How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

Posted on: May 03, 2012

How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

Originally published in Dawn Books & Authors

Tell the truth: If you had a time machine that could take you anywhere in time and space, would you really go to the future, or if you’re superstitious about what’s to come, to revisit the best parts of your life? Or would you go back, back to the worst moments of your life, to try and fix them the way you couldn’t when they actually happened?  Everyone knows the basic rule of time travel: you can’t change the past. That and, don’t shoot your future self. If only protagonist Charles Yu remembered that in How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Charles Yu’s debut novel How To… is about a time machine repairman called Charles Yu – and here starts the metafiction in the story that will carry it through until the final piece of the puzzle is located. In this case, the final piece is Charles’ father, who has been missing in space and time for many years. Charles’ has spent the better part of the decade fixing other people’s mistakes and hiding out ‘tucked into a hidden cul-de-sac of space-time […] the most uneventful piece of time (he) could find’. Of course, things are a lot less calm when he finds himself caught in a frustrating time loop after shooting his future self during a routine maintenance run to Minor Universe 31. And no, he definitely was not being any sort of hero.

Charles himself is barely a hero. He’s just a guy. One who is so insignificant to the universe that his being away, physically, out of time and space for long does not even register in his ‘real world’. His metaphysical insignificance carries over to become his physical insignificance - all until he traps himself into a loop with no way out. While the novel is a quick, feisty read, Charles’ yearning for his father remains a slow, perpetual longing and is his most defining feature. His memories of childhood guide him to where his father may be, all the while reminding him of what was. Yu never forgets the importance of memory (in life and especially in a time travel story), and writes of nostalgia as ‘a longing for versions of one’s self that one will never, and can never know’.

A word about Minor Universe 31: it’s quite simply a brilliant creation. ‘ Reality represents 13 percent of the total surface area and 17 perfect of the total volume […]  In terms of topology, the reality portions of 21 are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped around it’. Yes, that’s right – this is a world built by science fiction: imagine the possibilities! How To… gives readers a small look into the world of Minor Universe 31, but the potential for greater world building is there, with so many stories about a universe created, abandoned and being used as storage space just waiting to be written. Yet Yu does not spend much time there (neither does his protagonist, Charles). This would almost seemsan injustice to the potential of Minor Universe 31 – if only everything else going on in the book wasn’t so intriguing.

Obvious comparisons to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s trilogy barely need to be mentioned. But How To… also feels familiar to Philip K. Dick (the writer who famously referred to himself as a ‘fictionalizing philosopher’) at times, in the context of darkness and despair, the feelings of entrapment and the precognitive knowledge of a never ending loop. But How To… is definitely not ‘paranoid fiction’ and instead focusses on the idea of memories, and on how to ‘fill up the space between stories’.

Yu uses humour far more effectively than many science fiction writers choose to, often being irreverent with many sci-fi popular cultural references. One repair job Charles does is for Luke Skywalker’s son Linus who is ‘trapped in his  whole dark-father-lost-son-galactic-monomyth thing’. Change your name kid, suggests the helpful time machine repairman. Yu’s construct of TAMMY, for example, is the most interesting (and far more likeable) operating system of a ship since Alien’s Mother, or 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000. TAMMY is the female interface of Charles’ TM- 31 Recreational Time Travel Device, and is not quite a person, but a brilliant character nonetheless. ‘Her soul is code, is a fixed set of instructions, and although you may think having a relationship with someone like that would get boring after a while, it doesn’t.’

It’s not easy to write about How To… without making it seem complicated. It is a möbius strip of a story that does challenge readers, but it also makes the challenge interesting with diagrams, charts and information from a survival manual – which of course means it’s all a lot of fun. Yes, the time-space continuum science is tight, but that doesn’t mean Yu isn’t ready to have a little fun with it. His tone is charmingly neurotic and certain episodes, conversations and characters are straight out hilarious, yet there is sadness, loneliness and pathos at the core of it, a tragic heart that Yu never loses sight of.