Monday, January 16, 2012

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

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu is a novel about a time machine repairman (named Charles Yu) who ran into a future version of himself, and then this future version gave the younger Charles Yu a book that Yu will have written at some point in the future called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.  Oh, and the younger Yu shoots his future self in the stomach during this meeting out of panic, sticking him in a time loop and giving him a limited amount of time to live before he becomes the older version of himself and gets shot.

I’ll give you a second to think about that.

I didn’t really know much about this book going in, and I’m not really sure that I know all that more coming out.  The “Science Fictional Universe” in question is a small and incomplete universe currently owned and operated by Time Warner Time (a division of Google) where everyone apparently goes around in a state of existential despair most of the time.  The original creators of the universe ran out of money and the eventual build-out was done on the cheap.  Another possible solution for the problem of evil, I guess.

This book has a lot of SF elements, but on the whole I’d say that it generally aims for and usually succeeds being more of a straight literary fiction work.  The fictional Yu’s use of a time machine is more of a metaphor than a serious examination of time travel.  In fact, the book that I would most compare this to would be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only done for dramatic purposes rather than comedy.  In HGTTG, Douglas Adams used comedic sociopathy pretty frequently, and in this one, Yu uses it to create despair.  For instance there’s the fictional Yu’s encounter with a lonely and out-of-date sexbot, who wants some money so that she can buy herself for a while, or when the fictional Yu tells his software program boss that he doesn’t actually have a wife and kids and they’ll never be able to hang out after work.

I have a lot of respect for this work but somewhat ambiguous personal feelings about it.  It’s exceptionally well written and filled with a lot of dark comedy, so that’s good, but where I’ll give the real Yu high marks is in his command of tone.  He sets the stage right from the beginning about how he wants the book to read, and everything flows out of that.  That stuff with the sexbot could be played as drama or as comedy, and Yu allows you to see the humor in it while still playing it totally seriously.  I wouldn’t really expect such great command of the non-textual elements of a novel like this from a first-time author.

Now, at the same time, the title of the book – How to Live Safely – has a double meaning in that “Living Safely” can mean either overcoming risk or simply avoiding it.  The time travel elements are used to drive home, repeatedly and not especially in a subtle fashion, how people dwell on their past and avoid taking risks.  You’re sitting there wasting your life, the book tells you, and you don’t really have a lot of choice about it.  From the fictional Yu’s mother, who has retired into reliving a single hour of dinnertime (because she couldn't afford the higher-priced packages allowing her to repeatedly relive an entire day or longer), to the fictional Yu who spends as much time as possible in his time machine avoiding having to help people go to the worst days of their lives over and over again, every single person in this novel is running away from something while going forward one second per second.

So when I say that I have mixed feelings about it it’s because the novel is highly effective at creating emotions, but that mostly this book made me feel really crappy about myself.  If that’s what the real Yu was striving for, then success!  If not, then channel your obvious powers for good next time, man.

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