Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe sounds like science-fiction, but the novel is only nominally so. Despite its title and a lot of over-my-head techno-philosophizing, How to Live is really a story about a father and a son and the memories, regrets, and disappointments that haunt us.

The novel's narrator is Charles Yu, a time-machine repair man who has been living out of time in his closet-sized machine for years. On a landing for repair, he confronts his future self emerging from his time machine and, on reflex, shoots him. In panic, Charles returns to his time machine where he finds a book that he has yet to write: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. While reading/writing the book, Charles revisits memories of himself and his father, who created time machines but has been missing for years.

The summary above makes it sound like a lot more happens than actually occurs. There's little action, as much of the novel centers around Charles' inner monologue. Thus, for me, the novel went a bit slowly, and Charles rambled and ruminated too much for me to feel especially connected to him.

Nonetheless, the most appealing part of How to Live is its posit that there's not so much difference between the past and the present, between experiencing and remembering. In this world, time travel is less a physical journey through time and space (a la Doctor Who) and more a journey into re-experiencing past memories. Time travelers can't travel anywhere, just their own past, and they can't change anything. Instead, time traveling is a more physical manifestation of something all us do already: constantly remember past moments, most especially the bad. Who hasn't run-through a negative moment in his or her head over and over again, hoping for a new outcome but knowing that it will never turn out differently? Time travel lets people become masochists, yet, not surprisingly, everyone does it anyway.

As someone who has to actively set-up strategies to avoid dwelling on past errors (I think about my cats or the book I'm currently reading), I could definitely empathize, and I think most readers can. Nonetheless, How to Live is not a quick or plot-based novel, and it won't appeal to all readers, or those specifically looking for science-fiction.

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