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Charles Yu – How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

February 23, 2011

23. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (2010)

Length: 242 pages

Genre: Science Fiction, but really more of a metafictional coming of age story.

Started: 11 February 2011
Finished: 13 February 2011

Where did it come from? Christmas gift from a friend.
Why do I have it? See above.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 21 December 2010.

How can you travel
forward in time if you are
stuck in your own past?

Summary: Our narrator is a time-machine repairman, living alone inside his own personal time machine, with nothing but the ship’s computer and his non-existent dog Ed for company. His father, one of the time machine’s inventors, has been missing for years, and his mother has locked herself in a one-hour time loop of an idealized family dinner. Charles himself is drifting, aimless, spending most of his time out of time and alone, as uncomfortable with the normal universe and linear time as he is with himself. Only once he gets caught in a time loop of his own does he realize that in order to break free, he’ll have to confront his demons, starting with his own timeline.

Review: This is one of those books that it seems like everyone either really loves or really hates, and I still – even a week after finishing it – can’t quite decide which camp I belong to. It is, without question, beautifully written, and imaginative as hell. It’s full of drifting thoughts and parenthetical musings, a number of which are profound, and most of which couldn’t have been found so elegantly in a simpler story.

Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward. –p. 22

This book dwells not only on the metaphysical, but also on the metafictional. Whether that’s a positive or a negative depends entirely on how much you go in for that sort of thing. Personally, while I initially found it clever and charming, the “meta”-ness is unrelenting, and its self-aware quirkiness eventually got a little grating.

It’s a slim, silver-colored volume with a metallic-looking sheen, relatively modest in size but with a surprising heft, as if it acquired some amount of relativistic mass in its journeys around time. It has the kind of unexpected density that academic press books (even the paperbacks) often have, due in part to a thicker paper stock and in part to the weight of a more substantial ink, the sneaky heftiness of the book being the aggregate cumulative effect of hundreds of thousands of individually insubstantial little markings, letters and numbers, commas and periods and colons and dashes, each symbol pressed upon the page by the printing machine with a slightly greater-than-expected force and darkness and permanence. –p. 102, immediately after the narrator gets handed a book called “How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”. One guess as to what color, size, and paper weight my hardback copy is.

My biggest problem with this book, though, was how incredibly long it took to find a plot. My plot summary makes this sound a bit like a zany Jasper-Fforde-style madcap adventure, but that’s a mistaken impression. The surface details may be similar, but the narrator’s way more neurotic (and rather whiney), and for at least the first 100 pages, he doesn’t actually do anything except philosophize about the fact that he’s not doing anything. Even once the plot get started, it’s not even so much a proper plot, but simply a thread connecting one set of musings to the next.

Everyone has a time machine. Everyone is a time machine. It’s just that most people’s machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines. We are all perfectly engineered time machines, technologically equipped to allow the inside user, the traveler riding inside each of us, to experience time travel, and loss, and understanding. We are universal time machines manufactured to the most exacting specifications possible. Every single one of us. –p. 164-165

How to Live Safely… actually felt the most similar to Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love in its use of speculative fiction quirks and non-linear storytelling to explore a coming-of-age story in a philosophical and psychological space. And my reaction to it is unsurprisingly much the same: parts of it I found fascinating, parts of it I found insightful, parts of it I found over-the-top, and while I found it intellectually engaging, for most of it there wasn’t enough story for me to really get involved with it on an emotional level. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Despite the title, I actually think this book will appeal more to literary fiction fans who are willing to read over all of the sci-fi surface stuff to get at the metaphysical musings underneath. Not recommended if you like: linear plot structure and non-run-on sentences.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Book A Week, The Book Lady’s Blog, Follow the Thread, The Mad Hatter’s Book Review, Neth Space, One More Chapter, Page 247, Stainless Steel Droppings, Under My Apple Tree
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 33: “Chronodiegetics is the branch of science fictional science focusing on the physical and metaphysical properties of time given a finite and bounded diegesis.” – A narrative or history; a recital or relation.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2011 8:08 am

    I did have this on hold at the library, but then I decided that I had too many holds and canceled a few. This was one of them. I can’t decide if it is for me, so I decided to hold off. The title sounds like me, but the description and a few of the reviews I have read scare me off. I will probably read it eventually, but I have no burning desire, either.

    • February 24, 2011 12:34 pm

      Kailana – The title’s… problematic, for sure. It definitely seems like the type that might scare away some folks who might love it, and attract other folks under slightly misleading pretenses. I don’t know what else you could reasonably call it, though…

  2. February 23, 2011 8:10 am

    I’ve got this book on hold at the library right now! I’ve heard this book (title is too damn long to type out!!) is very weird and meta. I can do weird, and I’ve been on a meta kick lately, so here’s hoping I can hack it.

    I think I need to go into this thing with zero preconceived notions of what it should be or what I want to get out of it.

    • February 24, 2011 12:35 pm

      Redhead – If you’re on a meta kick this should be right up your alley! I hope you enjoy it!

  3. February 23, 2011 12:35 pm

    I read this in December and enjoyed it. My review is here.

    • February 24, 2011 12:36 pm

      Gavin – Sorry I missed your link; I’ve added it now.

  4. February 23, 2011 3:25 pm

    I don’t usually read sci-fi, but that sounds just quirky enough to be fun.

    • February 24, 2011 12:36 pm

      bermudaonion – This book is sci-fi, but really only in its surface trappings. There’s a story I think you’d probably really like hidden underneath.

  5. February 23, 2011 10:58 pm

    I’ve been considering this one ever since I sort of stumbled across it in a bookstore a few months ago. I’m still undecided on whether to add it to the incredible growing TBR pile or not. On the one hand I think I’d like it, on the other hand it could frustrate me and mess with my head as much as the Viktor Davis section of the Reads book of Cerebus did. Thanks for the review and your thoughts on it.

    • February 24, 2011 12:37 pm

      Elfy – I still haven’t decided whether or not I liked it, so I can’t really predict whether you will! :) But if you decide to give it a chance, I hope you do like it!

  6. February 24, 2011 8:29 pm

    Ha, the Jonathan Carroll comparison definitely makes me think I would hate this. I read several Jonathan Carroll books and they all depressed the hell out of me — they sounded like something I’d love but they were, ugh, not.

    • February 25, 2011 9:34 am

      Jenny – Yes, in that case, I think you’re pretty safe giving this one a miss… apart from the Jonathan Carroll similarities, I also didn’t find this book particularly non-depressing.

  7. February 26, 2011 1:33 am

    I still haven’t read The Ghost in Love (it’s sitting on the shelf, with trillions of others…) so I couldn’t compare. But I wonder if I would like it! I think I’ll try this one at the library first.

    • March 1, 2011 10:42 am

      Kay – Probably a good idea! There are a lot of people in the “love it” camp… I hope you’re one of them!

  8. February 26, 2011 10:25 am

    Thanks for linking to my review.

    I loved this one!!

  9. February 27, 2011 1:27 am

    I have to agree with everything you said. And while I found a few things to like, I never did manage to find a plot and couldn’t get past the whininess and endless ramblings. I love science fiction but I think in the case of this book I was not the target audience. My review here if you want to read more and I shall stop rambling now.

    • March 1, 2011 1:03 pm

      Leslie – I’ve added your review; thanks for pointing it out! I thought that the “science fiction” aspect was more window dressing than anything else – although I guess time-travel was necessary to set up the basis for some of the musings.


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