Book Review: How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu)


Why am I only discovering this book – and this author – now? Charles Yu has been around for a while and won the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his short story collection, Third Class Superhero some years ago. This book – How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – was published in 2010. So what can I say? I’m late to the party.

What I mostly liked about the meta-fictional conceit of this book was that it actually worked. Sometimes when authors tackle meta-fiction (ie the novel being aware of itself as a novel), the structure feels tacky or forced, or the joke falls flat. Not so, this book. It rises to the meta-fictional challenge admirably and seamlessly inserts a fictive version of the author as the lead character in the story.

The fictional first person version of the author is an engineer dealing with the maintenance and repair of time travel units, which were developed off the work he and his father did in the past (or was it the future?). The narrator’s main internal struggle is to sort out his convoluted relationship with his now-missing dad, and to figure out what it means to live and love in an ever-shifting universe where time travel is not only possible, but almost expected. (His mother chooses to live her life in her own private time loop.) The narrator himself gets caught in a time loop and has to try and figure out how it works and whether he, indeed, has a future.

The novel is a quick read even though it gives you a LOT to think about. I intended to read a couple of chapters before bed one night and ended up plowing through the whole thing because I simply couldn’t put it down. Yu pokes fun at common sci-fi narrative conventions as well as making himself the butt of many of the jokes. In some ways it reminded me of Jon Scalzi’s Redshirts which took a similar approach but in the context of space travel/exploration stories.

Yu tackles some familiar themes – can machines love? do they have feelings? if you go back in time and tell yourself something essential, have you ruined the time continuum? However, he does so in a fresh, fun and engaging way. The main character is very relatable and even though the story is science fiction, it also deals with familiar themes of what it means to be human and whether we can redeem our past mistakes. It also has a nice message about learning to live in the “now” – a perfect image for a time travel story!

If you haven’t read Yu’s work before, and you like sci-fi, or just a good story, I highly recommend this book.