Time-Traveling Dropout Rules 'Fictional Universe' In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu grafts the laws of theoretical physics onto the yearnings of the human heart. His time paradoxes are playful and clever — but he also describes a universe-wide emotional gap with a haunting, melancholic air.


Book Reviews

Time-Traveling Dropout Rules 'Fictional Universe'

How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe
How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
By Charles Yu
Hardcover, 256 pages
List Price: $24

Read an Excerpt

The narrator of Charles Yu's debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe never completed his master's in Applied Science Fiction. Instead, he took a job repairing time machines in Minor Universe 31, a smallish, self-contained pocket of reality that's "not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it." MU31, we learn, was abandoned by its original builder/writer midway through its construction, leaving its physics only 93 percent installed.

It doesn't take long for our narrator (named, in what is only the first of the book's many meta-fictional feints, Charles Yu), to run smack into what is, for a time machine engineer, a particularly knotty occupational hazard: Yu accidentally encounters his future self and, in a panic, shoots and kills him. He then takes off in his future self's time machine to try to figure some way out of his now inevitable, albeit temporally displaced, suicide.

If How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe contented itself with exploring that classic chestnut of speculative fiction, the time paradox, it would likely make for an enjoyable sci-fi yarn. But Yu's novel is a good deal more ambitious, and ultimately more satisfying, than that. It's about time travel and cosmology, yes, but it's also about language and narrative -- the more we learn about Minor Universe 31, the more it resembles the story space of the novel we're reading, which is full of diagrams, footnotes, pages left intentionally (and meaningfully) blank and brief chapters from the owner's manual of our narrator's time machine.

This playfulness won't surprise anyone who read Yu's short story collection, Third Class Superhero, in which, for example, one story took the form of a series of word problems, and another, an extended meditation on the statistical meaning of the word "maybe."

Charles Yu is also the author of the short story collection Third Class Superhero. hide caption

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Charles Yu is also the author of the short story collection Third Class Superhero.

Some of those stories read more like thought-experiments than fiction enfleshed enough to make us care about it. Here, however, Yu imbues his enthusiasm for formal inventiveness with emotional weight and is careful to instill narrative meaning into his clever jokes: As the novel opens, our narrator has spent the last 10 years living beyond time, with the gearshift of his "chronogrammatical" time machine set to Present-Indefinite. He prefers this directionless, ambitionless existence, he says, because "Chronological living is kind of a lie…. Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward."

He has purchased a retirement package for his mother, which takes the form of a time loop: she lives the same, happy hour of her life over and over forever -- or until he can no longer afford the payments. His father mysteriously disappeared from the space-time continuum soon after discovering time-travel, leaving a hole in his son's life that launched him into his current mode of indefinite living, free of risk, where the laws of cause-and-effect can't touch him.

If these metaphors seem obvious and overdetermined, that's part of the fun: Yu grafts the laws of theoretical physics onto the yearnings of the human heart so thoroughly and deftly that the book's technical language and mathematical proofs take on a sense of urgency. And because How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is ultimately a book about the universe-wide emotional gap separating father from son, they also take on a haunting, melancholic air.

Excerpt: 'How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe'

How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe
How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
By Charles Yu
Hardcover, 256 pages
List Price: $24


There is just enough space inside here for one person to live indefinitely, or at least that’s what the operation manual says. User can survive inside the TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device, in isola­tion, for an indefinite period of time.

I am not totally sure what that means. Maybe it doesn’t actually mean anything, which would be fine, which would be okay by me, because that’s what I’ve been doing: living in here, indefinitely. The Tense Operator has been set to Present-Indefinite for I don’t know how long -- some time now -- and although I still pick up the occasional job from Dispatch, they seem to come less frequently these days and so, when I’m not working, I like to wedge the gearshift in P-I and just sort of cruise.

My gums hurt. It’s hard to focus. There must be some kind of internal time distortion effect in here, because when I look at myself in the little mirror above my sink, what I see is my father’s face, my face turning into his. I am beginning to feel how the man looked, especially how he looked on those nights he came home so tired he couldn’t even make it through dinner without nodding off, sitting there with his bowl of soup cooling in front of him, a rich pork-and-winter-melon-saturated broth that, moment by moment, was losing -- or giving up -- its tiny quan­tum of heat into the vast average temperature of the universe.

The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a ren­dered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

Or, as Mom used to say: it’s a box. You get into it. You push some buttons. It takes you to other places, different times. Hit this switch for the past, pull up that lever for the future. You get out and hope the world has changed. Or at least maybe you have.

I don’t get out much these days. At least I have a dog, sort of. He was retconned out of some space western. It was the usual deal: hero, on his way up, has a trusty canine sidekick, then hero gets famous and important and all of that and by the time sea­son two rolls around, hero doesn’t feel like sharing the spotlight anymore, not with a scruffy-looking mutt. So they put the little guy in a trash pod and sent him off.

I found him just as he was about to drift into a black hole. He had a face like soft clay, and haunches that were bald in spots where he’d been chewing off his own fur. I don’t think anyone has ever been as happy to see anything as this dog was to see me. He licked my face and that was that. I asked him what he wanted his name to be. He didn’t say anything so I named him Ed.

The smell of Ed is pretty powerful in here, but I’m okay with that. He’s a good dog, sleeps a lot, sometimes licks his paw to comfort himself. Doesn’t need food or water. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t exist. Ed is just this weird onto­logical entity that produces unconditional slobbery loyal affection. Superfluous. Gratuitous. He must violate some kind of conserva­tion law. Something from nothing: all of this saliva. And, I guess, love. Love from the abandoned heart of a non-existent dog.

. . .

Because I work in the time travel industry, everyone assumes I must be a scientist. Which is sort of correct. I was studying for my master’s in applied science fiction -- I wanted to be a struc­tural engineer like my father -- and then the whole situation with Mom got worse, and with my dad missing I had to do what made sense, and then things got even worse, and this job came along, and I took it.

Now I fix time machines for a living.

To be more specific, I am a certified network technician for T-Class personal-use chronogrammatical vehicles, and an approved independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structure and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial, and residential use. The job is pretty chill for the most part, although right this moment I’m not loving it because I think my Tense Operator might be breaking down.

It’s happening now. Or maybe not. Maybe it was earlier today. Or yesterday. Maybe it broke down a long time ago. Maybe that’s the point: if it is broken and my transmission has been shift­ing randomly in and out of gears, then how would I ever know when it happened? Maybe I’m the one who broke it, trying to fool myself, thinking I could live like this, thinking I could stay out here forever.

. . .

The red indicator light just came on. I’m looking at the run-time error report. It’s like a mathematically precise way of saying, This is not how you do this, man. Meaning life, I suppose. It’s computer for Hey, buddy, you are massively bungling this up. I know it. I know it better than anyone. I don’t need silicon wafers with a slightly neurotic interface to tell me that.

That would be TAMMY, by the way. The TM-31’s computer UI comes in one of two personality skins: TIM or TAMMY. You can only choose once, the first time you boot up, and you’re stuck with your choice forever.

I’m not going to lie. I chose the girl one. Is TAMMY’s curvilinear pixel configuration kind of sexy? Yes it is. Does she have chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes behind pixilated librarian glasses and a voice like a cartoon princess? Yes and yes and yes. Have I ever, in all my time in this unit, ever done you know what to a screenshot of you know who? I’m not going to answer that. All I will say is that at a certain point, you lose the capacity for embarrassment. I’m not there yet, but I’m not far from it. Let’s see. I’ve got a nontrivial thinning situation going on with the hair. I am, rounding to the nearest, oh, about five nine, 185. Plus or minus. Mostly plus. I might be hiding from history in here, but I’m not hiding from biology. Or gravity. So yeah, I went with TAMMY.

Do you want to know the first thing she ever said to me? enter password. Okay, yeah, that was the first thing. Do you know the second thing? i am incapable of lying to you. The third thing she said to me was i’m sorry.

“Sorry for what?” I said.

“I’m not a very good computer program,” she said.

“I’ve never met software with low self-esteem.”

“I’ll try hard, though,” she said. “I really want to do a good job for you.”

TAMMY always thinks everything is about to go to hell. Always telling me how bad things could get. So yeah, it hasn’t been what I expected. Do I regret it sometimes? Sure I do. Would I choose TAMMY again? Sure I would. What do you want me to say? I’m lonely. She’s nice. She lets me flirt with her. I have a thing for my operating system. There. I said it.

Excerpted from How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu Copyright 2010 by Charles Yu. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc.