BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Charles Yu (the character, not the author), is a resident of Universe 31, a time travel technition, who escapes into his time machine to avoid the present, and interacts with his time machine’s operating system (TAMMY), whom he’s in love with, and Ed, a paradoxical dog.
PROS: A fantastic time travel story, one that blends fiction and reality, a sharp style of storytelling that blew my mind.
CONS: The Advanced copies had far better covers than the finalized version.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the best novels of 2010.
Never before have I read a book quite like this. Charles Yu’s debut novel, How To Living Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, (following a collection of short stories, Third Class Superhero) is a wonderfully stunning, brilliant work of science fiction that goes to the heart of self-realization, happiness and connections.
The story follows a Charles Yu, a time travel technician who lives an isolated existence, saving people from themselves. His mother is caught in a time loop, and his father vanished years ago in a time machine of his own. Yu’s existence is populated by himself, a paradoxical dog, his time machine’s software, TAMMY, (whom he’s somewhat in love with) and a distant, computerized boss, Phil, who doesn’t realize that he’s a computer program.
Yu has accomplished something remarkable in this book, blending science fiction universes with his own, alternative self’s life, in a way, breaking past the bonds of the page and bringing the reader right into the action: the book that the reader is holding is actually part of the story, written by the author (or his alternate) as the action happens. This very surreal nature to his stories is something that is not new to anybody who has read Third Class Superhero, where stories utilized the text itself to help tell the story, and this ability is something that makes How To Live stand far out from the crowd when it comes to the science fiction literature genre.
Still, time travel is only a part of this story, a major element of the background, where Yu finds himself. The real story is one that is far simpler: a boy trying to find his father, someone who has been deeply affected by his childhood, and seeks to overcome those hurtles. At times, the book and character seems to wallow in a bit too much self pity, and anyone picking up the book thinking that it will be the next Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy will find a different book altogether.
Despite that, there is a strong story here about self realization, where Yu overcomes his depression. The time travel element serves in another element here in allowing Yu to discover what’s wrong with himself, and his family, and by the end of the story comes together in a very smart fashion. The entirety of the story is part of Yu’s journey to find his missing father, but along the way, discover himself as well.
Wrapped up in this book is Yu’s excellent prose that pulls the words of the story into the story itself, as a sort of genre-introspective in and of itself. The past tense is literal in some instances of the story, and this book is a good example of the story coming to life, which makes everything that much more interesting. I cannot say that I’ve ever seen anything like this before, and it makes the read that much more interesting. In all likelihood, this is one of the most important books of the genre to be published this year, if not amongst the years that preceded it.
Simply, this is one of the absolute best time travel stories that I’ve ever read, even compared to works such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells or the Doctor Who television series. Yu blends in a number of science fiction references, and even clauses in the English language that quite literally brings the physical framework of a story into the reality of the story. Ultimately, time travel stories come down to stories about free will and destiny, and often there is a level of disappointment with how the story plays out: the character embodying free will learns that he cannot escape destiny, or destiny turns out to be free will: Yu manages to navigate between the two, a bit, and creates a satisfying ending for himself (or his alternative self).
How To Live Safely is an exemplary example of storytelling in the genre, where story and characters come together to bring about a story of revelation, and one that is both thought provoking and touching. Yu, working through himself, paints a lonely, troubled existence, one with much baggage that he slowly works out over the course of the story. Here, time travel is the perfect medium for looking over past, rather than the future.