HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu

Book Quote:

“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.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (SEP 8, 2010)

I am ill-informed to speak to science fiction writing. With the reading of this book, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the sum of my science fiction reading experience is expanded to just five books: Asimov’s three-volume Foundation Trilogy and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The genre has never really spoken to me. Upon reflection, this seems odds. I am drawn to ideas, wherever I find them, but in literature, in particular. And I like complexity, again, especially in literature. Science fiction, as I understand it, romps and roams the mountains and valleys of this territory. I think ultimately, it is the required release upon common reality and the faith requirement of other-worldly paradigms that trips me up. I’m not very adept at either.

I set up my thoughts on this book in this fashion because I worry of being remiss in regard to Mr. Yu’s efforts here. In particular, this concerns me because I like the book very much–I like it because it is chalk-full of clever ideas and notions and it is quite dense and layered. But, as I said, I know next to nothing about this genre, so I’m afraid of overlooking something important. Truth be told, this is the theme to my existence–over looking something important–so why should this experience be any different. I bring this up, not as an editorial aside, but as something pertinent to this reading experience specifically, for our hero is search of that which is not overlooked.

Here’s the premise, as best I can explain it. Our protagonist, who shares the author’s name, Charles Yu, is in search of his father, setting up a standard father-son quest. (There is even found here a baseball field father-son experience. Build it and they will come?) His mother, whom we meet in several different time-interval realities, is a sometimes difficult woman who has not always contributed in a positive fashion to the young man’s upbringing. As a lively-hood, Mr. Yu is a time-machine technician–a device his father invented during his youth, but ultimately failed to promote successfuly. He lives in a tube-like floating gliding residence, a closet-size device called a TM-31, which he shares with an ontologically correct, but non-existent dog, Ed. The device is controlled by TAMMY, an operating system cum companion who/which is given to periods of intense self doubt. Mr. Yu, in this universe, pursues memories and traces of his father through a twisted self-reflective continuum of space and time in a space-time geography which has morphed considerably: “Half of bifurcated Tokyo moved across the world and wrapped itself around the perimeter of the recently formed New York/Los Angeles chimera.” There you have it. Understand?

But all that is far too simple. This is a book about relationships, father-son-mother relationships. It is a book about self discovery. And I mean that in the philosophical sense; that is, the pursuit and discovery of the self. “What miraculous change would I make, after getting out of this rut, what new kind of person would I choose to be that next day? And the next? And how about the day after, and all the days after that?” It is a book about time. “I have traveled, chronogrammatically,” writes Yu upon discovering an odd rendition of his mother, “out of the ordinary tense axis and into this place, into the subjunctive mode.” Or this prompt on time travel, triggered by a father-memory: “The key to time travel…is this: How do we know what it means to perceive an event as presently occurring, rather than as a memory of a past event? How can we tell present from past?” It is a book, in sum, about every wonderful notion that comes into the author’s presumably present-tense real-space mind.

Along the way, all sorts of adventures and realizations cross his path. For instance, he discovers a book, a book which he realizes is from the future and is being both created and read simultaneously in the past/present. It is the book of his life and he is experiencing it as he reads it. “The book, its existence, its creation, is the product of a causal loop,” the protagonist informs us. “It comes from nowhere, has no unique origin, and yet its creator is me.” Then the operating system kicks in, intoning, “‘This book,’ TAMMY says to me, “is a copy of a copy of a copy, and so on, forever, like that, I could keep going if you’d like.’ It is a copy of something that doesn’t exist yet. It is a book copied from itself.” The book–the novel–is ripe with philosophical twists like this, including the matter of shooting his future self in the stomach. There is an opportunity here for the text to grow heavy and dark, yet that does not happen. Instead, a whimsy fills the pages, offsetting the otherwise mind-twisting requirements of concentration.

I was reminded repeatedly of the Douglas Hofstadter 1979 Pulitzer winner,Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid while reading Yu’s book. (That is, while reading both the meta-book of the book and the book I was holding in my hands.) It is self-referencing in that way. I was delighted, upon finishing the novel and reading a short interview with the real-world, not science-fictional-world Yu, in discovering that Yu cites GEB as an influence. Yu, in the acknowledgements calls it “a book I will never get over, and never stop reading.” This notion of inward twisting self-referencing might be daunting. At some point it could dissolve into a mirror-like question of so what. At least that is the potential. But that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the self-referencing is wielded in a tool-like fashion to explore an idea, indeed a science fictional universe of ideas. It works well and is rewardingly entertaining–and all in the same time-space chronodiegetically correct universe.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 134 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Charles Yu
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More about the universe:

Bibliography:


September 8, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Scifi, Unique Narrative

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