Charles Yu’s HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE is a book that’s partly science fiction and partly a philosophical discussion on the nature of time. Yu’s protagonist is also named, coincidentally enough, Charles Yu — and protagonist Yu has a time machine named Tammy, an ontological dog (that may or may not be real), and a job where he mostly takes people back to see themselves while they’re making mistakes — as time can’t be stopped, mistakes cannot be un-made. Protagonist Yu is in big trouble because his father is missing in chrono-space, his mother is in a time-loop where she makes Sunday dinner over and over again, and his own life is a compete and utter mess as during his travels, he’s actually run into his future self and shot him — meaning he’s now trying to either avoid a paradox or cause one. As protagonist Yu’s story is told in first-person present tense, this just adds to the frustration — and the humor — that Yu can’t help but feel.
Where is this all taking place? Mirror Universe 31, which is only 93% complete; it contains sexbots (yes, the prostitutes of this universe are machines), a conglomerate called “Time Warner Time,” and what seems like a whole lot of frustrated people who are implied rather than shown. Protagonist Yu’s boss, for example, is a machine program who complains about his wife — that made me wonder what the programmers’ lives must be like in that universe — and his AI, Tammy, has a major unrequited crush on Yu.
So, the plot is somewhat convoluted — will Yu shoot himself? Well, of course he’s going to do that, but the reasons he does may surprise and/or perplex — because ultimately, action and reaction in Yu’s SF universe are the two faces of one coin, which has already been flipped. And the philosophical nature of these questions — “What is Time, really? What is space, really? What are relationships if one person isn’t fully able to be ‘in the moment’ with you?” — is both profound and moving.
But saying all that leaves out the best part of HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE: its humor. Writer Yu embodies his protagonist with a ready wit and an insightful mind; his protagonist might seem to be your typical thirty-something slacker, but in reality his mind is engaged and his life has a purpose (even if it’s not the one he’d hoped for).
My favorite passage is this one, located on page 213. Protagonist Yu has been in a time-loop, and has asked his AI, Tammy, how long they were there. After she won’t answer him, Yu bursts out with:
“What is your problem?” I say. “It’s a simple question. How long has it been since we left?”
“The answer to the question of how long it has been since we left,” she says, “is that we haven’t left yet.”
“Oh my God,” I say. “You’re right.”
“You shot yourself, and then you jumped into the machine at eleven forty-seven a.m. that day. From there, you tried to skip ahead, but when you did that, you encountered nothingness. There was no future . . . “
I liked this little snippet because it encapsulates the nature of Yu’s story (writer and protagonist alike) — it is a story about how we do things, not what. Or, rather, it’s a story about how we feel about doing things that may well be pre-destined and thus unavoidable. (Well, that along with the natures of time, space, and whether or not time machine AI programs can fall in love. Much less whether or not an ontological dog is as good as a “real” one that can be observed by all our senses outside a time machine.)
Readers who enjoy humor and philosophy along with their science fiction will enjoy Yu’s novel immensely, especially if they don’t take it too seriously.
Grade — A.
— reviewed by Barb