In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu rejuvenates the time travel subgenre with a bravura performance featuring an alternate version of the author as narrator. This “Charles Yu” repairs time machines for a living, in a future where time travel is part of everyday existence and Time Warner’s “Time” division owns and operates the universe. Along with his mangy dog Ed, Yu also lives in a time machine—a model TM-31 running “on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology” that allows for “free form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science-fictional universe.” Yu’s sidekicks, the melancholy time machine operating system TAMMY and the writing aid TOAD (with which the narrator creates the novel), are comedic yet never baldly satirical.
Within this basic frame, the author tells the tale of Yu’s relationship with his father, who has vanished, and sends up or renovates every conundrum in every time travel story ever written, complete with charts and graphs. Ruminations on the Minor Universe 31, which “was slightly damaged during its construction” are both haunting and hilarious. But other scenes—like a childhood reminiscence on why, in role-playing, “First dibs gets Hans Solo,” or a moving portrait of Yu’s father working alone in his garage—ground the wild extrapolation in real human emotions. Science fiction geeks will admire Yu’s stunning accomplishments at the level of Novel of Ideas, but the rich vein of emotional depth makes this first novel a delight and a wonder—in this or any other universe.