HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Charles Yu’s debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe begins with the conceit of a time travel repairman who lives outside the normal bounds of time and space, specifically tasked with working in Universe TM-31. As the title implies, the protagonist, also named Charles Yu, is aware of the tropes of science fiction, as is the author, and both are happy to make use of them in frequently nonsensical ways reminiscent of a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
In many ways an experimental book, the novel has very little of many of the traditional aspects of the novel. The plot is practically non-existent, characters and relationships exist, but generally are shown second hand, with Yu, the character, relating his relationships with his AI (TAMMY), his computer-created boss (Phil), his absentee inventor father, his time-looped mother, and his “ontologically valid” dog, Ed. Instead, the book is more a focus on Yu’s somewhat lackluster search for his father and his odd use of science fictional conceits.
Although at times, Yu’s depictions of science fiction are clever, and even satirical, he misses his targets as often as he hits them. His over-reliance of science fictional terms that could best be described as technobabble are not only repetitive, but stand in the way of both the narrative and the underlying themes as the reader must decide if it is worthwhile to attempt to decipher what Yu means by phrases such as “coefficient of ironic detachment,” or if they should simply be skipped over to a more meaningful phraseology.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is perhaps read best as a complete metaphor for life, with a healthy dose of existentialism. Yu, the character, lives and interacts with a manufactured universe, and the very non-linearity of the book contributes to the sense that Yu, the character, is an unreliable narrator, describing things that he senses but may not have any bearing on the reality of his manufactured world. While this may make for an interesting philosophical debate, it works less well in this book, which purports to be a novel.
The metafictional aspects of the novel come across as almost superfluous. Perhaps if it were the only non-traditional aspect of Yu’s novel, his references to the book itself, notably blank pages within the book wouldn’t jar. As it is, on top of the various experimental aspects of the novel, these sections of the book don’t really seem to add anything to the novel as a whole.
Yu demonstrates a great deal of imagination in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, although most of it seems to be in ways to circumvent the expectations of the form he has (notionally) elected to write in. The plot of the story is anemic, stretched out to novel length by the inclusion of random thoughts and philosophical speculations which seem tangential to the work rather than its impetus.On the whole, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe doesn’t succeed. Yu seems to be attempts at cleverness come off as being a little too self congratulatory. His experimentation hangs on a light frame that doesn’t provide any real support and his characters, such as they are, don’t provide the reader with anyone sympathetic enough to hang a novel on in lieu of a strong plot.
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