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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

May 23, 2012

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, is about the time he spends supplying tech support and counseling service to users of the TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device (“’recreational’ use of the machine is also, in a sense, ‘re-creational’ use as well”). It is also about how the book is/came to be. “The book, just like the concept of the ‘present,’ is a fiction. Which isn’t to say it’s not real.”

To say that this novel is self-referential is an understatement. The preface tells you how the story ends. The protagonist/author tells you that the story is writing itself as he lives it. None of that means that there is no character development, however. Early on, Charles explains:
“One of the perks of the job is that I get to use the mini-wormhole generator in my unit for personal purposes, so long as any distortions I create in the fabric of space-time are completely reversible. I modified it slightly to pry open really tiny temporary quantum windows into other universes, through which I am able to spy on my alternate selves. I’ve seen thirty-nine of them, these varieties of me, and about thirty-five of them seem like real jerks. I guess I’ve come to terms with that, with what it probably means. If 89.7 percent of the other versions of you are assholes, chances are you aren’t exactly Mr. Personality yourself.”
As the world around Charles widens to show more than his time machine, however, readers grow to like him better and see why his imaginary dog and operating system are so fond of him.

Early in the narrative, Charles gets a call from “SKYWALKER, L” and says “my first thought is Oh, Man, wow; but when I get there it’s not you know who, with the man-blouse and the soft boots and the proficiency at wielding light-based weapons. It’s his son. Linus.” Linus, who “can’t be a day older than nine,” has a fire in the “wave function collapser” panel on his rental time machine. It is Charles’ job to tell him “you know you can’t change the past.” In fact, Charles has a little speech he gives to any client who might be trying to change the past:
“This is what I say: I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good news is, you don’t have to worry, you can’t change the past.
The bad news is, you don’t have to worry, no matter how hard you try, you can’t change the past.
The universe just doesn’t put up with that. We aren’t important enough. No one is. Even in our own lives.”

As the book continues, Charles discovers that he is writing and reading it simultaneously by “using the TM-31’s cognitive-visual-motor-sound-activated recording module, which operates, as you might guess, by simultaneously tracking output from the user’s neural activity, voice, finger movements, retinal movements, and facial muscle contractions. It’s part keyboard, part microphone, part optical scan, and part brain scan.” (The description makes me think of Tony Stark’s multiple screens in Iron Man and The Avengers.) The book that Charles Yu is reading/writing—the book that you are (Yu is) reading—is “a copy of something that doesn’t exist yet. It is a book copied from itself.”

After that explanation of how the book is/came to be, readers get this observation: “Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.”

In the course of a search for his father, the creator of the idea for the time machine, Charles discovers that “failure is easy to measure. Failure is an event. Harder to measure is insignificance. A nonevent. Insignificance creeps, it dawns, it gives you hope, then delusion, then one day, when you’re not looking, it’s there, at your front door, on your desk, in the mirror, or not, not any of that, it’s the lack of all that. One day, when you are looking, it’s not looking, no one is.”

The idea of safety is deconstructed in/by the book, along with conventional notions of how to measure the passing of time, because Charles discovers that “you don’t always have your own best interests at heart.”

The novel ends in the moment, literally, with the protagonist instructing himself to “pop open the hatch. The forces within the chronohydraulic air lock will equalize. Step out in the world of time and risk and loss again. Move forward, into the empty plane. Find the book you wrote, and read it until the end, but don’t turn the last page yet….”

If you have read and enjoyed time travel stories, this is a capper;  I enjoy the way it plays with the conventions.

If you haven’t read many time travel stories, my suggestion would be to start with H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine or the recently popular The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. If you are a fan of science fiction, then you’ve probably read Robert Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps, All You Zombies, and The Door Into Summer. If you like those, you might like Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, and The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. You could also watch Back to the Future, Planet of the Apes, Donnie Darko, one of the Terminator movies, or The Doctor Who episode called “The Doctor’s Daughter.”

Do you have a favorite time travel story?  What makes it your favorite?

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2012 9:39 am

    I like Jack Finney’s book “Time and Again”. I’ve read the Niffenegger book too. Another good one.

    • May 23, 2012 7:10 pm

      Ohh I read that one, Freshhell. I loved it!

      • May 24, 2012 7:10 am

        I have not read it (there’s my aversion to anything illustrated showing). But I did see the movie based on it, Somewhere in Time, one evening during a road trip to see a friend from college; we solved one of the major problems of the world while watching it and drinking something, but couldn’t remember our solution the next morning.

  2. John Merrill permalink
    May 23, 2012 10:11 am

    The other extreme of the time travel story is Asimov’s _The End of Eternity_.

    • May 24, 2012 7:11 am

      We are now looking through our collections of Asimov stories to find that one and reread it.

  3. May 23, 2012 3:00 pm

    I didn’t really like the Connie Willis book while I was reading it, but have found myself thinking about it years and years later — so i think it must have been better than I thought. I’ll try it again someday. There’s also Hermione and and the time turner in, what, Prisoner of Azkaban?

    • May 24, 2012 7:14 am

      Yes, and remember they use the time turner in the saving of Buckbeak.

  4. May 23, 2012 3:58 pm

    I’ve wanted to read this for a while, but your list makes me realise that I haven’t read that many time travel books. From your list I’ve only read the Niffenegger and the Adams. I might take your advice and read The Time Machine.

  5. aartichapati permalink
    May 24, 2012 1:21 pm

    This sounds really fun! But I think it probably is more fun if you read a lot of science fiction and get most of the jokes, huh? I should perhaps read more in the genre before trying this book out.

    • May 24, 2012 5:11 pm

      It probably is more fun if you’re familiar with literary (and movie) time travel conventions. Once you’ve read a couple, though, you’re probably ready for this one.

  6. May 24, 2012 3:10 pm

    This does sound good! My favorite time travel story is Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. It encapsulates, in metaphor, the whole experience of being an unhappy child in an unhappy place who discovers the bittersweet happiness of reading. I read it at just the right age, but I still think it is one of the best children’s novels of the 20th century.

    • May 24, 2012 5:12 pm

      I’ve heard of Tom’s Midnight Garden but I don’t think I’ve ever read it, so I’m off to find a copy.

      • June 5, 2012 2:08 pm

        I found one and read it. What an interesting time travel story–completely predictable and yet more satisfying in its ending than many time travel stories, which is saying something! I particularly enjoyed the way the gardener thought Tom was a demon for a while, until he saw him reading his Bible and was then completely reassured.

  7. May 24, 2012 8:34 pm

    I’m intrigued. I love time travel stories but have really only read the “conventional” ones. I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife and am planning to work my way through Connie Willis’s series after reading Blackout and All Clear. She has a neat way of approaching the genre.

  8. May 24, 2012 10:52 pm

    It’s funny that time travel has conventions, isn’t it?

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