Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A NovelHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel by Charles Yu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By all rights, I should not have enjoyed this book. Sure, it’s a book about time travel, and I do love those. But it’s the oddest book about time travel that I think I’ve ever read.

The protagonist is a man in his early 30s who has spent the last 10 years living in a box the size of a phone booth. With his non-existent dog, Ed. He sleeps, eats, and, one presumes, does everything else a person needs to do inside the walls of his time machine.

(Spoilers follow…)

He has escaped the world, tucking himself into a pocket of time between tenses in what he calls the present indefinite. Occasional calls from his AI boss to repair time machines—his job—are all that compels him out of his self-imposed exile. Yu sprinkles the text with what are either stunningly brilliant insights or really good "soundbites." I’m not honestly sure which. For instance:

If you ever see yourself coming out of a time machine, run. Run away as fast as you can. Don’t stop. Don’t try to talk. Nothing good can come of it. It’s rule number one, and it is drilled into you on the first day of training. It should be second nature, they tell you: Don’t be a smartass. Don’t try anything fancy. If you see yourself coming at you, don’t think, don’t talk, do do anything. Just run.

Dog sighs are some form of distilled truth. What does he know? What do dogs know? Ed sighs like he knows the truth about me and he loves me anyway.

I read those and marked them in my Kindle app because they seemed to resonate with me. Sure, the first one might never be something I have to use, but the second one certainly is true. Anyone who has ever been owned by a dog will understand what the author/protagonist is saying instantly.

The character tells you constantly that he is stuck in a state of constant lack of motion, of half-assed beingness without purpose. In essence, he tells you exactly what he knows to be true, yet seems unwilling to accept.

It used to be that you could cheat the machine by leaving it between gears, living in a kind of half-assed way, present and at the same time not quite in the present, hovering, floating, used to be you could avoid ever pinning yourself down to any particular moment, could go through life never actually being where you are. Or I suppose, more accurately, being when you are. That’s what P-I [Present-Indefinite] allows, a convenience mode.

But I abused it. It’s not supposed to be used as the primary driver of chronogrammatical transport. It isn’t designed for that kind of use: the Present-Indefinite isn’t even a real gear. It’s like cruise control. It’s a gadget, a gimmick, a temporary crutch, a holding place. It is hated by purists and engineers, equally. It’s bad for aesthetics, bad for design, bad for fuel efficiency. It’s bad for the machine. To run in P-I is to burn needless fuel in order to avoid straightforward travel. It’s what allows me to live chronologically, to suppress memory, to ignore the future, to see everything as present. I’ve been a bad pilot, a bad passenger, a bad employee. A bad son.

He rather boldly states the entire summary of the book right there. He’s put himself in between moments in order to escape from his own life.

But not only that, his mother has done the same thing, if a little more boldly. She has chosen to lock herself away inside a one-hour loop of time so that she lives one of her happiest moments over and over and over. And the reader will be excused if s/he finds her/him-self thinking that if that was her happiest hour, what a bleak life she must have led. And on top of that, his father has come purposefully unstuck in time (also to escape his life), and no one knows where he is. Traditional protagonists, these are not.

He keeps saying that he’s on a mission to find his father, but it must be the least mission-like mission in all of the science-fictional universes.

That’s what I meant when I said that by all rights, I should not have enjoyed this book. For the better part of the book, the character is motionless in his own life, neither growing nor changing. Everyone else has been sloughed away until all he’s left is a dream of a woman he never married; an AI ship; an AI boss who doesn’t realize he’s not real; an improbable, impossible dog that never existed until he "rescued" him; the tragedy that his mother’s life has become; and the mystery of what happened to his father.

There’s no Earth-shattering revelations here. And yet. . .it’s a compelling read. It’s nicely written, for one thing. Yu does some things in his prose that I would not, and that would bother me if it weren’t written as a sort of stream of consciousness in the mind of the protagonist. But somehow, they don’t bother me, here. There’s no big, science fiction discussion of how time travel works. In fact, that’s glossed over except in a few brief scenes. There’s no action. No startling revelations of the nature of the universe. Even the things that I would normally find intriguing are relegated to the backdrop (such as the nature of the science-fictional universe itself).

It’s not until he sees himself come out of the time machine and reacts by shooting his future self in the stomach that the story becomes more than the protagonist avoiding living his own life. As he struggles to both read and write his book at the same time, he comes face-to-face with the truth.

What follows is in my opinion a brilliant time-loop story in which the protagonist finally comes to understand what the reader has already discovered, admits to himself that he has to take action and face up to the consequences of those actions, and realizes that he could have found his father and "rescued" his mother a decade earlier if he’d simply made the decision not to avoid living his own life.

In spite of the fact that almost nothing is resolved (in a traditional, plot-driven sense) by the end of the book, I found myself reading it avidly, and satisfied at the ending. So many questions are left unanswered, yet you leave the book feeling like the protagonist has finally broken out of the loop he had put himself in and is at least making decisions, accepting consequences, and living his life.

In one sense, the character hasn’t really outwardly changed except that he’s aged 10 years in a subjective week for the rest of the non-time-machine-entrenched world. But inwardly, he’s changed. If even only slightly, he’s changed.

And I find that it’s enough.

If you pick up this book thinking it’s going to be a time-traveling adventure tale of grandfather paradoxes and love stories, you will be sadly disappointed. But if you go into it knowing that it’s a very internal story, you may find yourself enjoying it as much as I did.

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