Author: Charles Yu

2010, Pantheon

Filed under: Sci-Fi

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu’s second book and first novel, is a remarkable achievement. It’s a tangled, metafictional narrative about a time machine repairman named Charles Yu who discovers a book (written by himself in the future) called “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” which is a convenient find because he’s about to be killed.

Yu the author handles the various threads of his story—especially the rigorous pseudo-scientific explanation of time travel and how it intertwines with the novel’s metafictional elements—with superb confidence and skill, especially for a first-time novelist. On top of that, he writes excellent prose.

Science Fictional has just one weakness: there isn’t much of a story here. While it’s a well-crafted book, it’s a bad novel.

Charles Yu the character lives in Minor Universe 31—MU-31 for short—which resembles our own universe except for a few details, like the fact that time travel is possible. Yu works for Time Warner Time, which rents time machines to sad sacks who go back and relive their most painful life moments (because you can’t change the past, you can only watch it happen). Apart from work, Yu mostly lives in a very small, lonely time machine of his own, with his ghost dog, and the computer program he’s in love with.

In the first of several red herrings, Yu takes a freelance job repairing the time machine of Linus Skywalker, Luke’s son. Science Fictional is not a pastiche of famous science fiction, nor does it feature funny interactions with iconic characters. Yu just fixes Skywalker’s machine, and then Skywalker wanders off and never comes back. This is not the last time Yu implies more plot than he actually writes.

The bulk of Yu’s story concerns an interaction he has when he has to take his own time machine into the shop (why he can’t fix it himself, I don’t know). When Yu returns to pick up his machine, he sees a future version of himself exiting the time machine, and then for some reason shoots his future self in the stomach and gets caught in a time loop.

For most of the rest of the novel, Yu relives his experiences with his father, who invented time travel but wasn’t a very good father—worked too hard, didn’t laugh enough, etc. Yu impotently re-experiences his past, just like the yokels whose time machines he fixes. Get it?

Yu the author seems much more interested in explaining his version of time travel than he is in creating a story that’s as compelling as the world in which it’s set. For example, here’s the kind of thing Yu takes great delight in:

The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

It’s pretty clever: the language of science adapted to the concepts of metafiction. But the concept of a “science fictional” universe implies more than one fiction, and the ability to move between them, or watch them interact. The existence of Linus Skywalker backs up that interpretation.

It doesn’t jive for me, then, that all of this effort and detail goes into the telling of just one fiction—the ordinary story of an ordinary character who had an ordinarily distant relationship with his father. The outline of such a distant-father story is basically a Mad Lib, and not a long one. It goes like this:

My father was [positive adjective]. I really liked it when [nice memory]. I remember when we [activity verb]. But we never had enough time together, because he was always [occupational verb]. Now he’s [missing/dead/lost touch] and I miss him.

Yu breaks no new ground in this respect, and it renders all the many possibilities of time travel in a science fictional universe entirely irrelevant. And here’s something else frustrating: Yu’s father is lost in time somewhere, and Yu has his very own time machine, at the ready, to go find him. But Yu doesn’t even try, he only uses the time machine to go back and rewatch how his father used to be. Time travel gets reduced to a blunt metaphor for regret.

The lost-father plot doesn’t require or build on the time-travel premise, and without that crucial interaction, we might as well be reading a story about a train conductor from Secaucus, since that would have as much bearing on the story as a time machine repairman from Minor Universe 31.

Still, Yu the author has considerable talent, which makes the book enjoyable in fits and starts, as you stumble across the frequent gems peppering the narrative. Such as:

Chronological living is a kind of lie. That’s why I don’t do it anymore. Existence doesn’t have more meaning in one direction than it does in any other. Completing the days of your life in strict calendar order can feel forced. Arbitrary. Especially after you’ve seen what I’ve seen.

Or this one:

I had forgotten: this is what it feels like to live in time. The lurching forward, the sensation of falling off a cliff into darkness, and then landing abruptly, surprised, confused, and then starting the whole process again in the next moment

It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s pleasurable nonsense. I wish there was more of it, say, like, a whole novel’s worth. Yu often hints at possibilites for an epic, inventive plot (let’s find the lost father; or let’s help Linus Skywalker; or let’s figure out the weird metafictional same-titled book), but all of these eventually end in disappointment, at the feet of the crushingly boring Let’s Remember Our Relationship With Dad story.

In the end, this feels like two novels crammed together. If you’re intrigued by the premise, you’ll be bored by the plot; if you like a good distant-dad story, you’ll find the premise irrelevant and obnoxious. Yu’s a very talented writer. I hope he only writes one novel next time.

Similar books: The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, by Patrick Somerville. I was also reminded of Primer, an awesome “realistic” time travel movie that was made for $7,000. Also, this aluminum edition of Science Fictional is pretty cool.