How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

3.7 81
by Charles Yu

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National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award winner Charles Yu delivers his debut novel, a razor-sharp, ridiculously funny, and utterly touching story of a son searching for his father . . . through quantum space–time.
Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots


National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award winner Charles Yu delivers his debut novel, a razor-sharp, ridiculously funny, and utterly touching story of a son searching for his father . . . through quantum space–time.
Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician—part counselor, part gadget repair man—steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him—in fact it may even save his life.
Wildly new and adventurous, Yu’s debut is certain to send shock waves of wonder through literary space–time.

Editorial Reviews

From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

This year completes the initial decade of the twenty-first century -- unless, of course, you are a numerical fussbudget along the lines of the revered Arthur C. Clarke, and insist on dating the start of the century to 2001. But tell me truly: does the year 2011 really resonate with you as an evocative, memorable milestone?

In any case, the twenty-first century is undeniably the century science fiction built -- if not in utter hands-on reality (though even that proposition is debatable, given the inspiration the genre has provided for influential scientists and geeks), then in the public imagination. Since the birth of genre SF in 1926, and for almost the next 75 years, simply to set a story in the third millennium AD was to signify extravagant extrapolation and a futuristic, far-off milieu when flying cars and food pills would reign -- or dystopia would prevail. The year 2010 is automatically one of yesterday's tomorrows.

Of course, as we all now realize, the twenty-first century is proving both more and less science-fictional than the literature imagined, in strange and perhaps essentially unpredictable ways. This condition bedevils SF to some extent, as both its continuing credibility and utility come under question. Some authors and critics have recently even gone so far as to pronounce the mode deceased. Such statements regarding the death of SF are eternal. In 1960, for instance, a famous seminar was conducted under the heading "Who Killed Science Fiction?"

It seems fitting, then, at this early juncture in the new millennium, to examine some recent representative SF books of differing types and check their pulse for signs of health or illness. Does the genre continue to have new and useful things to say? Is it still intellectually and narratively interesting? Or is the genre suffering from a case, as H. G. Wells so direly phrased it, of "mind at the end of its tether…"?

The Original Anthology: If it's become cliché to maintain that short stories are the cutting-edge laboratory of science fiction, it's only because, as with most clichés, a nugget of truth gleams at the center of the truism. The short form allows quick, timely and innovative forays into new speculative territories: a big payoff for minimal author and reader investment.

With the remaining small band of old-school print magazines in dire financial straits these days, and online zines stumbling around for a viable business model, much of the best work at these lengths now occurs in the original anthology, which trades periodical timeliness for a greater shelf life, the occasional backing of deep-pockets publishers, and an expanded audience.

One of the best anthologies of recent vintage is Jetse de Vries's Shine. Its virtues are easy to enumerate. It offers a clear-eyed theme and unique remit: optimistic, near-future SF. It features a wide range of voices and styles. Its editor is young, knowledgeable, energetic, and hip (the anthology was assembled with heavy reliance on social media sites). On all counts, it's a rousing success, the very model of a modern project, and points the way toward a healthy future for SF short stories. All that remains is for the book to rack up some deservedly healthy sales.

Not every story in the volume achieves unqualified greatness: a number favor earnestness over entertainment. They work so seriously to illustrate that there is hope for humanity that they seem to forget that the reader has to want to imagine herself enjoying life in the future, even while facing challenges. That was always the secret of Heinlein-era SF. This joie de vivre deficit becomes apparent only when you come to a contrary story such as Gord Sellar's knockout "Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)." Its high-octane characters and language and devil-may-care attitude cloak serious issues just as vital as those embedded elsewhere in the book. But it's also a slavering whirlwind of manic energy, in the mode of the Looney Tunes cartoon Tasmanian Devil. Others in this admirable vein include Eva Maria Chapman's "Russian Roulette 2020" and Kay Kenyon's "Castoff World."

The Hot Trend: So long as science fiction can pinwheel off new movements and manifestos, new fads and fashions, it seems to me that it remains alive and vibrant. Bandwagons can get overloaded, stylized, and mob-minded. But then along comes another freshly painted barouche full of troublemakers to join the long parade.

Steampunk is hardly a new phenomenon, dating back in its fully codified form some twenty-five years at least. But as culture watchers know, it's recently experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Mark Hodder's debut novel, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, is a remarkably sophisticated and well-executed manifestation of the sub-genre, showing us that new talent can excavate gold out of the most well-plumbed mines.

Hodder has arrayed in his book the full panoply of steampunk riffs: weird machinery, Victorian cultural attitudes, class hierarchy, the supernatural, famous historical figures, surrealism and absurdity, amusing fictional sidekicks to famous personages, and a sense of adventure across a relatively unexplored globe. Layering this cake with a frosting of mystery, suspense, and time-travel shenanigans, he has created a compulsively readable romp that recalls the best of Tim Powers and James Blaylock.

Hodder's paired protagonists are the explorer Richard Burton and the poet Swinburne. In the year 1861, they inhabit a timestream in which Queen Victoria's assassination in 1840 unleashed a realm of oddball steam- and bio-tech. The legendary boogie-man of the title appears to be a time-traveler intent on repairing the damaged continuum. Or is he?

Hodder's prose is stately yet not archaic, and the plot unfolds with a satisfying cleverness. His descriptions of the era -- a crucial point for any novel that aims for historical atmosphere -- are palpable, rendering a miasma-shrouded London and environs. If his book does not precisely build a new wing on the steampunk mansion, it does polish the banisters brightly and garland the halls gaily, showing visitors the best of the old manor.

SF from the Literary World: Despite the long (and, let's admit it, fun) tradition of SF writers complaining about "outsiders" from the literary "mainstream" never getting our beloved genre right, the picture is rapidly changing. As science-fictional ideas permeate the culture more and more deeply and widely, writers from MFA programs and The New Yorker, from Granta and Yaddo, prove themselves adept at handling all the riffs of SF in acrobatic and ingenious fashion, often contributing new stylistic angles and perspectives to the field. Case in point: Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Yu's mordantly funny book follows the entertainingly dreary and screwed-up existence of a time-travel machine repairman named -- Charles Yu! Metafictional Yu's drab and anomie-filled existence, dominated by his desultory search for his missing father and his on-off relations with his mother (Mom's chosen to live in a "Polchinski 630 Hour-Long Reinforced Time Loop," Groundhog Day-style) is peppered with chronal paradoxes and bureaucratic annoyances. As a creation, Yu represents all failed ambitions and compromised dreams, his plight a symbolic statement of a generational quandary. (Yu turned thirty-four years old this year.)

Yu has obviously ingested the vast body of classic time-travel SF, and he has formulated a consistent theory and practice of time travel, full of hopped-up jargon, which he uses to illustrate existential themes rather than produce action-adventure sequences. There are traces of Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Barry Malzberg, and Philip K. Dick throughout these pages. But the book resembles nothing so much as a fresh approach to the tone of the late, great George Alec Effinger, whose novels What Entropy Means to Me  and The Wolves of Memory practically defined this voice.

But perhaps the best description of Yu's book is the one he applies to his malfunctioning pocket universe: "the reality portions of [Minor Universe 31] are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped around it."

Satirical SF: When we are introduced to an exuberantly manic post-scarcity milieu perched paradoxically atop the oppressed crumbling ruins of an indigent planet, with one industry or preoccupation reigning supreme, we know ourselves to be firmly in the quintessential Galaxy magazine mode of science fiction satire, exemplified most famously by Pohl & Kornbluth's classic The Space Merchants. Once identified by Kingsley Amis in his critical study New Maps of Hell as practically the whole raison d'être of SF, the mode has lately fallen out of popularity, although talented folks such as the writers of the animated series Futurama, Max Barry (Jennifer Government) and Christopher Moore (Fluke) continue to plow the pasture profitably.

Now comes a bright and witty new practitioner of this honorable mode of speculatively savaging humanity's foibles. Jon Armstrong has archly labeled his own work "fashionpunk," since it takes the whole daft scene connected with haute couture -- media overkill, celebrities, status and wealth -- and rakes it over the coals by way of absurdist amplification.

In Armstrong's debut novel Grey we were introduced to a crazed yet consistent future in which clothes literally make the man -- especially our hero, Michael Rivers, a nineteen-year-old airhead in thrall to his corporate image, who eventually learns to rebel. Company mergers here are facilitated by the ritual marriage and public deflowering of scions. A private automated highway literally encircles the midsection of the planet. Press conferences are vast media orgies. And draped elegantly over everything, beautiful smart fabrics conceal bodily and spiritual ugliness.

Grey smartly followed the time-tested template of many such dystopian tales, using an ignorant member of the elite as focal point and dragging him down for a visceral education into the muck and mire. In the new book,Yarn, Armstrong decides to tell the flipside of the story: the rise of a peon to these synthetically uplifted heights.

We have already met protagonist Tane Cedar in Grey, where he served as exclusive tailor and fashion designer to the privileged, including Michael Rivers. But now we get his whole life story, as backdrop to an adventure being experienced by the ascended Cedar, which involves the fabric-cum-drug known as Xi. Born as a "slub," one of the serfs who toil in the vast corn plantations that support the economy, Cedar mounts the social and artistic ladder rung by bloody rung, until he becomes the figure we met in Grey. Along the way, we get further revelations into this Lady Gaga-inspired future, where the saleswarriors of Seattlehama battle for market share and allegiances are as disposable as underwear.

Half the fun of Armstrong's books is the lush, ornate, rococco language, worthy of a Russell Hoban or Anthony Burgess. The neologisms are captivating, the dialogue is both sophisticated and rude, and the descriptive passages are boldly visual. In toto, these books do something brilliant which I had always half-believed was possible, but which I never dreamed of actually seeing. They replicate in prose the logically insane and hyperbolic graphic novels of Jodorowsky and Moebius and their collaborators: The Incal/The Metabarons/The Technopriests. It's proof that in the right hands, style is substance.

Hardcore SF: Language maven William Safire was one of the first to recognize the birth of retronyms. This term is applied in cases when a word that was once perfectly descriptive all by itself needs a retrofit to acknowledge changing circumstances. For centuries the word "clock" said everything. But then with the arrival of digital technology, we had to say "analog clock" when we meant the original kind with hands and static face.

So it is with "science fiction." Once upon a time, that unadorned term encompassed the whole smallish field. But with the proliferation of sub-genres, readers and critics have had to use retronyms. "Hardcore SF" refers to the formerly ubiquitous kind of tale that employs the core genre conceits: robots and rayguns, interstellar empires and starships, gadgets and extrapolations. (Somewhat confusingly, what has been dubbed "hard SF" is a different beast, admitting only rigorously scientific ideas, and not dodgy apparatus such as teleportation and psi powers that hardcore SF gleefully employs.) Once the dominant mode, hardcore SF is now just another specialty, its practitioners rather like twenty-first-century poets still writing sonnets and sestinas.

But such allegiances to noble old forms often inspire great craft and commensurate rewards. Greg Bear is one contemporary master of the old ways, and in Hull Zero Three he gives the generation starship theme -- crystallized beautifully by Robert Heinlein in 1941's "Universe" -- a vigorous makeover.

Bear's protagonist, an amnesiac who eventually assumes the name Teacher after his programmed function, wakes to find himself in a "sick Ship." This enormous and complex interstellar vessel, intended to crawl at a fraction of lightspeed across the galaxy to plant a new colony, has been mysteriously damaged. Embarking on a dangerous odyssey of knowledge gathering, Teacher and his shifting posse of oddball companions must battle the deadline of disintegration to salvage what they can of the mission.

Bear brilliantly evokes all of the heart-racing thrills typically associated with the classic hardcore SF trope of exploring a "Big Dumb Object." Savvy readers will flash on such past milestones as Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon, Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze, Larry Niven's Ringworld and Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. A sly allusion to Heinlein's benchmark generation-ship tale occurs when a pair of clones realize that two heads are better than one: Heinlein's protagonist, Joe-Jim, literally wore two heads on one body. And the traditional riff of "conceptual breakthrough," in which larger and larger frames of knowledge keep opening up, is played deftly. In a neat stylistic maneuver, Teacher's language skills keep pace on the page with his growing understanding.

But even grander than all this is the subtle parable of Teacher's plight: born naked and unwitting into a dangerous environment, in which only cooperation and curiosity ensure survival and success. Isn't this a simple description of the human condition? Teacher's journey, like Buddha's, is universal. And even if he experiences moments of Beckett-like despair and anger, he overcomes them with logic, hope, and ingenuity. What better formulation for the guiding attitude of science fiction, hardcore or otherwise? Writers like Bear prove that SF still has some tomorrows left, even as 2010 joins the pile of yesterdays.

Publishers Weekly
Yu uses futuristic ideas to explore a mundane theme: writing about the self and the moment in Tristram Shandy-esque digressions. The protagonist, who shares the author's name, spends most of the story interacting with entities that either mirror him (TAMMY, an operating system who reflects his personality) or don't exist (Ed, a "weird ontological entity" in the shape of a dog; Phil, a programmed supervisor who thinks he's human). The conclusion tries to mitigate character-Yu's risk-averse solipsism, but is too quick and abstract to really counter the rest of the book's emotional weight. Mainstream readers will be baffled by the highly nonlinear Oedipal time travel plot, but the passive, self-obsessed protagonist is straight out of the mainstream fiction that many SF fans love to hate, leaving this book without an audience. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Although the title suggests comfortable living in space, Yu leads the reader to an uncomfortable space on Earth, as his debut novel's narrative is quite experimental. In between many chapters, Yu inserts explanations of specific terms, using his fictional world to reflect upon reality and life's experiences. In the middle of the novel, he even pauses and becomes self-conscious about his creative process when writing, reading, and editing the text. In typical Brechtian fashion, he distances the reader from the story to induce contemplation of the issues the text may inspire. The deceptively simple plot can be told in one sentence: a time-travel-machine repairman wants to locate his missing father before his past catches up to him and shoots him dead. Our anxieties and fears are heightened as the protagonist's past gets ever closer. That the protagonist's father devoted his life to creating a time-travel machine allows us to ponder the dilemma of a brilliant person trapped in the role of a family man. VERDICT Fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and "social science fiction," as well as readers of an adventurous nature, will enjoy this book, which has the potential to become a cult classic.—Victor Or, Surrey P.L. & North Vancouver City Lib., B.C.
Kirkus Reviews

A man frozen in a universe of his own making must pursue the meaning of life.

In this debut novel, Yu (stories: Third Class Superhero, 2006) continues his ambitious exploration of the fantastic witha whimsical yet sincere tribute to old-school science fiction and quantum physics. His hero is Charles Yu, a kind of white-collar mechanic for time machines of the very near future. He's a corporate drone for Time Warner Time, which operates multiple alternate universes for profit. The tech's turf is Minor Universe 31, which is literally a science-fiction playground complete with sexbots, icons of genre fantasy and an unreliable set of physics. It all sounds rather magical—Charles has a memorable run-in with one Linus Skywalker, who carries a big chip on his shoulder about his famous father—but it's really a very lonely world. Charles mourns the loss of his father, who invented time travel before disappearing into its void. His mother lives in a kind of time-assisted living, in which she experiences the same parcel of time again and again. Our narrator's only real companions are Ed, a dog that may or may not exist, and TAMMY, an onboard operating system with a chronic case of self-doubt. "I have seen pretty much everything that can go wrong, the various and mysterious problems in contemporary time travel," says Charles. "You work in this business long enough and you know what you really do for a living. This is self-consciousness. I work in the self-consciousness industry." Inevitably, worlds collide, and Charles shoots his future self in a moment of panic. Then readers will have to reach the proverbial end of the story to find out whether Charles' time loop (conveniently mapped out and including an X event, a point in time when he will learn something about himself) will let him go.

A fascinating, philosophical and disorienting thriller about life and the context that gives it meaning.

Ander Monson
Like [Dogulas] Adams, Yu is very funny, usually proportional to the wildness of his inventions, but Yu's sound and fury conceal (and construct) this novel's dense, tragic, all-too-human heart…The novel's central, lonely story is wrapped in glittering layers of gorgeous and playful meta-science-fiction.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
"Glittering layers of gorgeous and playful meta-science-fiction. . . . Like [Douglas] Adams, Yu is very funny, usually proportional to the wildness of his inventions, but Yu's sound and fury conceal (and construct) this novel's dense, tragic, all-too-human heart. . . . Yu is a superhero of rendering human consciousness and emotion in the language of engineering and science. . . . A complex, brainy, genre-hopping joyride of a story, far more than the sum of its component parts, and smart and tragic enough to engage all regions of the brain and body."
The New York Times Book Review

"Compulsively rereadable. . . . Hilarious. . . . Yu has a crisp, intermittently lyrical prose style, one that's comfortable with both math and sadness, moving seamlessly from delirious metafiction to the straight-faced prose of instruction-manual entries. . . . [The book itself] is like Steve Jobs' ultimate hardware fetish, a dreamlike amalgam of functionality and predetermination."
Los Angeles Times

"Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick are touchstones, but Yu's sense of humor and narrative splashes of color–especially when dealing with a pretty solitary life and the bittersweet search for his father, a time travel pioneer who disappeared–set him apart within the narrative spaces of his own horizontal design. . . . A clever little story that will be looped in your head for days. No doubt it will be made into a movie, but let's hope that doesn't take away the heart."
--Austin Chronicle

"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. . . . . 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."

"How to Live Safely is a book likely to generate a lot of discussion, within science fiction and outside, infuriating some readers while delighting many others."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"An extraordinary work. . . . I read the entire book in one gulp."
—Chris Wallace, GQ

"A great Calvino-esque thrill ride of a book."
--The Stranger

"Science and metaphor get nice and cozy in Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. The novel joins the likes of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story and Jillian Weise's The Colony, fiction that borrows the tropes of sci-fi to tell high-tech self-actualization narratives."
--Portland Mercury

"A brainy reverie of sexbots, rayguns, time travel and Buddhist zombie mothers. . . . Packed with deft emotional insight."
--The Economist

"A funny, funny book, and it’s a good thing, too; because at its heart it’s a book about loneliness, regret, and the all-too-human desire to change the past."

"A keenly perceptive satire. . . . Yu’s novel is also a meditation on the essentials of human life at its innermost point.. . . Campy allusions to the original Star Wars trilogy, a cityscape worthy of the director’s cut of Blade Runner and a semi-coherent vocabulary of techno-jargon cement these disparate elements into a brilliant send-up of science fiction. . . . Perhaps it would be better to think of the instructional units of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe in terms of the chapters of social commentary which John Steinbeck placed into the plot structure of The Grapes of Wrath."
California Literary Review

"How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the rare book I pick up to read the first several pages, then decide to drop everything and finish at once. Emotionally resonant, funny, and as clever as any book I have read all year, this debut novel heralds the arrival of a talented young writer unafraid to take chances."
--largehearted boy

"A wild and inventive first novel . . . has been compared to the novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Jonathan Lethem, and the fact that such comparisons are not out of line says everything necessary about Yu's talent and future."
--Portland Oregonian

"Bends the rules of time and literary convention."
--Seattle Weekly

"Getting stuck with Yu in his time loop is like watching an episode of Doctor Who as written by the young Philip Roth. Even when recalling his most painful childhood moments, Yu makes fun of himself or pulls you into a silly description of fake physics experiments. In this way, he delivers one of the most clear-eyed descriptions of consciousness I've seen in literature: It's full of self-mockery and self-deception, and yet somehow manages to keep its hands on the wheel, driving us forward into an unknowable future. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is intellectually demanding, but also emotionally rich and funny. . . . It's clearly the work of a scifi geek who knows how to twist pop culture tropes into melancholy meditations on the nature of consciousness."

“Funny [and] moving. . . . Charles Yu's first novel is getting ready for lift-off, and it more than surpasses expectations which couldn’t be any higher after he was given the 5 Under 35 Award . . . How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe is one of the trippiest and most thoughtful novels I've read all year, one that begs for a single sit-down experience even if you're left with a major head rush after the fact for having gulped down so many ideas in a solitary swoop. . . . Yu's literary pyrotechnics come in a marvelously entertaining and accessible package, featuring a reluctant, time machine-operating hero on a continual quest to discover what really happened to his missing father, a mysterious book possibly answering all, and a computer with the most idiosyncratic personality since HAL or Deep Thought. . . . Like the work of Richard Powers . . . How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe fuses the scientific and the emotional in ways that bring about something new.”
Sarah Weinman, The Daily Beast

“One of the best novels of 2010. . . . It is a wonderfully stunning, brilliant work of science fiction that goes to the heart of self-realization, happiness and connections. . . . Yu has accomplished something remarkable in this book, blending science fiction universes with his own, alternative self's life, in a way, breaking past the bonds of the page and bringing the reader right into the action. . . . Simply, this is one of the absolute best time travel stories . . . even compared to works such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells or the Doctor Who television series.”
—SF Signal

"Within a few pages I was hooked. . . . There are times when he starts off a paragraph about chronodiegetics that just sounds like pseudo-scientific gibberish meant to fill in some space. And then you realize that what he’s saying actually makes sense, that he’s actually figured out something really fascinating about the way time works, about the way fiction works, and the “Aha!” switch in your brain gets flipped. That happened more than once for me. There are so many sections here and there that I found myself wanting to share with somebody: Here—read this paragraph! Look at this sentence! Ok, now check this out!”

"In this debut novel, Charles Yu continues his ambitious exploration of the fantastic with a whimsical yet sincere tribute to old-school science fiction and quantum physics. . . . A fascinating, philosophical and disorienting thriller about life and the context that gives it meaning."
Kirkus, starred review

"With Star Wars allusions, glimpses of a future world, and journeys to the past, as well as hilarious and poignant explanations of “chronodiegetics,” or the “theory of the nature and function of time within a narrative space,” Yu, winner of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award, constructs a clever, fluently metaphorical tale. A funny, brain-teasing, and wise take on archetypal father-and-son issues, the mysteries of time and memory, emotional inertia, and one sweet but bumbling misfit’s attempts to escape a legacy of sadness and isolation."

"This book is cool as hell. If I could go back in time and read it earlier, I would."
—Colson Whitehead, author of Sag Harbor

"Charles Yu is a tremendously clever writer, and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is marvelously written, sweetly geeky, good clean time-bending fun."
Audrey Niffenegger, author of Her Fearful Symmetry and The Time Traveler's Wife

"Funny, touching, and weirdly beautiful. This book is awesome."
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World

"How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is that rare thing—a truly original novel. Charles Yu has built a strange, beautiful, intricate machine, with a pulse that carries as much blood as it does electricity."
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The View from the Seventh Layer and The Brief History of the Dead

"Poignant, hilarious, and electrically original.  Bends time, mind, and genre."
David Eagleman, author of Sum

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.80(w) x 11.28(h) x 0.97(d)

Read an Excerpt

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

A Novel
By Charles Yu


Copyright © 2010 Charles Yu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307379207


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.
I’ve never been married. I never got married. The woman I didn’t marry is named Marie. Technically, she doesn’t exist. Just like Ed.
Except that she does. A little paradox, you might think, but really, The Woman I Never Married is a perfectly valid ontological entity. Or class of entities. I suppose technically you could make the argument that every woman is The Woman I Never Married. So why not call her Marie, that was my thinking.
This is how we never met:
One fine spring day, Marie went to the park in the center of town, near the middle school and the old bakery that is now a furniture warehouse. I’m assuming. She must have, right? Someone like her must have done something like this at some point in time. Marie packed her lunch and a paperback and walked the half mile to the park from the house where she lived or never lived. She sat on a worn, wooden bench, and read her book, and nibbled on her sandwich. The air was warm syrup, was literally thick with pollen and dandelion clocks and photons moving at the speed of light. An hour passed, then two. I never arrived at the park, wearing the only suit I never had, the one with a hole in the side pocket that no one ever saw. I never noticed her that first time, never saw her looking at the tops of the eucalyptus trees, running her thumb over the worn page corners of the book open, faceup, on her lap. I never did catch her eye while tripping over my own foot, never made her laugh that first time. I never asked what her name was. She never told me that it was Marie. A week later, I did not call her. A year later, we did not get married in a little white church on a hill overlooking the park where, on that first afternoon, we shared a bench, asked polite questions, tried hard not to stare at each other while we imagined the perfect life we were never going to have together, a life we never even lost, a life that would have started, right at that moment, and never did.
I wake up to the sound of TAMMY crying.
“How do you even know how to do that?” I ask her. I wish I could be more sensitive, but I just don’t understand why they would program her to have such depressive tendencies. “Like, where in your code are you getting this from?”
This makes her cry even harder, to the point where she starts to do that warbly gasping heaving sobbing thing that little kids do, which makes no sense, because it’s not like TAMMY has a mouth, or vocal cords, or lungs. I generally like to think of myself as pretty empathetic, but for some reason my reaction to crying has always been like this. It’s hard for me to watch and just generally stresses me out so much that my initial response is to get mad, and then of course I feel like a monster, which is immediately followed by guilt, oh, the guilt. I feel guilty, I feel like a terrible person. I am a terrible person. I’m a 185-pound sack of guilt.
Or maybe I’m not. Maybe it’s just that I’m not the person I was going to be. Whatever that means. Maybe that’s what messing with the Tense Operator does to you. You can’t even say things that mean anything anymore.
I would ask TAMMY what she’s crying about, but it almost doesn’t matter. My mother would do this, too, all that liquid emotion just filling her up, right up to the top of her tank, a heavy, sloshing volume, which at any moment could be tipped over, emptied out into the world.
I tell TAMMY it will be all right. She says what will be all right? I say whatever you are crying about. She says that is exactly what she’s crying about. That everything is all right. That the world isn’t ending. That we’ll never tell each other how we really feel because everything is okay. Okay enough to just sit around, being okay. Okay enough that we forget that we don’t have long, that it’s late, late in this universe, and at some point in the future, it’s not going to be okay.
Sometimes at night I worry about TAMMY. I worry that she might get tired of it all. Tired of running at sixty-six terahertz, tired of all those processing cycles, every second of every hour of every day. I worry that one of these cycles she might just halt her own subroutine and commit software suicide. And then I would have to do an error report, and I don’t know how I would even begin to explain that to Microsoft.


Excerpted from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu Copyright © 2010 by Charles Yu. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles Yu received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and he has also received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. His work has been published in the Harvard Review, The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, and Mid-American Review, among other journals. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.

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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 81 reviews.
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
In Minor Universe 31 there is one cardinal rule - you can't change the past and trying will only cause trouble. Yet everyday people climb in time machines and go back to undo the wrongs in their past. That's where Charles Yu comes in. He's a time travel repairman and he spends his days rescuing all the hapless time travelers from themselves. His sidekicks are TAMMY, his machine's operating system and Ed, a nonexistent dog. The only problem is Charles, himself, is stuck in the past, brooding on his distant and missing inventor father and his unhappy mother. It is interesting to see the wide range of feelings this novel has produced!I'll start by admitting that I am not normally a sci-fi reader, so I was looking for an entertaining novel, not good sci-fi. I was definitely entertained! To begin with the book is written in long, drawn-out, run on sentences and is full of time-travel, science fiction jargon. It took me awhile to get into the rhythm, but before long I relaxed into it and the story seemed to flow easily. The plot felt unique and interesting, the characters likable and well rounded, and the problems they deal with real world and timely. Who doesn't have something they'd like to change about their past? A day they wish they could live differently? Ultimately Yu uses his original and funny protagonist of a time-travel machine repairman to address some serious issues - father/son relationships, living in the past, and failure - yet the book remains light and entertaining throughout. A great debut novel, I'll be watching to see what he does next!
Phillybrarian More than 1 year ago
Hiding behind subtle and humorous puns that will delight science fiction readers (Skywalker, L. is a client of the main character, the detailed descriptions of the time machine and time travel, the hilarious use of techno-babble and mention of his time machine's "Niven Rings" are some examples), the author weaves a poignant tale of a son not only searching for his father, but his relationship with his father as well. Similar to the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde, Yu's characters know they are living in a fictional universe, in fact in "Minor Universe 31." Indeed, the main character is Christopher Yu, himself, who is given a book written by his future self that he must read (and write) in hopes of unraveling the mystery of his father's whereabouts and is the very book being reviewed here. Confusing? Don't panic, the whole thing arrives at a revealing, and touching, personal conclusion. Yu's work will delight those who like a unique, "pushing-the-envelope" kind of book, those interested in exploring the relationships fathers and sons can develop, and sci-fi fans everywhere.
Suspensemag More than 1 year ago
"Sometimes at night I worry about TAMMY. I worry that she might get tired of it all. Tired of running at sixty-six terahertz, tired of all those processing cycles, every second of every hour of every day. I worry that one of these cycles she might just halt her own subroutine and commit software suicide. And then I would have to do an error report, and I don't know how I would even begin to explain that to Microsoft." Charles Yu is a time travel technician. The title flows off of the tongue as well as any other corporate programming job, but in this truly original debut, Yu not only bends time and the idea of the average 9-5, he bends the line between author and protagonist as he learns that the key to finding what he is looking for may be found in a book written by his future self, "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe." Poignant, gut-hurting funny, original to the point of wondering if this isn't some earth-shattering memoir from the real future, Yu's work is a powerful new presence in the literary world. Reviewed by J.S. Chancellor, author of "Son of Ereubus" with Suspense Magazine
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Minor Universe 31, time travel is a way of life as is paradoxes caused by someone tinkering with the past. Time technician Charles Yu fixes the stupid actions of those wanting change without comprehending the consequences. He councils these idiots, but does so calmly even when he tries to pacify his harried boss Phil. Yu visits his mother, who is trapped in a life of one-hour in which she prepares dinner infinitely. He still seeks his father who invented the machines that enable time travel, but vanished while testing his gizmos. Accompanied by TAMMY the operating system with Yu's personality (to include a lack of self-worth) and Ed the imaginary ontological canine, he continues his personal quest to meet and talk with his dad; having gained hope by a book he will one day author, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. This is an intriguing time travel science fiction tale starring a stay out of trouble extremist (think of Columbus in most of the movie Zombieland) who as a bureaucrat quietly rectifies the mistakes of others while searching for his lost dad to have a father-son chat. The story line feels like a Moebius series of loops so is difficult to follow yet quite fun to do so. Although the climax is abrupt and seemingly out of character for the safety only lead protagonist, SF fans who enjoy something radically different will want to read Charles Yu's escapades in time and space. Harriet Klausner
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
Charles is a time machine repairman on Minor Universe 31. Technically, he is like the auto club for time machines. When a machine fails, he travels across time to fix it. But, these "repairs" are often needed because people go back in time to change the past, and that's something that should never be done. He runs into all types of people, with his robotic dog by his side, but he's got problems of his own. In a moment of rash judgment, he shoots his future self. Now, THAT's a problem. To further complicate things, he comes across a book he's written, a survival guide for living in a science fictional universe. But at the point of discovery, he's already gone against much of what it recommends. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was wonderful but in a totally weird, quirky way. Parts of it were absolutely touching and sweet and parts of were complete mind benders. It's really a book about so many things. The relationship between Charles and his family is achingly sad. Charles yearns for so much more, and he doesn't really understand where things went wrong, so he re-lives moments over and over again in order to gain an understanding. It's a book about self-discovery, about love and loss but it's also very funny. There are lots of funny moments to chuckle over. Fans of science fiction will certainly enjoy this one, but readers who enjoy "what if" scenarios will enjoy this one too. I found myself working stuff out in my head (sort of like what I did when I watched Back to the Future III and thought, wth??) This was a fun, completely different book. The story was very unique and thoughtful. I'm so glad I read it.
OB-at-OTR More than 1 year ago
If your a fan of time travel stories Yu gives the reader a different take on an old theme.
readerSZ More than 1 year ago
Awsome Book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really thought this would be a funny, interesting story but it turned out the reading this is a real slog.. With no prize at the end. My advice is to skip this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TimeTravelingJou More than 1 year ago
A man and his dog fixing space-time for a living is a surprisingly groovy book. The book is filled with humorous moments similar to The Hitchhiker's Guide series, but it also brings emotional moments that get you thinking about life's challenges and how it is not impossible but in every way possible to overcome. There are slight references to all those treasured Sci-Fi universes in some way or another, such as the main character describing his machine as small as a "phone booth" on the inside. It is a short read, at least it was for me, so I definitely recommend it. I finished it in about 3-2 hours at a slightly above average reading pace. The book's pacing is also well written. I do not think that it was too slow at any part of the plot, and it was a page-turner. If you are looking for a book about time-travel, humor, and some sad bits, this is a must-read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Were sorry. Some of our campers are rude and immature. Since they most likely wont apologize i will. Again, im very sorry. ~Allissa
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I fell asleep! T-T Sorry... Wait.... Only Luna calls me BreeLee? O-o Unless you do too x) .... Hello...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Breelee ish ignoring me :( *walks out*
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Im going on a cruise in june!!!
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Looks around
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im at campjupiter 1st result see ya there
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Alphacorvus More than 1 year ago
You do not need to be a fan of SciFi to enjoy this near future story. With the right mix of humor and melancholy, Charles Yu transports into the interior life of a time machine repairman who, like all of us, has a little trouble reconciling his upbringing with the science fictional universe that we all live in now. The story accelerates until bound by inertia to his/her seat the reader cannot stop, cannot leave, can only hurtle to the end.
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