How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe automatically wins the longest title award, which is par for the course given what an enchantingly odd book it is. This is Charles Yu's debut novel, but he has already made a name for himself for his short work especially his collection Third Class Superhero, which won him the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award. I read that collection a few years back and found the titular story ride the line between fun and sad well, showing the human side of having a superpower. Overall it was a strong collection. With How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe Yu successfully subverts the time travel genre into a literary tale about a man's relationship with his father.
"When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself."How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe starts out by giving away the crux of the book. Namely the starring character breaking one of the commandments of time travel. Never interfere with yourself. But who wants to follow rules? Certainly not the starring character Charles Yu. And yes this is one of the meta-fictional tales where the author has named the main character after himself. This is either a bold or lazy way of naming characters depending on the story. In this case this decision is made of win as Yu takes us on a journey through time, alternative universes, and into the depths of a lost man's mind.
"The good news is, you don't have to worry, you can't change the past.This is far from your typical Sci-Fi book. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is probably best seen as the story about a man's search for his father and his own disentanglement from his father's dreams. But it can be enjoyed on many other different levels. As an alternative universe tale, a metaphoric take on how we interact with the world and people at large, a mind bender, and in some ways the story of a family immigration to a new place where they don't feel quite right in. A simpler title for this book might be Zen and the Art of Time Travel.
The bad news is, you don't have to worry, no matter how hard you try you can't change the past.
The universe just doesn't put up with that. We aren't important enough. No one is."
After Yu shoots himself he enters a time loop and isn't sure he hasn't already done this a hundred times before. Now he must rewrite a book in order to save himself. Along the way we get an introspective look at how Yu grew up and why he has separated himself from reality. The main character has shut himself off from most stimulus generally choosing to stay in his box of a time machine with his not really-real dog and a codependent computer program as a technician for time machines. The structure, although is mostly in first person, is interspersed with everything from diagrams, equations, and excerpts from a manual on, you guessed it, living safely in a science fictional universe. The structure might turn some readers off, but it actually intrigued me more than the characters at first. Some readers may be disappointed more isn't made of the time travel capabilities, but the time paradox more than makes up for this.
There is a comedic bent to the work as well. Read this if you ever wondered what a serious and introspective side of Douglas Adams would be like. In fact, Charles Yu just might be a universe hopper himself and be an alternative version of Adams come to spread his style here. Hey it could happen. According to Yu it probably already has.
What Grossman's The Magicians did for Fantasy last year Yu does for Science Fiction this year leveling up the realism and making the reader feel like this could be part of their Universe. I give How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe 8.5 out of 10 Hats. This is a memorable and thought provoking debut that will stay with you. Yu is a bright talent that uses his skills to the utmost to turn out tender stories in a milieu that rarely reaches that level.
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