Daily Archives: October 5, 2010

“How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe:” Meta-Fiction with Heart


In the book business, it’s called hand-selling.  In the library biz, it’s reader’s advisory.  Here’s one of the shortest, sure sell pitches ever, for the book entitled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu:

It’s about a time machine repairman. 

Long pause.


Ok, if this is your kind of book, chances are you’ve already put a reserve on it or jotted it down to do so later.  If it isn’t your kind of book (and you’re still with me), I’m going to “go deep.”

How to Live is about a time machine repairman who spends most of his life in a cubicle-like time machine.  In the “science fictional universe” in which he lives, it seems time travel is real and his father one of its inventors.  The science, or pseudo-science, in the novel is fine stuff.  When describing the machine and time travel, words like “chronogrammatical,” “tense operator,” and “grammar drive” evince themselves convincingly. 

Oh, the time machine repairman is named Charles Yu. 

Before you flee in your own time machine, operated with a simple click of the machine beneath your hand, know that this isn’t your granddad’s post-modern novel; I like to think that this is meta-fiction at its best.  There is nothing cold or dispassionate about this book.

Here’s why.

What you’d never expect is this is a highly emotive, lyrical story, deeply whimsical, sometimes humorous, and a melancholic examination of fictional time theory, with the kicker that it probes the first thing we’d all do if we actually could travel in time: attempt to change the past.  And we all know how that always turns out. 

There is an ennui here, a pervading sadness about the human condition, something that might best be described by that most elusive of Japanese terms, wabi-sabi.  There is regret, there is angst, there is nostalgia, there is longing, there is guilt.

And there is a time machine.

If I had to describe this book in its own vocabulary, I’d say that it conjures narrative truths in a unified, emotionally resonant field.  Outside of the science fictional universe, you can think of it as a winning mix, replete with a touch of Adams, a dollop of Vonnegut, a measure of Proust, and pinches of Wells and Bradbury.

Yup, this is definitely not the old man’s post-modern, or even science fiction, novel.

– Don


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