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