator's frequent philosophising on metaphysics, ontology, time, and the nature of human memory and relationships could come off as self-indulgent ramblings that don't further the plot. For me, however, they made the book. They also make the protagonist a very interesting and well-developed character. An example of one of the book's great lines: "Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward" (22).

The narrator's reflections on loneliness and isolation, his frequent comparisons of past and future to regret and anxiety, could come off as being unnecessarily negative and depressing, but perhaps they just appealed to my inner emo, because reading the narrator's struggles with these negative thoughts and emotions (regret over his childhood relationship with his father, and anxiety about ever seeing his father again, etc) gave the book a very human element, making it more about human relationships than time travel per se.

The book is also beautifully written, and even those sentences that 10-20 lines long flow wonderfully. There are frequent references to other science fiction stories and to nerd culture in general, and the novel often moves into the realm of meta-fictional self-reflection. I loved both of these aspects of the text, and in my mind its relatively short length, of a little over 200 pages, was ideal, since it didn't allow the book's unique style, blending sf with metaphysics and meta-fiction, to outstay its welcome.

Perhaps the book appeals to me because I've studies math, physics, sf literature, narratology and philosophy. Perhaps it's just because I'm a massive nerd. Either way, I would certainly side with the glowing five-star review the book received from Andrew Liptak on SF Signal, and agree wholeheartedly with his closing paragraph:
How To Live Safely is an exemplary example of storytelling in the genre, where story and characters come together to bring about a story of revelation, and one that is both thought provoking and touching. Yu, working through himself, paints a lonely, troubled existence, one with much baggage that he slowly works out over the course of the story. Here, time travel is the perfect medium for looking over past, rather than the future. [SF Signal]

I just really, really, really wish I could have this one-of-a-kind copy of the book, which mirrors the book as it is described in the book, and was given away by last year:

The Book from Nowhere.
Developed by Andy Hughes of Random House’s Knopf publishing group

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