Wednesday, September 15, 2010

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

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is about many things, one of which is that classic science fiction time-travel trope of paradox and time loops. Therefore I find it rather ironic that I entered my own self-fulfilling time loop prior to reading this book. I rarely read any reviews about books I plan to read, and I often avoid even reading the synopsis on the back cover. But prior to picking up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I read this short commentary by Jeff VanderMeer. Thus I entered my own time loop, one in which I knew that I was going to like this book, that I would see it as a touching story about a dysfunctional relationship between a father and son, that it would be humorous and clever. I knew my own future?

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu is a book about a young man named Charles Yu who writes a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Is it fiction? Is it autobiography? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it an instruction manual? Yes, no, I don’t know. It is a young man’s search for an absent father. It is his coming to know his depressed mother. It is his coming to know himself. It is a very literary novel. It is also an incredibly clever and amusing piece of science fiction. Charles is accompanied by a loyal retconned dog that doesn’t actually exist but shows love for Charles regardless – does the love exist, the smell of dog seems to. It’s an adventure through time and space in a slightly incomplete universe where Charles encounters the son of Luke Skywalker and several other people attempting to change the past.

How does one really characterize a book that swirls in and out of paradox, digs deep into the science fiction of time travel, that gets a little depressive, a little existential, that delves deep into the relationships of father-son, mother-son, self-self, and defines the metaphysics of time travel in the terms of literary narrative? In my case, I attempt to relay the first half (or so) of the book through out of context excerpts.
When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.

I’ve never met Linus Skywalker before, but I’ve heard stories from other techs, so I feel like I have a good idea what to expect.

But the reason I have job security is that people have no idea how to make themselves happy. Even with a time machine. I have job security because what a customer wants, when you get right down to it, is to relive his very worst moment, over and over and over
again. Willing to pay a lot of money to do it, too.

Reality represents 13 percent of the total surface area and 17 percent of the total volume of Minor Universe 31.

Chronodiegetics is the branch of science fictional science focusing on the physical and metaphysical properties of time given a finite and bounded diegesis. It is currently the best theory of the nature and function of time within a narrative space.

Once upon a time, I am ten years old and my dad is driving me home from the park.

Read this book. Then write it. Your life depends on it.

No, this woman standing in front of me is something else, she is the one and only Woman My Mother Should Have Been, and I have found her. Looking for my father, I have found this woman, I have traveled, chronogrammatically, out of the ordinary tense axes and into this place, the subjunctive mode.

“So why am I being retconned?”
The style Yu uses in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe varies widely and may be a barrier to some readers. The book is largely told from first person, sometimes told with excerpts from the book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universal, and is sometimes both at once. The writing ranges from short, clipped phrases to long, run-on sentences spaced out with numerous commas. It can very dense, very technical speak about the mechanics of time machines and metaphysics of time travel. It can also be touching, if sad, reminiscing about a father and son working long hours in a garage. It has one foot in the literary world and one in a science fiction world, meeting in a space that can be equal parts brilliant and unappealing to both.

For the most part I flew through this book. Eagerly reading, digesting and laughing. Unfortunately, once the time loop is entered, the book slows down. The first portion of this time loop is one of the better parts of the book, but it’s the tail end that drags. I can see what Yu is doing – he is defining the past relationship between father and son, he bringing the son to a self-realization, he is setting up the end play. But it’s too often rather boring, and simply depressing as hell. It works because it achieves its goals, but it doesn’t work because it far too unappealing. Perhaps this is the SFF fan in me reacting to one of the more literary sections of the story. Perhaps I’m just uncomfortable seeing such a gloomy portrayal of a father and son’s relationship. Perhaps it was just too sad and boring.

So, was my own time loop self-realized? Did I like How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe because I knew I would? Did I like it because of its own merit? Did I break the loop by only liking it with a few reservations? Will this paradox send me into a parallel universe very similar yet strikingly different from this one? A blogger could get confused trying to be this clever (especially one with a relative lack of pedigree in the realm of hard science fiction). But I do know that How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a fun, entertaining, depressing, and uplifting story of father and son, a mother and son, and a son and himself wrapped in a bunch of interesting science fictional ideas, full of clever homage and sarcastic, yet touching humor. The book is a paradox, literary and genre, and at least for me, a self-fulfilling time-loop – sort of like review blogging in the SFF world, though that is a different discussion that I’ll try not to have another day. 8/10


Mieneke van der Salm said...

Great review! You had me re-read several paragraphs a couple of times to make sure I got it :) This sounds like an awesome book. Not sure whether I'm smart enough to get it though, tech-wise etc. I don't do so well with hard tech. Would I be able to enjoy the relational explorations without grasping all the techie details you think?

Neth said...

The technical details aren't that bad or critical to the underlying themes of the book. don't get scared in the beginning when it sounds a bit technical.

Actually, I think that many of the hard-core sf fans will be unhappy with the technical aspects of the book.

BryStearns said...

I've heard many great things about this book, and I really want to read it! It's too bad it wasn't as great as you expected. That being said, I sill really want to read it!

Simcha said...

The synopsis of the book made me think it might be similar in style to Japser Ffrode's Thursday Next books, which very much appeals to me ( I love that series). I think I'll probably try to read this book at some point.


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