How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (henceforth HTLSIASFU – Points for best organization that acronym represents) is a novel written by Charles Yu. The central character in Yu’s novel is Charles Yu. Yu’s debut novel is the story of a Charles Yu who lives in a universe, Minor Universe 31, where time travel exists and fictional Yu is a time machine repairman.
HTLSIASFU is a short book, compared to some of the others that have appeared on this list. While it clocks in at 231 pages, Yu, the author, does a lot in that space. I could go on about the science fiction angle or how all the sci-fi stuff converges with the mechanics of fiction layered into the novel, but to be honest, I have little in the way of experience with science fiction and I fear any effort by me to expound upon the narrative structure might drive away what readers there are frequenting this blog out-post.
If, after reading HTLSIASFU, you were to sit down and try to plot out the story from its beginning to end, you would, much like Yu, the central character, focus on a graph with an x-axis and y-axis to keep up. On top of that, within HTLSIASFU, Yu is given a book titled How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Guess who gives him this book. Have you? Himself. Yu gives the book to Yu. And it is written by him too!
I am leery of saying the heart of the book lies in Yu’s exploration of father-son relationships and our species’ persistent devotion to the past at the loss of the present, because that implies the narrative and sci-fi stuff is unnecessary flourish. Its not. However, the part that resonated with me the most is the main character’s desire to find his father, who left his wife and son after he discovered time travel.
Like father, like son. Yu’s father, with help from his son, invented the first time machine. Yu is a time machine mechanic who helps folks, primarily those who get stuck trying to change the past even though they can’t. Yu doesn’t live outside his machine, even though he has an apartment in a Lost Loop City. Within the space of his own machine, he is kept company by a dog that is “nonexistent by ontologically valid” and an operating system with esteem issues. Yu is caught in a loop. And then he finds himself in a loop of a whole different sort.
In deftly created flashbacks, Yu revisits his memories of his father and re-experiences the emotions those episodes brought him. It is this sequence that got me most. My father never left, but that doesn’t mean he was always there. As a young child, he was the guy at little league games with the Wall Street Journal. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, our wider than average age difference made certain father-son activities non-existent. The relationships with ones parents are always complicated in some manner.
Now, as an adult, I have a father who is physically here, but in some ways is part Yu, the character, and in others, a lot like Yu’s mother. Yu is so stuck in a past that he loses sight of the possibilities available to him in the present. There are moments where the mental relitigation of the past by my father rushes to the surface and it becomes evident for us around him to see and hear these battles from the past. Unlike Yu though, when my father does it, he doesn’t create a time warp. Much like Yu’s mother, who signed up to repeat a one-hour cycle of time, my father seems to repeats all the same steps, struggles, fights, and issues. Any deviation is cause for consternation. It seems I have gotten off track in terms of HSLSIASFU.
I enjoyed the book immensely. If you grew up reading sci-fi or can truly appreciate the narrative structure engineered by Yu, pick this book up immediately. In the present.