Can You Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe?

Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is inventive, arch, and cunningly post-modern.’

“… Back to the FuturePeggy Sue Got MarriedTerminator… All those stories about time travel, they were comforting, and at the same time it bothered me how they always made it seem fun and how everything fit into place, how the heroes found a way to change the world while still obeying the laws of physics.”

– Charles Yu: 72

Inventive, arch, and cunningly postmodern, Charles Yu’s fiction is all this and then adds dollops of sentiment. It’s an interesting and tricky combination to attempt to pull off, and he just about does it in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Under the guise of a very knowing, emotionally bruised, self-referencing autobiographical hero, he explores the multidimensional aspects of memory and relationships.

The fluid quality of memory informs his expression of the transitional states of time travel, ridding the narrative as he does of any “hard” sci-fi basis in theoretical possibilities. Yu’s version of time travel is fully, as the title suggests, “fictional” in that it relies directly upon the erratic quality of human recollection and the phases of creating the narrative structure of the novel itself. There is a narrative within the narrative of the telling of the story, looping back in on itself.

If that sounds complex, it’s meant to, but confusing it’s not. Rather, as the narrative explores the life and reminiscences of Charles (the hero) and his work as a time travel machine repairman, Yu (the novelist) takes us deeper and deeper into the relationship with his father and the status of the immigrant family and their pursuit of the American Dream.

‘Minor Universe 31’ is the setting for the adventures of Yu’s version of himself. It’s a fractured world, full of hybrid cities that have shifted in time. This is a universe just crying out to be realised in cinema science fiction in its own right. He registers all the right references and generates a geekish paradise within the framework of a sentimental novel that owes as much to Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century picaresque novel Tristram Shandy as it does to the more obvious associations of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

In Sterne’s work, the motif of time, the winding of the clock at the beginning of the novel, interrupts and shapes all the subsequent action. Yu similarly uses the fragmentation of the lives of his hero’s parents and portrays them, similar to Sterne’s narrative technique, as living through a series of digressions and tangential time loops. Tristram Shandy, famously, cannot describe a story without such digressions. Lu adopts this as central to his characters’ experiences, even showing the hero’s mother choosing to live in such a repetitive loop; forever stuck and desiring only the life she wanted to remember.

Much of the action is carried forward thanks to the device of another novelist, this time of the 19th century, Charles Dickens. Accompanied by ‘TAMMY’ the onboard AI companion of his time machine, Charles takes a journey into his past, and views his interaction with his parents and the key events in their lives much like Scrooge is permitted in A Christmas Carol. This makes the story more overtly sentimental and quite moralistic also. The science fictional world is the vehicle for the learning experience of family relationships and father/son dynamic, enabling our hero to dig deep.

Written in a fragmentary, naïve style at times, and at other times mimicking a science theory text book, Yu is a chameleon-like author. The texture and styles shift and change as the characters’ minds move around in time. The breathless quality of the long sentences, which are strung together clauses, moves the narrative along and can be seen to contrast with the more efficient, clipped prose at other times.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe lacks the irritating self-effacing tone found in books by Douglas Adams. It has more poetic and philosophic content. It’s a suitable, 21st-century, introspective work that acknowledges a century or more of the genre. And I, like Yu, find the possibilities and attractions in Han Solo’s self-invented narrative more alluring than Luke Skywalker’s.

RATING 7 / 10