Book Review: ‘How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe’
Confusing and Rather Depressing
I picked up Charles Yu’s novel “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” as I browsed through the library the other day due, in large part, to the title. I mean, the “Science Fictional Universe” part sounds right up my alley. I was expecting something like Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series: something complicated, meta-fictional and fun. Unfortunately, I got the first and second part but not the third.
Yu’s novel is complicated, that’s for sure. The main character is named Charles Yu, as in, the man who actually wrote the physical book that you hold in your hands when you read it, which is the metafiction part. He is both author and protagonist. Not only that, but the book involves time travel, so things get even more complicated when Yu-the-protagonist meets Future-Yu-the-protagonist, shoots him (kinda like Looper except not as fun), and receives a book called…wait for it…“How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.” That’s right. Yu is already a protagonist in a novel, but then he finds out that said novel exists within the novel and that he is stuck in a time loop.
I got to a point after a while when I just had to set this book down and ask myself, “What the heck is happening here?” And I think I came up with an answer. Yu’s being stuck in a time loop is due not just to the events of the plot, but also the actual structure of a novel (any novel). Every time you open a book and read it, the characters go through the same events and actions, like a time loop. The fact that Yu is aware of himself as a character in a novel means that he knows he’s going through a time loop; it’s just that in the larger narrative time loop (because you’re reading a book), there’s also an in-universe time loop. Which is weird, but not so weird I couldn’t understand it.
But that’s not the only metaphor in “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” (and I don’t mean the book inside the book…or do I?) There’s also the idea of being able to travel backward in time but being unable to change the events of the past. In the story, Yu is a time machine repairman. He helps people who have tried to do things with their time machines that they shouldn’t (i.e. go into alternate timelines, exist outside of time, etc.) He’s good with the machines because his father invented them. During his time loop, Yu discovers that the key to exiting the loop is by meeting with his father. Now, if he can go back in time but can’t interact with or change those events, how’s he supposed to do that?
Thus, the metaphor. Yu-the-author (the real one), is showing his reader how all of us are time travelers. Yu-the-character’s father invented a time machine, but his real innovation was the understanding that time travel is largely mental. You have to be in the right frame of mind. So, remembering an event is (as both Science and the novel tells us) essentially the same as reliving it from our brains’ perspective. But because it’s just a memory, we can’t change any of it, just as anyone in the story who uses a time machine can’t change the past.
So I got all that. The thing is, Yu-the-protagonist (or maybe it’s the author) points out that people often dwell on/futilely try to change the bad days in their lives, so he goes to the bad days in his own life. And not a lot gets resolved by the end of the book. True, Yu-the-character realizes that even though you can’t change your future, you can actively choose to accept whatever it is that happens to you rather than passively allow it to happen or struggle against its happening in vain.
Even so, I didn’t really like this book. It was fairly confusing and rather depressing, despite some interesting and mildly humorous moments. If you’d like to read it for yourself, you can get it on Amazon in Kindle, hardcover, and paperback formats.