California Literary Review

Book Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

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September 21st, 2010 at 9:54 am

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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu
Pantheon, 256 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Zen and the Art of Time Machine Maintenance

Reading Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is an exercise in handling conflicting emotions. Stated quite simply, I often did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is Yu’s first novel, following on Third Class Superhero, his well-regarded collection of short stories. How to Live Safely is a keenly perceptive satire of life on Minor-Universe 31, a soon-to-be realm into which the earth, or what’s left of it, has been re-configured. Yu’s novel is also a meditation on the essentials of human life at its innermost point.

To label How to Live Safely as a human comedy is a bit of a stretch since many of the major characters are not human at all. These include TAMMY, a computer system with a “kind of sexy” curvilinear pixel configuration and low self-esteem, Phil, a software system copied from Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 and Ed, a non-existent dog who is a “weird ontological entity that produces unconditional slobbery loyal affection.”

The short list of human protagonists is composed of a central character, Charles Yu, who should not be confused with the author despite many superficial points of resemblance. Rounding-off the small ensemble is Yu’s scientist father and worry-addicted mother. While Yu and his family stumble their way into a virtual future, the author Yu plays an artful riff drawing upon themes from classic genres including time travel, coming-of-age novels, family sit-coms and buddy flicks. Campy allusions to the original Star Wars trilogy, a cityscape worthy of the director’s cut of Blade Runner and a semi-coherent vocabulary of techno-jargon cement these disparate elements into a brilliant send-up of science fiction.

Humor is only one of the power sources for Yu’s novel. The prevailing tone of How to Live Safely is actually one of philosophical inquiry into the life spirit of human beings. This is a novel where the theme of man/machine interface actually takes a secondary place to the relationships of father and son, son and mother and of the individual person with his or her own soul.

Recalibrate the settings of the novel from sci-fi to coming of age and it morphs into an interior dialogue. Lost in his own interior space, Charles Yu the protagonist grapples with the shattering breakdown of family bonds. He broods on his father’s life-consuming bid for validation by creating a revolutionary means of traveling to the past or future. Yet, he and his wife were unable to communicate their feelings in the present. And then, at the moment of crisis when his father most needs his emotional support, Yu fails the test as well of being able to say “I believe in you. I support you. I love you.”

These long monologues provide some of the novel’s most thoughtful insights and moving reflections. The run-on length of Yu’s ruminations, however, makes for tedious reading as he revisits the same family issues. The father-son subplot comes close at times to draining the power source of time machine and novel alike. But Yu the novelist has an ingenious plot device to keep the action moving forward – and through – time.

Charles Yu the protagonist is “a certified network technician for T-Class personal use chronogrammatical vehicles.” These recreational time machines are not intended for traveling back in time to fix personal relationships. But people, still very human despite living in a “Science Fictional Universe,” try to do exactly that. It is Yu’s job to patch-up their time machines. Luckily, he has in his possession a “slim, silver-colored volume with a metallic-looking sheen, relatively modest in size but with a surprising heft.” The book is a field manual explaining how to live safely in this bizarre, futuristic world. And Charles Yu the protagonist is desperately in need of it himself.

One of the most notable features of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is its “book within a book” character. Excerpts from the field manual are quoted at length. The protagonist Charles Yu is constantly in the process of thinking/writing/rewriting its text. He is fated to give it to a carbon copy of himself, a doppelganger Charles Yu, attempting to enter his time machine. And then, having shot his gift-giving alter ego, this new Charles Yu begins to think/write the field manual anew. He in turn will give it to another panic-stricken Charles Yu as he tries to get into the time machine. And the loop goes on.

Confused? Don’t look – at least initially – for much enlightenment in the field manual. But insights, profound and moving, are indeed waiting to be discovered.

Perhaps it would be better to think of the instructional units of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe in terms of the chapters of social commentary which John Steinbeck placed into the plot structure of The Grapes of Wrath. As the Joad family migration progresses, Steinbeck interrupts the narrative flow of the novel with editorial-like chapters which unite the trials of the Joads to the nation-wide ordeal of the Great Depression. By this literary device, Steinbeck propels the action forward to new levels of awareness of the family’s plight and of their inner resources.

The depersonalized prose of Yu’s instruction manual functions in a disturbingly similar way. The manual depicts a world thoroughly out of sync with the human soul. Minor Universe 31, now owned by Time Warner Time, a division of Google, is a mere cog in a system of cosmic capitalist totalitarianism. Whole cities were carved-up to suit a master plan, with expendable neighborhoods, communities, suburbs and surrounding regions jettisoned. New York City, Los Angeles and Tokyo, hacked apart and recombined, form a new urban center called New Angeles/Lost Tokyo-2. Nobody is quite sure where Lost Tokyo-1 or the missing parts of Lost New York, Lost LA and other dispensed bits of real estate (and their populations) went. Like the Joad’s farm, a vast segment of humanity has been “tractored out.”

This new megalopolis, which is universally called Loop City is the destination of Charles Yu (the one in the book) when he takes his time machine in for a long over-due refit. His mother lives there, or rather inhabits a sixty minute cycle where she cooks and recooks the same meal with no one around to eat it. Then Yu is trapped in his own loop, destined to be shot every time he touches down in Loop City.

In fact, this dramatic episode was foreshadowed by his previous existence. Yu had floated around in his time machine, trying to hold life at a point of moderately comfortable equilibrium. While in this state, he endlessly reflects on his relationship with his genius father. The elder Yu was the real and unheralded creator of time travel. He had mysteriously disappeared after failing to get recognition for his discovery. Brilliant ideas, hard-work and ultimate failure had been his life’s loop. Now, Yu the son tries to break out of his time loop by instructing TAMMY, his computer operating system, to take him to the end of his story. When this fails, he accepts his fate and determines to live his life, not just try to avoid it, even if it means getting shot (by himself) again.

At this point, the message of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe makes its presence known. It is the duty of human beings to recognize our place in the universe. Pop open the hatch of your time machines and “step out into the world of time and risk and loss … Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little or as much as you want to put in there.”

Charles Yu the writer and Charles Yu the protagonist both reach the same startling conclusion. Time travel is not a matter of nuts and bolts or theorems from physics. Time travel is “not a technology built outside, with titanium and beryllium and argon and xenon and seaborgium, but rather it is a mental ability that can be cultivated.”

Time travel is thus an odyssey into consciousness, the opportunity of making a contribution to this world or to Minor Universe 31, of acknowledging and embracing our personal destiny. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is less a science fiction novel than a book on living life to its fullest wherever you are. It is a book and a journey that are definitely worth the trip.

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